You can take the Mama out of the Geek world…

It’s been nearly twelve years that I’ve worked for my current employer, a software company that I suspect most of you are all too familiar with.  Earlier this month, spurred in part by the seizures and in part by a few personal factors, I decided it was time to leave.  I’m fortunate in many ways; I have the full support of my husband and family in doing this, and we have the means (and medical insurance) such that I can afford to take a couple weeks of down time before jumping back in to the workforce.  It was not an easy decision to make, but from the way I’ve been feeling since putting in my notice, I can’t help but be convinced that this was the right choice to make for now.

Many years ago, when my  previous husband and I were divorcing and I had to start breaking the news to people, I did so with expectations that people would be disappointed in me for not being able to make it work. Instead, I received almost unanimous support from family, friends and co-workers. I thought I was going to hear things like “Have you tried [something else]?” or be told that I was giving up, not trying as hard as I should have.  Instead, I heard things like “I’m so glad! You deserve to be happy,” and “Kudos for making a tough decision!”

This past week, as I’ve been telling my friends and co-workers that I’m ending my working relationship, I’ve realized that I had similar expectations about their reactions.  I worried that people would question my decision, or ask whether I had done everything I could to make things work out. And once again, I’ve realized that I haven’t been giving them enough credit.  Once again, I’m hearing nothing but supportive comments.  My friends and family know I’ve been unhappy here for quite a while, long enough that it’s worn me down physically and emotionally. They probably also know that I’ve stubborn and hate to admit defeat, so it’s not too surprising that it took something drastic to make me realize what was happening. Walking away from a decent salary and a prime slate of benefits seems a little crazy, especially in this economy.  Working here was right for me for many years, and it was through my job that I met many of those friends (one who later became my husband).  But even good relationships can go sour under certain circumstances.  Sometimes it’s possible to put things right.  Other times, the price of staying outweighs the benefits.

I’m an engineer at heart, so I have to analyze. In looking at the similarities between the two “breakups,” I’ve been trying to understand why my first instinct is to brace for criticism and disapproval.  The best I’ve come up with is that it’s the criticism and disapproval that I feel myself. Is this really the right decision? Could I have found a way to make it work if I’d just looked a little harder or put more effort into it?  Clearly I’ve failed somehow, and surely it must be my own fault.  After all, hundreds of other woman, mothers of young children, are able to pull off the necessary balance of effort needed to succeed in the workforce, and even in this high-intensity company.  If they can do it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been able to as well.

But frankly, if I’m going to send my Kiddo off to the care of someone else five days a week, it really should be so that I can do something I love and find fulfilling, rather than something that’s going to drag me down or even leave me in tears at the end of a too-long workday.  The people who care about me are able to see that, and I can certainly stand behind it when it applies to other people. I just don’t do as well acknowledging it for myself.

The support and love I’ve gotten from the people close to me as I’ve made this decision has been more than I expected.  As my husband loves to remind me, I am more than just my job title.  Yes, it’s been an integral part of my identity for a very long time, but just as I’m more than a mom, more than a wife, more than a puzzle solver or a blog writer, I’m also more than what’s on my business card. I’m greater than the sum of my many hats–and now, it’s time to try on a new one.



Infancy 1, Engineers 0

I’m an engineer.  My husband is an engineer.   We have business cards and job titles that confirm this, so it must be true.

As such, we approach problem solving like many other engineers do: Define the problem in clear terms.   Set expectations of what ought to be happening instead.   Drill down and observe closely.  Pay attention to your gut instinct, but find solid evidence to back it up.   Research possible solutions and look at what others have done in similar situations.  And especially, make sure you have a reliable, repeatable way to reproduce the problem, so that when you come up with a solution you can be sure it’s working as expected.

It didn’t take very long to discover that this approach goes right out the window when it comes to solving parenting problems.  Especially parenting problems that pertain to brand-new infants fresh from the cabbage patch.

Our son, like all babies, fussed and cried.  We’d try something.  It wouldn’t work.  We’d try something else.  Aha!  Problem solved.  But before long he’d be fussy again.   No worries, we know how to solve that one now, right?  Ha!  Frequently, what had worked the night before no longer worked tonight.  We’d run through the standard checklist of Hungry? Tired? Needs changing? Needs cuddling? and more often than we liked, we’d run right off the end of the list into the abyss of What The Heck Do We Do NOW?

Oh, I did plenty of research.  I had a few oft-recommended parenting books that I flipped through when I had moments of free time.  I was used to solving problems by paging through documentation online and in hard-copy form, so I reverted to what had worked for me in the past.  There’s just one small problem to this approach: unlike software programs, babies aren’t consistent.  They don’t roll out from a factory all identically stamped with a verified set of bits.  What works to solve one family’s problem doesn’t necessarily apply to the next-door neighbor; heck, what works for one sibling might just be anathema to the next!  Our little nubbins didn’t care what those books said was supposed to please babies.  After all, he wasn’t some hypothetical book baby; he was HIMSELF.

When our son was 4 weeks old, I got a NursingKnowHow email with the subject line “Why does your baby cry?”  I clicked that one so fast I could have broken my mouse button.  The first line of the email simply said, “Your baby cries because he’s a baby.”  It was a vague non-answer designed to lead into the rest of the article, but something in that sentence resonated with us.  Maybe it was the confirmation that it wasn’t user error on the part of us parents; maybe the reassurance that what seemed like inexplicable behavior was, in fact, perfectly within design parameters.  It didn’t matter, because at last we had a reason (of sorts) behind the randomness.  For two sleep-deprived people stumbling into the wilds of parenting after spending decades in safe, predictable engineering environments, a reason was as good as a multi-volume reference set.

In the months that followed, an amazing thing happened.  We learned to trust ourselves and our parenting instincts.  We discovered that there are lots of books out there written by child-rearing experts, but there are only two people who are experts on how to raise this particular Kiddo.  And while I still do research for particularly perplexing problems, I’ve found that a better approach is to read the books once or twice, then set them aside and cherry-pick the advice that makes most sense for our family and our situation.  It makes for an interesting mishmash at times, but so far it seems to be working out for all three of us.  Soft science for the win!

Back in those early months, we coped by finding a new catch phrase: “You can’t debug a baby.”  It didn’t solve the problem of why our son was crying, but it did remind us that this child was not just another software engineering problem, and that the processes we were accustomed to using weren’t necessarily the best fit for this situation.  We’ve held onto that phrase as Kiddo has grown into a toddler and started down the tedious path of temper tantrums and nonsensical (to us) whims.  Sometimes we’ll ask, “What are you, ONE?” as a way of reminding ourselves that what he’s doing is perfectly age-appropriate.  It’s our job as parents to figure out how to handle it, even if that means scrapping the previous tried-and-true fix and starting over – something not often recommended in our day jobs.