The Designification of Motherhood

Last month I spoke at Lincoln Center for the 99u conference. Here is an excerpt of the talk.

“There’s one… and there’s the other!”

That’s how she said it. Just like that. That’s how my OBGYN told me I was pregnant with twins.

She said it so casually like the way someone asks if you want one bag or two for your groceries. We immediately started hashing out what this new twist in my pregnancy meant … then slowly our attention turned to my husband Alan. He had fainted. Slumped in his chair and pale, the doctor left my side and turned to his. Unable to say anything other than, “Twins?” she assured him he’d be a great father and gave him the number for a therapist.

Alan heard TWINS and all he could think about was getting those stacks.

You know, the stuff crucial to raising a couple babies.

He spent the next few days mumbling something about “needing to learn how to make apps” while I threw up into plastic bodega bags everywhere we went. While he worried about how we were going to afford living in the most expensive city in America I congratulated myself for dropping so many eggs at once. I didn’t think to learn a new marketable skill. I was busy reading about baby Doppler heart monitors. I figured we’d just make it work.

Clearly, I didn’t fully appreciate what twins meant and how it was going to change my life mostly because my husband was having a panic attack for the both of us. I’ve never been great at making decisions. For those of you who have had a baby, most likely you’re also bad at thinking things through, otherwise you would have been like, “maybe I shouldn’t have a baby.” If you’re waiting for a good time to have a baby it doesn’t exist. Becoming a parent is a lot like becoming a designer. You start off thinking you’re going to be the best one in the world … then you actually become a one… and you suck at it.

Contrary to what some design gurus out there might have you believing, design isn’t rocket science. There are are no rules to design or for that matter raising a kid, and the people trying to explain the rules to you are probably just trying to make money. Or … people with no concept of what reality is never mind how to help anyone else build these realities. Go to any PARENTING section of a book store and replace “parent” with “design” and “child” with “client” and if that doesn’t sound like a design conference then I don’t know what does.

So, nine months flew by, Fox and Filomena were born, and the earth stopped rotating. Everyone told us it would go by fast but it was very hard to accept “things got better” when the definition of a day meant nothing.

if you think you are pregnant, or think you might be pregnant, watch at your own risk

So, I did what I did when I was peak lonely and depressed when I was working as a freelance designer … no, I did not turn to whiskey. I surrounded myself by others in a similar situation. I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t know many people with twins so I joined a facebook mom group despite hating myself for it. But it turns out, moms are not so bad. I got on slack, I tweeted, instagramed, snapchatted, slack’d, meerkat’d. Instagram is begging for newborn photos. Afterall, it tells you how old images are in terms of weeks. At first I was self-conscious about posting too many baby pictures but I got over it pretty fast when I realized the only thing I look at is my children and so that’s what I was gonna take photos of. And if you don’t care about the twins you probably don’t care about my life right now. And likely the feeling is mutual.

So here I found myself bonding with strangers and the only thing we had in common was that we had unprotected sex at the same time. Acquaintances were suddenly promoted to a level of intimacy regarding body excretions usually reserved for doctors. I called friends who had become parents years ago and apologized for not offering to babysit or if I ever complained about being tired in front of them.

I found podcasts about how to raise babies (How to save for college! Breast Feeding for Dummies!!) but I preferred reading about how others were also failing at parenthood because the last thing I want to hear when I’m struggling is to listen to some mommy who thinks they know it all.

Just like every other parent I want what is best for my child and it seems like everyone is doing it better than me. This pursuit of idealism and designification has not stopped with food porn or the home-design selfie. I saw it on the same platforms that used to bring me pleasure. Everyone else seems to be eating better on instagram, living better on snapchat, designing better on twitter.

Designification has bled into all things lifestyle, including having a family. As if being a designer wasn’t bad enough, now I have to fight the designification of motherhood.

Design and parenthood is mostly about solving problems but you’d think it was a about appearances. Once I started believing that wearing cute jumpers, owning that essential bunny shaped lamp, and wearing that perfect smile in a selfie signaled “Look! I TOO am a good parent!” I wasn’t really helping anyone.

Design and parenting are presented as things that a person should be perfect at — and presented as things that people ARE perfect at when in fact that is not the case. The perfect designer. The perfect doodle. The perfect parent. The perfect house. There is a 1950s feeling to all of this and just like the 1950’s … we’re all secret crazy alcoholics.

These designers treat design like it’s Medusa. Instead of staring it in the eye they resist the inevitability of failure by perfectly curating their instagrams and snapchat stories or composing tweets that superficially reveal their vulnerabilities by only speaking to the broadest audience possible.

“Do what you love” … “hustle” … “Design makes everything possible” … what do these statements even mean other than glamorizing working on nights/weekends and having no life balance? This group think is suffocating original thinking. We are accountable to what we put into the world merely making things and hustling is not enough. As a designer, no, as a human being I feel responsible and try to consider … Who I am I talking to? What am I trying to say? Maybe I’m just lonely?

Lately I’ve been watching the pendelum swing away from, “It’s easy! I’m rich! I’m successful!” to “I’m vulnerable too”. And it’s been fascinating to watch other designers fetishize failure. Last week’s episode of Silicon Valley perfectly skewers this falseness.

These two philosophies: Tongue kissing failure and humping perfection are symptoms of narcissism, balms for low self-esteem. Broadcasting broad generalized insecurities or documenting the appearance of success is easy because the stakes are so low. And when shared publicly the result is the same: folks reassuring each other that they’re doing a great job. Social media is teaming with this garbage.

But the internet can be used to address ACTUAL loneliness and struggle of life. I do my best to look for real communities and have a real conversation online. Talking about things candidly makes me feel a lot less shame. Sure, I probably over share and delete tweets and that is a good practice too. And when I feel like I’m confusing Instagram with therapy I call a real therapist. It’s normal to worry about the lines between life and work and you’ll figure it out for yourself. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. I try to be honest, especially when I am confused. I broadcast my flaws as a way to not feel ashamed by them. I have trouble tweeting things I’m proud of without wanting to punch myself in the face.

But honesty is a privilege, not a right. Honesty is worthless if you are a jerk, an asshole, a shallow garbage person. Because, when garbage people are authentically themselves… they’re espousing garbage. Unfortunately, garbage people have garbage colored glasses so they can’t see their own garbage. And they are amongst us, sometimes I’m the garbage person. At the end of the day all we’re looking for is acceptance, even the garbage people, especially the garbage people, through imperfection or success.

↑ This is a lie.

There’s something hypnotizing about seeing all these beautiful things online but it’s essential to compartmentalize what is aspirational and what is reality. When I started comparing myself to other people online I felt terribly insecure over the most superficial of things: what my babies were wearing, how much weight I’ve lost since giving birth, if you could see pumping equipment in the background of photographs. I’d be up all night feeding the children wondering how other mothers can make it look so easy. Give me a break. That person does not exist. Why don’t we acknowledge the good and the bad? Design communities like Dribbble or Behance could be a place where we acknowledge we are not in fact natural-born geniuses but instead we are more inclined to post pixel perfect comps.

Of course as a parent I can’t embrace failure as a philosophy. Having a child is a series of tiny successes and failures. Most people prefer not to have an audience to their failures. Failures are the hardest to explain, and yet those are the very instances when I are most desperate for a little understanding, a little empathy. And so, I put them on display.

So many designers try to innovate for innovation sake and it’s easy to make the same mistake as a parent. as soon as the twins were old enough to eat food we make overly complicated meals: balsamic reduction fish dinners, roasted beet and goat cheese salads, breaded asparagus … very complex meals… until we just realized they just wanted cheerios, a peanut butter sandwich or steamed veggies.

Parenthood is not like a volunteer job: done in the hours between home-from-work and bath time. It’s not a side project. It is my identity whether I define myself by it or not. I’m a workaholic, my work is life so that means my kids are just as much part of my career as my j-o-b.

I was familiar with the narrative that children quote “ruin your body” but I was less familiar with the idea that kids “ruin your career”. But, it’s no joke. According to the New York Times, “Men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had.” Don’t get me started on how work and home dynamics change because that’s an entirely different discussion. What I want to talk about right now is our sense of self.

Some say parenthood can inspire you to be a better artist others say it’s the end of your career. Once I became a mother my children came first, my husband came first, my work came first. And I … I come last. Everything about motherhood feels like a mandate toward selflessness. The struggle is real.

Sometimes parent hood is deeply profound.

Other times, less so.

In all seriousness, though, if you have a new baby and it’s so hard just to be alive, drop me a line and I’ll tell you how a m a z i n g you are.

When I got pregnant my husband who has raced in four Ironmen, swore off athleticism. I still don’t understand why. I’ve watched him truly mourn his “former life” and I swear, when we drive by riders crushing a hill, he wipes tears and hit the gas to get past them. The emotions that come with it are intense and I’ve struggled to sympathize. “Can’t you do both? Get a jogging stroller!” “It’s not the same. You just don’t understand.” And he’s right, I didn’t understand.

I don’t believe in “returning to my former self” anymore than I believe I’ll return to my “pre-body weight”. That person before the twins were born still exists, I am that person right now. Now, I never really had much self-worth to start with so I haven’t mourned my previous life like most people do.

I don’t believe in one single self. I think most people see their careers as linear– moving from illustrator to designer to art director to creative director but I unsubscribed to that a long time ago. There’s no such thing as putting on an “art director hat” or “bad idea jeans” these are not skills that are mutually exclusive from each other. When I find myself thinking, “I’m a designer, I’m a mother that is my lot in life.” I have to remind myself that is false. Its easy to lie to myself all the time about not having other options. It’s reassuring to say I don’t, it lets me off the hook. Instead, I try to question underlying assumptions about my life. Who I am can’t be pinned down to one job or my relationship with my children. Who I am is much bigger than that.

Since the twins were born I have published two books …

<shameless plug>


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… work a full time job as a graphics editor at the new york times, occasionally write, design and have toured the design conference circuit while also keeping the children alive. I get asked a lot, “How do you do it?”

I’ve never read LEAN IN nor do I have plans to do so. I’ll tell you how I do it.

via Annie Wang

I have help, that’s how.

I am privileged. I have an incredible woman who takes care of my children while I am at work, five days a week. She helps me with my kids and I pay her a large part of my salary to do that. So that I can work. So that I can make things that may or not go anywhere. So that I can write this essay on medium that is probably two-thousand words too much and may or may not matter. So that I can do what I love and feel sane and happy and myself.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

So why has “nanny” become such a loaded word? In fact, the woman who takes care of our children doesn’t even like to be called that. Why are we, as women, so reluctant to talk about the people who help us so that we can do what we do? What am I afraid of? That I CAN’T do it all?

Well, duh.

We fucking can’t.

So what’s this big secret we’re trying to keep and who do we think we’re fooling?

And what is it doing to people who read our medium posts and instagrams and fav our tweets and think that all of these projects are being finished while the babies sit quietly in their cribs sleeping or politely asking for more milk.

I love that Brian Eno confessed in his Diary:

“One of the reasons I am capable of running three careers in parallel is because I married my manager.”

So I am here, on stage, consenting to this recording, giving my own design disclosure. To remind myself that my career and life are entangled whether I like it or not.

I’m writing this to remind myself there is no formula or steps to make the perfect website or child. I also have a loving family back in New York who I can text or call when I am feeling lost in California. I don’t need design heart-throbs to hold my hand and walk me through deciding if I should start that personal project or for Ricki Lake to tell me not to get an epidural.

I wonder if my kids will ever read my tweets or see my instagrams. Probably not, but maybe. So kids, if you’re reading this, you are amazing, I love you, you are perfect, I hope you aren’t a designer, and call your mother.

Special thanks to Laura June, Austin Kleon, and Alan McLean for their parental and writing wisdom.

Jennifer Daniel is a graphics editor at the New York Times, former Graphics Director at Bloomberg Businessweek, and sometimes tweets. Her first kids book SPACE is pretty good, buy it. If your kid likes it maybe you’ll like her new book, The Origin of Almost Everything coming out in the Fall of 2016.



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