“Be present for your kids.” with Dr. Ely Weinschneider & Juliet D’Ambrosio

Be present for your kids. My family has developed some real-life ways to be really present for our kids in an individualized way. We do what we call kid-dates. It’s tailored for each kid. We schedule childcare, which is no small undertaking with six kids, so we can spend time with each child in a […]

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Be present for your kids. My family has developed some real-life ways to be really present for our kids in an individualized way. We do what we call kid-dates. It’s tailored for each kid. We schedule childcare, which is no small undertaking with six kids, so we can spend time with each child in a way that’s meaningful for them. For example, my eight-year-old loves movies; he’s a movie fanatic. So, we take Cyrus to the movies, just the two of us or just the three of us — my husband, me and Cyrus — to do something he loves and we love sharing with him.

I had the pleasure to interview Juliet D’Ambrosio. A strategist, storyteller and Design thinker, Juliet is a passionate about helping businesses and brands be their best. A journalist-turned-creative strategist, Juliet has spent over 20 years helping brands forge meaningful connections with their audiences by discovering their core truths, and translating those insights into a powerful creative strategy that drives results.

She’s led global and national campaigns for consumer brands like Coca- Cola, Dunkin Donuts, Chick-fil-A, UPS, Holiday Inn, VISA, Paramount Pictures, Powerade, and Volkswagen; helped position significant cultural institutions like the International Olympic Committee, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and FIFA; built brands for leading b-to-b players across varied industries, such as Interface, McKinsey & Partners, AT&T, Majesco, Bard Medical, and Equifax; and led major research initiatives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Juliet’s work has been recognized by awards and publications including Communication Arts, AIGA Design 50, ID, D&AD, and Graphis. She’s a regular speaker on design issues, and holds a faculty position at Miami Ad School at Portfolio Center. Juliet lives in Atlanta with her husband and six(!) children.

Thank you for joining us Juliet! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

Ihad a really interesting upbringing. I was raised for the first part of my childhood by hippies in the woods of New Hampshire. It was very rustic — just a group of people coming together to live a self-sufficient lifestyle free from authority. It was very free — my sister and I had free rein. The adults in our lives were definitely present but not authoritative in any way. We had rules, but they tended to be around things like “don’t get too many leeches on your legs when you go swimming in the pond.”

I was exposed to ideas and music and art and adult behavior — the full range of humanity in my little community. I felt very safe there. My sister and I could go anywhere we wanted on our land. I lived there up until I was seven years old. Then my parents got divorced and my mom moved to Georgia, remarried, and we settled in a suburban area of Atlanta called East Cobb. So, I had the polar opposite life to what I had been living up North. Since my parents had joint custody, I spent summers and the holidays in New Hampshire and the rest of the year in the suburbs of Atlanta.

While it felt somewhat disorienting to have these two wholly different experiences, I think in a lot of ways it also helped me. What I like to think is that I took the best of both of those worlds and created my own worldview out of it. What I believe is that things are different than they may seem, and it’s okay to question the way things are. That spirit of questioning, looking deeper and being accepting of a wide range of people and how they want to express themselves has helped me in my professional life. In my current role as a strategist, we peel back the layers and ask why. We question the status quo to understand what it is, the real dynamics that are at play underneath.

Living in the woods, my sister and I had to rely on our imaginations. We created these elaborate games and worlds for ourselves. But when I moved to Atlanta, suddenly having television was illuminating in its own way and I quickly became obsessed with pop culture. What I hope to bring to my own kids is a little bit of that wildness I had and some imaginative resilience where you can occupy yourself, without looking for outside sources to give you entertainment. At the same time, being aware of your place in the world and having a vision for where you want to go and what you might want achieve, but understanding how that might impact other people.

Share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

My first job out of college was for a music publication called JAZZIZ Magazine. I thought it was a dream come true, because it married music — a huge passion of mine — and storytelling — another passion for me. I was very happy doing that for three years, but then I started getting a little creatively restless. I enjoyed uncovering stories about jazz, but it was confining to always go through the same process. Luckily, I sat near the art department, since there wasn’t enough room for me in editorial. I became very interested in what was happening on the art side of publishing and how the design of the magazine came together. I had an incredible mentor in the Art Director for the magazine.

She let me start asking her questions and concepting how you tell big stories through both words and images. So, the more I sat with her, the more I learned. She also had me do photo research, which I loved. I came to realize I was much more visual than I had previously imagined. So, that kind of gave me a sense of where I might want to go in my career. Then, I worked in copywriting where I got all this variety, which really appealed to me. One day you could be working for an energy company and the next day for a bagel company. It’s all using the same muscles, but telling totally different stories.

In copywriting, I realized that what I was born to do was to get into the heart of the matter. Writing was a discipline, but words weren’t the only way to tell a story. What I actually want to do is solve problems. In brand strategy, the focus is figuring out what a brand, what a message, what an idea needs to be. That really led me to where I am today. I use skills to tell that story the best way with words and images to connect with and move people. When I think back on my childhood, I think I had this creative ability early on, but when I moved to the suburbs, I had to learn how to channel it. I knew creativity is there, because I exercised it, but I had to find a different way of expressing it. That’s what I do now, too.

Tell us about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?

I wake up at 5:00 AM. I like to do a couple hours of work, since it’s really my best deep-thinking time when I’m working on a strategy or really solving a more profound problem. No one bothers me, since my house is still asleep until 7:00. Then, I get up my four oldest kids and get them dressed and to school. I think it’s really important to have a touch with each one of your kids in the morning, a way to start them on their day. If I’m home, I will make it happen no matter what. So, then get them breakfasted and packed up, and I drive them to school.

When I come back, my nanny is there, and she has usually woken up one of the younger two kids. I wake up the other one, and we talk and connect and get ready for the day together. Then, I get myself ready and take off for work. When I come into work, what’s ideal for me is to have a half hour of time when I first get in to answer email that has either come in the night while I’ve been asleep or just that has been kind of dangling out there. Then, my day is pretty packed full of meetings, and those can be anything from meetings with a strategy team or creative meetings around brand assets. Because I helped to create client briefs, I’m consistently there as kind of the eyes of strategy.

I really never go to lunch, like ever. Working moms know this truism: Going out to lunch is like a luxury that maybe happens once a month. I eat on-the-go and work. The rest of my day is meetings and having connections with people. I believe that the impromptu meetings are as important as the scheduled meetings. I’ll just pop into people’s office on the fly and say, “10 minutes. Let’s talk about this,” which can help push forward any one of a number of things. So, these on-the-fly meetings are very important also. I like to make myself as available as possible when I’m in the office. So, if a meeting comes up and I’m not under a client deadline, I will make that meeting happen.

My day ends at around 4:45 since my Nanny leaves at 5:30. I book it a little bit early to get home, and then from 5:30 to 8:30 I don’t take a breath. It is go-time. Dinner, cleaning, bedtime, homework, and then laundry, mountains of it! Around 8:30 I will almost always get back on the computer just to look for about a half an hour. This is a little trick that I’ve created. I like to put on my desktop everything that I want to work on when I wake up at 5:00 AM, because I don’t want to spend time searching for things. I have it right there ready to go. Then I get to hang out with my husband and watch like 20 minutes of TV or read for 20 minutes before I am unconscious.

Based on your experience, can you describe why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?

I think it’s really important to connect with children first thing in the morning. It is a way that sets them up for the day, just so they know that they’re loved and that they are a priority. I just think it’s important to be there when they wake up, to be a presence for them and have that be a bit of a rock they can count on. It doesn’t have to be deep conversations in the morning. Sometimes they’re grumpy or we’re rushed. But, I do think having a kind of one-on-one touch with each kid in the morning is a way that I let them know that while I might not see them for hours, they are important and on my mind, and that I’m there. It’s also just to hear if there’s anything that they wake up with on their minds to hear about that.

According to a study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give some stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

I do believe in quality over quantity, but I try to be consistent about time with my children. What I’ve done is built into our lives ways to connect with them individually. As an example of that, when I get home, my goal is to spend 15 minutes per kid, just mommy-kid time. With six kids, that’s like an hour and half each day. But I’ve gotten creative with it. After I get the little ones to bed, I enlist my two teenagers to help fold the mountain of laundry happening in our house. On alternating nights we each pick the music we listen to. It’s a relaxed, easy way to have real conversations about whatever’s going on in their lives. I look forward to folding laundry every day, because I get to connect with them.

Another example is with my seven-year-old. He’s full kinetic energy like a lot of little boys that age. When I get home at 5:30, the first thing that we do is go outside and go for a walk in the neighborhood. He’s the kid that I walk with. It’s time for 15 minutes where we have each other. Sometimes we talk, and sometimes not much, but usually we do. So, the goal is 15 minutes per kid a day. My youngest is still nursing, so we have lots of close time when he first wakes up or right before bed, so that’s sort of built-in. There are times when I miss the 15 minutes with one of the kids, but I try not to be hard on myself knowing that if I didn’t meet my goal one day, that I will make it up the next day.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

  1. Balance is an illusion. The first thing I would say is to stop looking for balance. It doesn’t exist, and it’s not really an achievable goal in life. Just know that life is going to often be unbalanced, and that’s okay. I have found if you can embrace chaos in a limited way, you will be much happier, more present person for both yourself and your kids. I just think that people who hold onto the reins too tightly and focus intently on controlling the chaos and scheduling it into submission miss out on so much richness that is family life. It’s messy, loud and chaotic and that’s what makes it wonderful.
  2. Make intentional choices. Understand that you are making choices. Like many parents, I’ve chosen to let go of personal time. There was never a world where I go get coffee with my girlfriends. I know life is full of seasons and for this season, it’s devoted to work and to my family, and that’s okay. When there are small opportunities that open up, I grab those without guilt. I have found this approach frees me up emotionally to be able to give all I have and do it in a way that feels good, where I don’t feel resentful or overwhelmed by it.
  3. Be present for your kids. My family has developed some real-life ways to be really present for our kids in an individualized way. We do what we call kid-dates. It’s tailored for each kid. We schedule childcare, which is no small undertaking with six kids, so we can spend time with each child in a way that’s meaningful for them. For example, my eight-year-old loves movies; he’s a movie fanatic. So, we take Cyrus to the movies, just the two of us or just the three of us — my husband, me and Cyrus — to do something he loves and we love sharing with him.
  4. Share meals every day. It might seem simplistic, but we eat dinner together every night, all of us together — with the exception of my 13-year-old who has a pretty heavy dance schedule, so she’s gone three nights a week. So, all eight or nine of us eat dinner together every single night. Even though that can be a time that is really chaotic and it’s difficult to plan for, shop, cook, and get on the table with different schedules and palettes — we make it a priority. It’s really important that we’re all together as a family. It can go by fast, but it’s still really special.
  5. Stop multitasking. When you’re with kids watching TV or something, it might be tempting to check emails. Sure, I’m good at multitasking and maybe my kids wouldn’t notice if I’m doing stuff on my phone, but I think the message it sends to them is that I’m not really there with them. I don’t think you can multitask in that way because your mind is caught up in whatever that work thing you’re doing. I’ve determined that during the time I’m with them — bedtimes, wakeups, dinners, kid-dates — I am 100% theirs. Other distractions can take a back-seat.

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

The number one thing for me is creating an environment of love, and also seeing your child as who they are and not merely as a reflection of who you are. That means their successes, their strengths, their habits, their weirdnesses, all of that doesn’t reflect onto you. You don’t try to control them. Rather, you let them grow into their own. You’re able to see them as unique and appreciate them in all their individuality. Each child has their own universe, and being able to love and appreciate them means meeting them there, on their terms.

I should also mention that I’m not immune to parental guilt, particularly with school-aged kids. The differences between stay-at-home parents and parents who work is stunningly obvious, and there are lots of things during the school day I’m not able to, particularly when the kids say, “Oh, everyone else’s mom’s going to be there.” First of all, I take that with a grain of salt knowing not everyone else’s mom or dad can be there, but, I console myself with the knowledge that those deeper connections stay. They won’t remember I wasn’t there for that party, but they will remember our connection. It’s sort of that idea that people won’t remember what you say, but they’ll remember how you make them feel.

I also remind myself that there is no prototypical family anymore. We’ve had generations of humanity have created successful, well-adjusted, self-actualized human beings. There is no one definition of a “good parent” as people have wildly different circumstances — single parents, blended families, all of it. Six children is a lot, but they’re all at different stages. Very young children are physically demanding — they can’t get a glass of water or wipe their own bums — so you have to help them do all of that. That’s physical, and as the kids get older, like with my teenagers, it’s more emotional than physical. I’m lucky because I don’t find any of it overwhelming. I’m more exhilarated than exhausted.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

I think one of the key things I focus on in parenting is modeling certain behaviors. They see me working hard and understand that my work is important to me. I think that sends a message that people have these God-given, Universe-given gifts and we are each expected to work hard and rise to be able to realize those gifts. So, I think there is an implicit connection between how we want them to explore their gifts and seeing both parents really utilizing and expanding their talents in the work we do. I think that that’s important for whatever their choices are in the future, whether they’re my sons or my daughters.

If you have them, what are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Please describe them.

One podcast I swear by is called “Nursing and Cursing” and the reason that it’s so great is that it’s five women — two of them are my cousins which is how I found out about it — these are women who are all parenting. They’re best friends who used to have a collective phone date once a week. The podcast is an outgrowth of those calls. It’s 100% real about the challenges of mothering, and women talking to each other in a completely unvarnished way, in the way that only good friends can. It’s hysterically funny, and it reminds you that all parents are just trying to figure it out. We’re not alone.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” or credo you live by and why?

My credo is: “The way out is in.” It’s a life lesson that reminds me that when I’m facing a challenge, when there is anything going on in my life, really spending some time in self-reflection is the key to solving it. I believe the answer is always inside of you. I think all of us have that ability, and I want my kids to know that they have what it takes inside to figure things out. Of course, I want them to reach out and ask for help when they need it, but just going inside and looking deeply to understand how to work through is a valuable skill. I like the idea that what we need is already inside of us.

Prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person who inspires you that you hold up as a leader in your field that you would like to share a meal with?

Well, Michelle Obama would probably top that list for me. Also, Melinda Gates, both of whom I think have used their positions in the world to advance the cause of other women. They may be at the top of other people’s lists, too, but I find their leadership, the causes they promote to be absolutely inspiring, and I hope to emulate them that in whatever small way that I can.

Tell us about what’s important to you personally. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

That’s such a big question, so it’s hard for me to narrow it down into one movement. I do resonate with a concept in Judaism called Tikkun Olam and it means to “heal the world.” The idea is that humanity’s purpose is to do the most good and heal the world in whatever small or large ways we can. This may not be a movement, but it inspires each one of us to look at ways we can heal our family, help our clients, and connect with people better in all the ways that we can. I do try to live by that concept at work and at home.

Juliet D’Ambrosio and her husband Tony have six children: Jonah (16), Delilah (13), Cyrus (8), Elias (7), Cassia (4), and Jeremiah (3). She is the Senior Director of Strategy for Adrenaline, an experience design agency that creates and implements end-to-end branded experiences through creative and environmental design.

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