I know I am a good leader. Although, in my first position of leadership – as Chief Executive Officer of a nonprofit in 2007 – I may have been in over my head. I had a fancy title but not much experience. I was 24-years-old when I took over as CEO, we had six weeks payroll left in the bank account and dim prospects for funding. So, inspired by my mother’s sage advice, “fake it until you make it”, I embarked on a month-long fundraising mission, meeting with more than 50 foundations, philanthropists, and corporations around the country. I told them of the importance of our mission and why I believed that we’d be successful. I implored them to be part of something bigger by investing in us. Most of them didn’t, but what I clung to was that some of them did. I became a good leader because I learned how to tell a compelling story, how to take care of my people, how to ask for money, and that even when the ground in front of you is shaky, the only thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other.
I also know that I am a good partner. Dave and I have been legally married for almost nine years and we were together for five years prior. On his longest days, I hand my husband his favorite coffee from behind the laptop screen, reveling in the comments from his colleagues about his “coffee delivery fairy”, and I fold his t-shirts just the way that he likes them.
I watched my mother be an incredible woman, an accomplished professional, a caring friend, and the most amazing mother ever, but I didn’t have the fortune of watching her be a good wife – mostly because she made the wrong choice for a husband. Still, I managed to learn so much from her. I try to do for Dave all the things that she deserved to have done for her. I cheer him on, I listen to him, I trust him, and I adore him. We’re a good team, complimenting each other when possible and challenging each other when necessary. Together, we’ve built a really incredible life, family, and legacy.
I don’t yet know that I am a good mom. I asked my daughter recently, after she woke up from a nap, if I was a good mom. She said yes, immediately, but when I asked her why, she said: “because kindness.” To me, that answer reinforces what a good leader I am. I do my best to lead by example at home, in my career, and in my community. For my seven and four-year-old, I strive to strike the right balance of time, attention and presence. I have been given the gift of time in this odd moment in history we’re living through and I am confident that our organization will be stronger for it as we continue to take care of our people and offer much-needed kindness for the world. I am confident that Dave and I will lay intertwined many more nights than we would have otherwise, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or restoring our faith in humanity with The West Wing. I may even beat him in the video game Ticket to Ride a couple of times. I’m still hoping to prove to my family (and more than anything, to myself) that I’m a good mom.
Thankfully, through my career, I constantly have opportunities to learn how to be a good mom by engaging with young people on a daily basis. About a month ago, I sat with a group of students at a private school in New York City. There were thirty or so of us sitting in a circle on chairs too small for our adult bodies in a beautifully appointed library. I was there that night to talk to more than 200 parents about the state of youth mental health with an incredible line up of researchers, writers, and psychoanalysts. I asked the school to give us an hour with the young people before we spoke to the parents because, if I’ve learned anything in my career in youth engagement, it’s that the answers always lie with young people. In my quest to become a better mom and to inspire others to be better too, I wanted to share with you what these young people were brave enough to tell me. I invite you to join me in thinking about how we can listen to our young people more and change our rhythms based on what they are telling us, especially now with this gift of extra family time.
- This room of brave high school students told me that they felt our collective fear – for the world, for their futures, and seemingly for and about everything around us. As I’ve become a parent, I am so aware of the worst-case scenarios that cycle through my head and how even the simplest request often fast-forwards into calamity. My daughter, who will be five next month, just learned how to ride a bike. She has been working so hard to gain the confidence and skill needed to race down our steep driveway just like her brother. Recently, as she did it for the first time, I couldn’t bear to watch her impressive accomplishment because I couldn’t stand to watch her possibly fall. I waited, with my teeth clenched, for the wail after the spill and I turned back to face her only when I started worrying about the silence. I saw her at the bottom of the hill, staring up proudly as adrenaline was rushing through her little body. We miss so much when we’re scared, when we don’t trust the little lives we’ve helped to raise, and I won’t get this morning back. I can celebrate with her but I didn’t get to see it. Our children feel it when we clench our fists and fear the outcome for them and most likely they’re a little scared too. Instead, let’s help them be brave and let’s be brave together.
- This room of brave high school students told me that it’s OK that we don’t have the answers. I say “I don’t know” a lot to my son and his near-constant questions. “Mom, what’s the biggest cruise ship?”, “Mom, when was the last rogue wave?”, “Mom, how long did the Titanic sail before it hit the iceberg?” We have a strong theme right now. I say, “I don’t know, let’s look it up” or “I don’t know, ask your Dad.” The stakes for these answers are pretty low and he quickly forgets the question he asked two minutes earlier but one day, he’ll start asking much more complicated, heavy questions. In that library focus group, I heard over and over again young people who wanted to hear from their parents that they did not have all the answers but that they would find them together. I heard how important both sides of that sentiment were; admitting you didn’t have the answer but committing to find one together.
- This room of brave high school students told me that they want to hear that they’re enough. In a quantifiable world, where our cell phones tell us how much time we’ve spent on social media, our watches tell us how many calories we’ve burned on the walk between classes, and our posts on social media tell us how many people “like” our content, young people want to know that they’re enough. Many young people that evening shared that they wanted their parents to spend more time with them. They wanted the conversations around classes, homework, and extracurricular activities to be an invitation and a celebration, not an interrogation or something they could check-off their check-list. This isn’t just for the young people in that room, it’s for all us. Last night, I detailed a list to my husband about the beautification processes that I would be unable to undergo during this pandemic shutdown. I started each comment with, “will you love me when..” and though I was mostly joking, I snuck into the bathroom after he went to bed to find tweezers. We all want to know that we’re enough and while they’re still listening to us, let’s tell our kids that they are.
- This room of brave high school students told me that we often don’t understand what they’re going through and that trying to see ourselves in their unique experiences is often dismissive. I feel this one so deeply as the daughter of immigrants. I would stomp home, slamming doors, so upset about the social shift that had occurred at our lunch table and my father would sternly remind me that he had to wait in line for bread. I honestly think he thought that the perspective would help and so much of their experience has shaped my irrational hope and resilience, but in that moment it just felt dismissive, competitive, and mean. I was upset, I had real feelings whether he agreed with them or not, and 1996 me and the young people of today don’t want to compare traumas. (We) just want you to listen to us, emote, and help us get through it.
- This room of brave high school students told me that they make mistakes, know we do, too, and wish we could have an open and honest conversation about those failures and learnings. I know this is true, both through our research at Born This Way Foundation and through personal experience. At the foundation, we did a research study that asked young people and their parents to keep separate journals about their mental health practices. Overwhelmingly, young people felt that they couldn’t share their problems with their parents because their parents had not modeled that vulnerability with them. Young people wanted to know that they wouldn’t be judged when they shared their mistakes, that their parents were human themselves and made mistakes as well, and that as parents, we could listen deeply without thinking immediately about our retort or the lesson we could learn.
The honesty and hope that hung in the air during this conversation will stay with me for a long time. For now, as I hunker down (for the next.. I don’t know, how long is parenting?) to prove to myself that I am a good mom, I will open my eyes and be brave with my daughter Logan, as she races down the driveway and always. I will be curious with Hunter and seek out the answers – together – to any and all questions he has for me. Thank you for teaching me so many lessons, friends, and thank you for the hidden blessing of getting to focus on how to apply them to my own life.