As a mom myself, I’ve seen firsthand how stressful the pandemic has been for mothers everywhere. Because women are still considered the primary caretakers, we’ve been shouldering so much with our families, in addition to juggling our work responsibilities (if we’re lucky enough to still be working). I’ve been doing this juggling act for years, though, and I can’t imagine what it’s been like for new moms who’ve had to deal with the uncertainties of pregnancy along with the uncertainties of the pandemic.
My teammate at Berlin Cameron, Elsa Gonzalez, our Senior Director of Strategy, is a new mom who not only gave birth during the pandemic, but went through so much more; Early on in the pandemic, she and her husband, Franco, picked up quickly and moved from New York City all the way to Texas, got COVID eight months into the pandemic, and had to weather the worst snowstorm in Texas history — all while still caring for their newborn daughter Frida, mostly without help.
Our culture at Berlin Cameron has a tenant ‘vulnerability welcome’ and I believe that as a leader I’ve been open about my own struggles. Given how much she had to deal with over the past year, I was amazed at how well Elsa seemed to be “keeping it all together—” she always showed up for work, looked great, and took care of her responsibilities without falling behind. Like any new mother, sure, she had to switch some things around here and there, but she seemed to be managing it all without so much as breaking a sweat. But the truth was, even she felt she had to put a brave face on. She was struggling and none of us could see it—a fact that she didn’t reveal to me until much later.
“My intention was to be like, ‘I’ve got this, I can do this myself.’ Looking back, I wish I’d opened up more,” Elsa told me. “We have amazing colleagues, and I wanted them to see the side of motherhood that is not always perfect. So I would’ve liked to have been a little more open and vulnerable, because everybody was understanding. I could have also shown a new side of me; I’m not just ‘work Elsa.’ I have other dimensions.”
I think that Elsa’s resilience speaks to the resilience and resourcefulness of all mothers and how the perception of motherhood in the workplace has, thankfully, started to change. Instead of the myth of “having it all” (which we now know was actually a myth), we’ve all toned down our expectations and are instead celebrating mothers for the gifts that motherhood brings out in us, like patience and the ability to prioritize. The perception used to be that a child was going to “slow you down” on the career ladder. And companies are slowly starting to work with mothers with more flexible work schedules, longer maternity leave, and other resources that help them succeed (there’s still a lot of work to be done on that front, but at least it’s starting.)
Given her struggles over the past year, Elsa herself has seen a shift in how she approaches work and how motherhood has made her better at her job.
“I just feel more comfortable with myself and with what I can offer. I have less imposter syndrome because I don’t have time to deal with it anymore,” she told me.
With Mother’s Day on the horizon, we sat down this week to chat about what it was really like giving birth during a pandemic, how remote work has been a lifeline, and how companies can better support mothers. I thought that Elsa sharing her story might be relatable for other new moms and provide some comfort. Being a new mom is stressful enough on its own, so I wanted to help her share the fact thats other people are in the same boat.
Here’s more from our conversation.
How did you feel about bringing a baby into the world into the pandemic?
I don’t know what it’s like to bring a baby into the world not in a pandemic, so in some ways, ignorance is bliss. It’s been a lot of intuition and survival kicking in, and really listening to that. But it has been way lonelier than I expected, because when the pandemic started, I expected to go to Texas for my baby shower. That ended up being my exit from New York. I didn’t get to experience some of the usual milestones people talk about. My extended family didn’t get to see me pregnant, and to this day, they haven’t met my baby. Only two friends have met my baby. So it’s been lonely, but it’s also been a time for unity in strength in my core family: my husband, Frida, my dog. It’s been a bonding experience. We’re all much tighter and are appreciative of all the time we spend together.
Did you have to give birth by yourself?
No, but that’s one of the reasons we moved, because they had announced in New York they were going to start limiting partners during birth, and I didn’t want to do it by myself, especially for the first time. It was a really uncertain time. Pregnancy is already a really uncertain time, but then you add the uncertainties of the pandemic. Is my hospital going to available or will it be occupied by people that will be sick, will I have a partner, will it be my doctor…Even though it took me six weeks to find a doctor in Texas, because no one wanted to take me coming from New York, which was the epicenter of the pandemic, we ended up finding a great one and I was able to have my husband, Franco, with me. Pandemic or not, I felt like Super Woman delivering my baby, one of my proudest moments for sure.
What do you feel that you were prepared for as a mom? What do you feel that NO ONE prepared you for?
I knew it was going to be chaotic, and it was as chaotic as I expected. The functional things were expected; you’re not going to sleep, have your stuff ready, be organized. I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it was going to be to feed my baby. People talk about breastfeeding and formula, like you have those two options, and that’s it. It wasn’t like that. What was supposed to be the most natural thing in the world was so, so difficult. She ended up losing 10% of her weight within the first two days, and it was just really chaotic and worrisome 24/7. So that was really hard and just hearing her scream all day because she was hungry and she wasn’t latching properly.
Then someone told me that you can just pump. I was like, “Pump?! Just “pump”?” Then I became an exclusive pumper. It really just changed the relationship I had with feeding her and she was still getting everything I wanted her to get. But I had to get a consultant, and I got yelled at by my doctor for not feeding the baby when I took her for her first checkup. Just being by myself, I didn’t know what the signs were when she was colicky, sleepy…It was really stressful.
What were the bright spots of becoming a mom during the pandemic?
I’m a private person, so I appreciated not getting unwanted advice or unwanted help. We had eight months to bond with the baby before she had to go to daycare, which is five months more than we would have gotten if we weren’t in the pandemic. I was also thankful that my transition from being pregnant to recovering was not public. I was able to do that at home. Your body goes through a lot, and obviously people want to see you, but I was really appreciative that I was able to do that recovery more privately, letting my body and mind take the time it needed.
What was your first day back like?
It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be! I also didn’t have to drop her at daycare, though. Franco, my husband, started his paternity leave the day I got back, so he was able to take her, and if I missed her I could just go see her, give her a hug, and go back to work. It was hard, though, because Icould hear her crying and my shirt would get wet (took me a while to figure that one out), so that wasn’t great. But it was good for me, because I didn’t want to lose myself. I didn’t just want to be Elsa the mom, so getting back to work was important. And it gave me another purpose other than raising a baby. So I appreciated that it was time for me to do what I do and see other people.
How was it trying to balance everything?
Really hard. For two to three months we had to split childcare while we were both home, without any help. And two months of that we were doing construction on the house. We were at a tiny Airbnb. So we were each passing off the baby when we had a meeting. We both had to do a lot of work at irregular hours because we could only keep up with meetings; we couldn’t keep up with work. So that was probably the hardest part, but I was also really lucky that Franco was always about being 50/50. And also that his company gave him flexibility to have paid leave for a few weeks and the flexibility of being a new dad. “Embrace chaos” became my new motto and I lowered my expectations of what a successful day was drastically.
What have been your biggest struggles as a new mom?
You carry this baby for nine months, and then you’re just supposed to create this beautiful bond right away, and that’s just not how it happened for me. You meet this human that you’re giving up your life for, and you have to create a relationship, but the beginning is hard, you’re just losing sleep and you’re giving everything to the baby. You might get a smile once in a while, but mostly you’re just getting cries. You’re just getting to know each other. Honestly, that bond took a few weeks for me to be really comfortable. All of this is happening while you’re trying to recover yourself and dealing with hormones, you don’t feel like your true self.
Tell me a story about a day that wasn’t perfect.
On Valentine’s Day, I baked, which was really cute and not normal because I don’t make time for it, but it’s also when the big snowstorm in Texas started. The next day we had to work, and I had a few meetings. It was around 11 degrees outside, and the power went out. Then the temperature inside started dropping. It got to about 50 degrees, Frida started crying because the air was dry, she was hungry and cold. We didn’t have power, so we couldn’t heat up any of her food. So I started to get really worried. We basically had to get everything ready for all three of us and the dog to go to a hotel within 30 minutes, because everything was getting booked, the roads were a shitshow, and then we checked in, all the stores were closed. We got three cancellations from Doordash because the delivery drivers didn’t want to drive. Franco got frozen food from Target and that’s what we ate for dinner. To this day I have fond memories of frozen Pad Thai.
You and your family got COVID. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It was a frightening but also very humbling experience, because it was so much bigger than all of us. We did what we could to protect ourselves and each other but at the end of the day there were so many things we didn’t know. Thankfully we had mild symptoms. Franco got it first, then I got it, then Frida got it, and it ended up being four weeks. I really understood mom guilt; I tried to do everything to protect my baby but I couldn’t do it. She did amazingly, thankfully. She’s so resilient. She’s already survived COVID, a year of the pandemic, moving nine hours away, and the biggest winter storm that’s ever hit Texas. For her 10 months she already has a long history of resilience— resilience has been a crucial part of her entire life.
How do you feel that work was supportive? What other things could we have done differently?
I felt supported. When we were talking about maternity a long time ago, before the pandemic, I asked you for more time to work from home and you said that it didn’t work, from your experience. I’m thankful that we had the chance and we did make it work, and because of that my life as a mom became much easier. I was able to have some flexibility and see my baby.
But maybe everyone could have just checked in a little bit more. As an agency, we’re more vulnerable than before. In my experience, when someone actually asks you, you can think about whether things are really okay. It forces you to pause and really think about it.
What do you think companies are doing wrong when it comes to new moms?
Having an expectation that one approach fits all; not all of our needs are the same. Flexibility is important. The need to be in the office is one of the bigger myths now. You don’t. I’m able to be more productive because I’m able to focus on a few things because I know it affects how much time I’ll have with Frida later.
And getting women involved. Just ask them what they need. They’ll tell you.
Does remote work make your life easier or harder as a mom?
The flexibility is key. If something happens at daycare and I need to move stuff around, I can just tell you guys and take care of them. I don’t have to commute, so Ican use that 30 minutes in the morning and the afternoon to spend time with my kid or take her to daycare. I love being able to quantify that – that’s five hours a week I get to spend with my baby, and that’s a big difference! Right now, she spends the majority of her day in daycare, so I’ll take any hour I can.
What has motherhood taught you about your career?
First, to speak up for myself. I was very patient with situations, but now I think about whether I’d want my daughter to be treated that way. I have been able to actively take care of things I wasn’t happy about. Second, my nurturing side has come out more, so I’ve had more patience with my team. I’ve been more productive because I have to make choices about where I spend my time and because I generally take less crap. It’s also exciting to learn from motherhood and bring it into work, whether it’s being more intuitive, putting more emphasis on teams, or being less judgmental. Having the confidence of having dealt with the many issues I had in the last year also puts things in perspective. Those things have been game-changers.
What do you want for Mother’s Day?
One of the biggest challenges is that every day feels like groundhog day. You wake up, you do the morning routine, you drop off, you pick up, you do the evening routine. All of sudden it’s like, how is it 10 o’clock again? Nothing feels exciting. Days go by like this [snaps]. On Mother’s Day, I’m going to make time to do my favorite thing, gardening, then I’m going to bake, then Franco’s going to make brunch. For me it’s more about time, not things.
What advice would you give new moms?
Being able to verbalize emotions, but also understanding and creating a language around emotions it is key. You’re going through so many hormones, so you wonder, is it the hormones, or is it me? The first way to understand is to give a name to it. Once you can identify how you’re feeling, it’s easier to ask for help or look for solutions. In life and in work, identifying the problem is half of the solution.
In the end, Elsa taught me that even as a vulnerable person myself and leading a culture of bringing your whole self to work that sometimes —and we—need to work harder to really provide the support that people need to share their story.