How Motherhood Helped Me Find Focus, Take Risks, and Think Big

As one of Firewood’s founders, I interview every candidate. Almost everyone asks me the same question: “Why did you start Firewood?” 

 

My answer: “I had a baby.”

I know this seems counterintuitive, but founding Firewood gave me the flexibility to spend more time with my newborn son, Sebastian. Despite the very real challenges involved in working and parenting—or perhaps because of them—I found focus, reassessed my priorities, and took risks I might not otherwise have taken.

I also began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, and that I wanted to share some of what I’d learned—from personal experience and from new research detailing the very real benefits of being a mother and a caregiver—in the hope that other people would find it as inspiring as I have.

Sources as wide ranging as Forbes, LinkedIn, and Mother have covered new neurological and social research on the benefits that parenthood has on a person’s professional life, and I believe the traits they cite apply to all caregivers. From parents and those caring for the elderly or sick loved ones to parents of pets, taking care of others helps develop greater emotional intelligence, courage, resilience, motivation—and efficiency.

I found focus, reassessed my priorities, and took risks I might not otherwise have taken.

Amy Henderson, a parent of three, recently co-founded Tendlab, a consultancy that advises individuals and companies, including Plum Organics and Accenture, on the “value of the career-relevant skills developed while parenting.” She conducted “over 150 formal interviews with high-performing moms and dads, [which] led to some shocking revelations,” according to the Tendlab website. As she tells it: “First, the majority of the moms…realized, while they were talking to me, that they were performing better in their careers because of their kids, not in spite of them.”

Clearly, working while parenting can pose all kinds of problems—even for Michelle Obama. In a recent LinkedIn post recapping a presentation at Airbnb, Henderson recalled, “We acknowledged that working motherhood is brutal. But [also] how, when we’re honest with ourselves about all the many ways it changes us, we can emerge [as] more potent, authentic versions of our former selves.”

And it’s true. I had Sebastian in my late 30s. It wasn’t easy to get pregnant, and when he finally arrived, I was still working my 50+ hours and commuting up to four hours a day. I didn’t get to spend time with him. I was working to pay two nannies and I was missing out on my son’s childhood. What was I doing? It made no sense. Something had to change.

So I quit my job. Yep, I quit. Where did I get the courage? It was twofold. Juan, my husband and future co-founder of Firewood, provided the financial stability and emotional support that helped me leave my job and take a risk. I also found out, amazingly, that courage may be a side effect of parenting. As Henderson notes in her post on the Mother site, a 2014 study “found that oxytocin is linked with reduced activity in the fear center of the brain (the amygdala) in response to frightening stimuli.” Oxytocin is also “called the ‘love hormone’ because it’s released during childbirth and breastfeeding and plays a role in bonding a mom and her baby.”

As Juan and I began to raise our son, our partnership in parenthood grew into a partnership in our professional lives, too. In October 2010, we officially gave birth to Firewood—the name is a play on the homophone of my name in Spanish (leña) and Italian (legna). In short, our family structure served as the foundation for Firewood Marketing.

We found an office close to our house. We had the ability to work flexible hours, so Juan and I could take care of our son in the early mornings and afternoons. Our commute was a five-minute walk—max—if we stopped to stare at the trees.

I was on the path to finding more balance in my career and to being a more active parent.

In October 2010, we officially gave birth to Firewood.

As the business began to grow, Juan and I made the decision to move our headquarters to San Francisco, which was closer to our clients. Now, nearly nine years later, Firewood has seven offices in four countries and nearly 300 employees. The business has grown by nearly 15,000%—and it seems like our son has too! So what’s changed? Everything and nothing.

I no longer ride my white cruiser bike to our 300-square-foot office in the middle of wine country. I don’t know everyone I work with. I don’t get to volunteer at our local school as much as I used to. I don’t go home every day for lunch. And, yes, work is more complex.

That said, being a mom has remained my priority, but maintaining balance is much harder. It’s easy to get tripped up on the tough meeting, the pitch that needs my attention, the client events, or the travel necessary to open our next office. However, I try very hard to keep things in perspective, to focus on the things that matter, and to stay true to our values. Juan and I founded a company that respects work-life balance for everyone—because as this Slate article states, “Fatherhood Makes Men Better—at Work and at Home” too.

Janet Van Huysse, the original head of people (and later, VP of diversity) at Twitter, mother of three, and co-founder of Tendlab believes, “The companies who will succeed in the twenty-first century will be the ones who encourage and foster the development of skills acquired in parenting.”

I couldn’t agree more. At Firewood, we constantly strive to find new ways to support caregivers and encourage traits like empathy, collaboration, patience, and, above all, humility. There’s an unspoken agreement that anyone can go be with their sick kid, volunteer at school, or take care of a family member or newborn puppy. The concept of “family first” is something that is pervasive in our company.

Becoming a mom compelled me to reexamine work and life, and to balance the two in a completely different way. It also forced me to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined and, as Emily Dickinson said, “dwell in possibility.” That’s what becoming a mother—and starting a business I love—did for me!

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