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8 Career Lessons I’ve learned From Motherhood

"Be the dumbest in the room," and other takeaways from life as a working mom
San Diego Mag's CEO Claire Johnson and son, Jasper, at home

By Claire Johnson

I became a mom on November 8, 2021, just one week after signing the papers to acquire San Diego Magazine. Taking over a media company is like looking around at what industries are struggling the most and saying, “Let’s get in on that action.” Rebuilding a midsized media company coming out of a global pandemic would take incredible amounts of work, and we needed to be sharp. We knew this.

So the first action we took as the new owners of SDM was to head on over to Mary Birch and have a baby.

Better plans have been made.

It was a wild time. Kind of a blur. A lot of tears and wet wipes. I could not tell you what I did for my first Mother’s Day, but I’m sure it was special in its own way.

There seems a cultural airbrushing of the mom experience, a soft filter applied to the topic. The conversations around motherhood—in media, social media, ad campaigns, merch—center around the joys and love of parenting but don’t often directly address the challenges of balancing a career and raising children. I love my son and my stepdaughter with every fiber of my being. But sometimes it’s just really hard and I feel like my bones are tired.

I felt we needed more honest talk here. That’s why I started Not a Parenting Podcast, where my cohost Alexandria Ott and I talk to other San Diegans about all the nitty, gritty, messy things that come with balancing careers and tiny humans in the hopes that we can learn from each other and provide a space for these types of conversations.

This Mother’s Day, I have nearly two years under my belt as both a mom and CEO. Both of these roles have pushed me to my max, challenged everything I thought I knew about how the world works, and added a few gray hairs to my resume.

It turns out raising a baby and growing a business are not all that different. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned since becoming a working mom:

Set the caterpillars free.

A friend with a newborn texted me with alarm the other day when a box of live caterpillars arrived at her house. She didn’t remember hitting “confirm order” on that one. A few weeks after Jasper was born, I opened a box to discover a white ruffled skirt (it looked like something I’d have worn to a sweet 16 party). I really can’t explain that.

In the feverish hours of the night, or during a particularly stressful week, you might feel a strong need to order any and everything possible—a silver bullet, a fix, something to make you feel joy, to make this easier, survivable. And then they become clutter. Adding things to a situation doesn’t always make it better.

At SDM, some of our best solutions come by taking a problem that’s been unnecessarily complicated and boiling it down to its bones, its essential challenge. When we moved offices, we streamlined our operation by purging years and years of errata. Whether it’s business ops or writing a good sentence, I’ve found when we strip away the clutter, we find the cleanest and most effective solution. Set the caterpillars free.

Be the dumbest one in the room.

Jasper has taught me so much about human instinct. Babies have their own wants and needs. He taught me how to listen to my own intuition when discerning things like “this is a pain cry versus the other one from before which was a hunger cry.” And while there’s a fair share of “no you can’t eat that houseplant,” our lives together work better when I don’t assume to know everything or put the pressure on myself to know everything. When I just step back and listen, learn.

That’s how I approach my role as CEO. A business is a living breathing organism with wants and needs. I don’t walk into any meeting or conversation with the assumption that I have the answers. Instead, we’ve surrounded ourselves with brilliant, creative, and brave people—and learn from each other. Somewhere in between ego and humility lies the secret to innovation.

If you’re not getting pushback, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Nancy Maldonado said this, and it really resonated with me. Nancy’s the Chief DEI Officer at Rady Children’s Hospital and a guest on the second season of NAPP. Absolutely no one thought it was a good idea to have a baby and take over a business at the same time, myself included. But whether I’m pushing myself or pushing our team of creatives, being met with resistance is a good sign. Resistance means you’re on the edge of progress or change. I don’t want to live in that “space of resistance” all the time—that would be exhausting—but I do need to get there regularly in order to evolve.

Good, fast, or cheap—you can only have two at a time.

I can get good dim sum delivered fast, but it’s not going to be cheap. I can get cheap dim sum delivered fast, but it’s not going to be good. The same goes for being a working mom but the three options are: family, career, or self. I can focus and nurture two of those and it’s going to come at the cost of perfection for the third.

One week I may focus on a big presentation and making sure I get home for bedtime every night, but I might have to sacrifice a shower here and there. The next week I get seven showers in and nail the presentation, but I’m late for a soccer game. I’d like to rebrand the phrase “having it all” with instead “compromising perfection in pursuit of balance.”

Welcome the noise, then tune it out and let instinct take over.

Whether it’s industry experts with advice on how to get ahead of the latest Instagram algorithm, or a mom friend suggesting hemp milk cures diaper rash, in both CEO and mom role I’ve been inundated with (often conflicting) advice. I learned to trust the wisdom of people who have been through what I’ve been through, listen to experts and take in as much data and information as I can absorb… then tune out the noise, trust my intuition, make the decision, and own it.

Set structures, then accept the inevitable chaos.

Troy and I spend a half hour on Sundays planning out our week, figuring out what events we need and want to make it to, cross checking doctor appointments, making sure we have extra child care when we need it. We even block off calendar time for “reading” and “meditation” and “mama/Jasper special time.”

It absolutely never goes according to plan, and that’s okay. But setting a path for the road ahead at least gives us a path to return to after we deal with whatever shit just hit the fan. The hardest part of becoming a mother for me was losing control. But my growing ability to accept, adapt, and move on has helped me as a CEO. If I’m in the middle of planning our budget for 2024 and a large upcoming event hits a snafu, I know I can pivot, handle it, and come back to the budget.

Eat the humble pie.

I’m going to mess up. I can’t be afraid to admit it when I do. When Jasper was four months old, I was preparing to move him from our room into his own. I mopped the floors and opened the windows wide so his little lungs would be greeted by fresh air. I subsequently discovered at 2 a.m. when he woke up wailing that I had in fact forgotten to close the windows and his little lungs were icicles. I apologized, I warmed him up, and we moved on.

Last year, we made the decision to cancel an event last-minute due to forecasted rain. Canceling cost us tens of thousands of dollars. A massive hit for a company in the middle of a rebuild. The day of the event came and it never rained.

Our editors and creators are some of the best in the country, and our stories are checked by multiple people. Still, mistakes are made. When we make a mistake on a platform as large as SDM’s, people are very quick to let us know. I try to name it, accept it, fix it, move on, dwell as little as possible (I’m still going to dwell).

Seek joy.

Every morning, Jasper and I go on a walk around Ocean Beach. It’s the same loop every day. And every day, he enthusiastically points out all the things that bring him joy. The mural of a turtle, the guitar in the shop window, the dog passing by, this particular trash can. He shares that joy with me by pointing and smiling and jumping up and down.

It’s the best 20 minutes of my day because it’s a reminder that the most simple, everyday things can bring us joy if we look at it through a fresh set of eyes. And reminds me to share my joy, and borrow from others when I need it.

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