I was planning a long day trip to see a client—out at 7am, back at 6pm. Not a huge deal, but I needed to do some Serious Planning. You see, I was a new mom, still nursing my baby. So, specifically, I needed A Pumping Strategy.
A little ‘birds and bees’ talk here for those of you not familiar with pumping: Nursing moms are constantly producing milk. This production can build up and things can get painful until, at some point, something has to give. Basically, you leak. There’s no way to be discreet about it. And it’s more likely to happen if you think about it. It’s an involuntary, physical response. Okay?
I calculated I could pump in the family bathroom in the airport coming and going, so I just needed to figure out one more session to happen around midday. I asked my client if I could have access to a private conference room at noon, on the dot, for a very important “conference call”. He said “Sure, no problem.”
(This was 12 years ago and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Today I’d just ask for a mother’s room, but…)
That morning, all goes as planned. The meeting goes great, but I’m writing on the whiteboard a lot, so I’m very visible and trying not to think about it. But noon arrives and it looks like I’m going to make it.
My client directs me to the conference room he’s reserved and heads off to lunch with my colleague. So it’s perfect, right?
Except… Glass. Floor to ceiling, glass.
“Okay,” I think, trying to quell the rising panic, “It's no problem, I’ll just use the bathroom.”
Except that I find they're public bathrooms shared by several companies, with no power outlets in any stall.
I head back to the office to look for another woman… I haven’t met or seen any in this company. Finally I find her at the front desk; the receptionist. Marjorie. She’ll know what to do!
I explain the situation and ask if she knows of any suitable private rooms—I’ll take a broom closet at this point, I'm so desperate. But she’s stumped. There is nothing. The whole office is literally and metaphorically all about transparency—blah, blah, blah. The only thing she can think of is that Joe sits in a cubicle in the back corner, near her desk. He just went to lunch and he always takes at least an hour. So, I’ll use his cubicle, and she’ll turn up the radio so no one can hear the pump which is great. ‘Cause it’s loud.
What choice do I have? I get set up. It’s not great sitting there in a strange office in a cubicle with three walls, with my back to the opening, my shirt open and a machine sucking my nipples as far as it can into clear plastic funnels.
But I start to think maybe this will work out. The song “Don’t Stop Believing” is wafting reassuringly from the front desk, disguising the WHAAH-churrr, WHAAH-churrr, WHAAH-churrr, WHAAH-churrr of the pump. They had crunchy peanut butter granola bars in the break room, so I’m not going to go without any lunch. I start to relax. This is fine, this is gonna be fine…
Then, suddenly, I hear Marjorie shout, “JOE!”
“Joe, stop! You can’t go back to your desk!”
“Pfft, c’mon Marjorie…”
The sound of running feet, a whisper-whisper… And then two sets of footsteps slowly retreating.
Thank God for Marjorie. I never laid eyes on Joe, but when I got home, you can bet that I sent Marjorie chocolates.
That moment, to be honest, was the first of many. Since that baby, two more have come. Humiliation has followed embarrassment: ducking out of lunches overcome by morning sickness, breastfeeding out of desperation during a meeting with a CEO, and with this last one, my water breaking as I ran a workshop while sitting in one of the custom Eames chairs in our office. And, no. It’s not as dramatic as it looks in the movies.
I used to be mortified by stuff like this. Even mentioning that I had kids seemed unprofessional. I was a young woman in tech. With freckles. I was already on the bubble. No one I knew mentioned their kids at all. Especially in a buttoned-up enterprise setting.
But why? We’re all humans. I don’t know why humanity felt synonymous with unprofessionalism.
So in the 12 years since that first baby was born, I have changed. Maybe just through necessity, but my perspective on what’s okay in the workplace is different. My fiancé is extremely wonderful, but he also lives halfway across the country so, from a practical perspective, most days I’m effectively a single mom. I have three daughters, one of them still a toddler. I often really don’t have a choice about whether I reveal myself to be vulnerable.
What I’ve realized is that sometimes being vulnerable is a really powerful feeling, like being bilingual: being present and making clear decisions in a meeting while rocking a baby, or confidently stopping someone mid-presentation to ask what an acronym means. Or having my waters break and calmly finishing a meeting. Like, that’s bad-ass, right?
So in the end, I see vulnerability as inherently neither strength nor weakness. It doesn’t need to be something as dramatic as going into labor. And it’s not just about women. And it’s not just about babies. It could just be mentioning your kid, admitting that you’re not feeling well, or expressing a personal hope or a fear about a project you’re working on.
Vulnerability shows humanity.
Vulnerability shows confidence: I don’t need to be perfect to be useful.
Courage: I can handle the consequences of revealing my weaknesses.
Honesty: I’m not bullshitting you.
And trust: I trust you with this. I’ll even go first. More powerfully than just saying “you can trust me”. Through vulnerability I can show you that I trust you.
As designers, we're asked to be vulnerable every day. As we share our work with others, we are sharing some part of ourselves and asking for its value to be measured and increased in a way that we can't do alone.
The next time you're asked to share something before it's ready, or you're worried the feedback will shake your confidence, or people's perception of you, think about leaning into it as an act of strength, instead of shying away.
After all, at least your nipples will still be in your shirt!