I get questions all the time about how I manage having kids and a startup at the same time. After trying to answer the question a few times, I realized that there’s the pretty-much-BS answer about how it’s all about being clear on your values. Or there’s the complicated, too-long-for-interviews answer.
To really get tips for being a CEO with young kids, you’d have to hang out with me for a day. Like, last Tuesday. Which was just another day of being a parent and running a startup. Except this day starts at midnight. When I decide that I am not going to go to sleep because I have to get up at 3:30 a.m. to drive to Milwaukee to catch a plane to Atlanta at 7 a.m. And here’s the first tip:
1. Get sleep. The kind that is not warm and sweet.
I decide I’ll stay up late and work but what I find is that I’m mostly eating. First coffee. Then coffee doused in sugar. Then peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I covet each morning I make them for school lunches. But normally I restrain myself.
I see now I’m too stressed for normal restraint, so I go to bed.
My three-year-old is in my bed. If I get in, he will snuggle and whisper “I love you” in his sleep. But when I get up to go to the airport, he’ll have a fit, because what kid wouldn’t hate to wake to his mom leaving his house in the middle of the night?
To shield my son from childhood trauma I take him out of my bed and put him in bed with my ex husband, who is sleeping in the bedroom down the hall so that I can leave on business trips.
2. Be great at business travel. But get out of it whenever you can.
I set the Blackberry for 3:30 a.m. And when it wakes me I feel like I slept for ten seconds. But this crappy itinerary was my idea. Because I was so excited to go in and out in one day and not have to stay in a hotel.
At my gate I write a blog post, and I feel really good that I can do it at 5a.m. in an airport on no sleep. I send it to my editor and tell him I’m a star for sending it a day early — usually I send it an hour before I want to post it.
Then the flight is delayed. Then it’s broken and delayed. Then it’s probably not happening. Then I see that I will not get to my meeting if I wait for the next flight. But another airline has four, gloriously direct flights that get there in time. I am happy.
Until I hear that the cheapest ticket is $1200. So I call Atlanta to say that my flight was cancelled and I can’t get another.
3. Go to the office when you could go home. Go home later with impunity.
I want to go home and sleep. But I go to the office because we are getting ready to pitch to VCs. We have a lot of great ideas for what we are building for the community. And we are obsessed with the news that Gen Y is not using social media at as high a rate as Gen X is.
I spew the statistics about how bloggers are higher earning and higher educated than most people, and the average Twitter user is nearly 40 years old. We see our spot in the world, and we draw on flip charts and make PowerPoint slides, and then the nanny calls.
And I remember that since I’m not in Atlanta, I can take my son to his T-ball game. So I leave. Here’s something Gen Y really hates: when Gen Xers bolt out the door early to deal with their kids.
4. Prioritize. And keeping the kids from screaming comes first.
I pick up my sons and they want shorts for T-ball. I’m happy about this because I can run in the house for their shorts and check my twitter feed, which is hard to read on my Blackberry.
In the house I grab a diet Coke and the fridge light doesn’t work. I am so focused on shorts that it takes me two more light switches to realize my electricity has been turned off.
Then I remember that paying the bill was on my to do list. Somewhere. Under blogging and investors and T-ball. Yes, I know this is totally irresponsible. But the bill got too big at the end of last year, when my company was not paying salaries and I was not paying most bills.
Also, last week I took half the money for the electric bill and bought my six-year-old a new violin. I told myself that was OK because the violin teacher said his fingers were missing the notes because the violin was too small, and solving that problem seemed more important than paying the electric bill on time.
So I go to T-ball. Because it’s way easier to deal with no electricity when kids are consumed with swinging bats at each other.
5. Get as much help as you can afford. But there will never be enough.
I call the house manager, who has written “pay electric bill” on a post-it maybe ten days in a row, and I tell her the lights are off. She gives me a plan for getting electricity back the next day. Her plan entails paying the bill in person, and stopping at the grocery store for treats, and going to McDonald’s Playland, so the kids are quiet while I’m on the phone with the electric company.
The six-year-old asks what we’re doing. I say, “The Internet is turned off. I have to turn it on again.”
I know this is very serious to him. Because he is consumed with watching YouTube to find out how to win levels in Super Paper Mario on the Wii.
He explains to his younger brother, “This is serious. If we don’t fix the Internet, Mommy won’t be able to work. And neither will her helpers. And people will not see penelopetrunk.com.”
6. Don’t be sneaky. Kids always catch it.
Once I pay the bill, the sun is almost setting, and I need a plan for being in the house in the dark. The house manager makes a plan: Go to a hotel.
But I don’t want to because the kids will know something is wrong. I worry they will be messed up from living in an unstable household. They will grow up wanting to work at the same job at the same company for 60 years because my unstable startup life made them crazy.
So I get them very tired at Playland. They run and scream and I almost pass out on the table because now I am going on three hours of sleep in 24 hours.
Then I take them home to perfectly choreographed sequence of pajamas-book-bed just before the sun sets. They fall asleep and don’t even notice there’s no light.
Then I realize that I didn’t get flashlights. So I get the Dora the Explorer flash light out of my six-year-old’s room and wave it around a little to test it. He asks what I’m doing.
I ignore him.
He goes to the bathroom to pee. He says, “Hey. The lights don’t work.”
“Yeah. I know. Just pee and go to bed.”
“Hey. My bedroom lights don’t work.”
I ignore him. I tuck him in and kiss him and I tell him that it might be very dark if he wakes up in the middle of the night, but he can call me.
“Did you not pay the bill for the lights?”
WHAT??? How does he know this? Bills? He knows about bills?
I say, “Yeah. I forgot to pay the bill. But we paid it now. And the lights will be on tomorrow.”
“In time to play the Wii before school?”
“Well. Um. No.”
“You forget so many things. You never forget your work things and you always forget the house things. No mommy forgets more than you do.”
Then he says, “Mommy, I’m scared. I don’t know how dark it’s going to get. And the house will feel haunted. And what if I can’t see you?”
I get the kids out of bed. I decide we’ll go to a hotel.
I grab the essentials before the sun goes down in our house: Stuffed animals, my laptop, my purse, and gel from my dermatologist to squash breakouts. Because people like to read falling apart in stories and words. But people start to worry if they see the falling apart in your face.