Breaking Free of Trying to Please


Walking into the meeting room, I was reaching the height of my anxiety. I had a mission to make my account manager look good AND show off my technical chops. The stakes were high: not only was I new to technical account management, but this was my first big meeting with a key partner.

I started talking with the five others in the room. I mentioned ModelBuilder, one of my favorite plug-ins to the GIS tool. “You know ModelBuilder?” the partner manager asked, raising an eyebrow. “I do,” I replied, thinking nothing of it.

Ninety minutes later, I had fully whiteboarded a scenario integrating our two solutions, including matching APIs. We ended the meeting with a promise to follow up soon.

As we walked out the door, the partner manager ran after me. “Wait!” he yelled, catching up to me and shoving a ModelBuilder book in my hand. “Take this. ModelBuilder.” He shook his head. “I thought you were just a pretty girl in a skirt.”

In the moment, I thought to myself, “Oh! I am pretty! AND smart!” This was the same thought I had when, at a convention a year later, someone told me, “I thought you were the booth babe.” High school Jess, voted by her senior class as “Best with Computers” but self-voted “Least Likely to Find a Date,” was finally getting her dream.

I am embarrassed to say it took me several years to really internalize these comments. In fact, I have lived a lot of my life in denial, ignoring and dismissing the myriad comments about my dress, my talk, my mood, my marital status, my pregnancy, and my family. I took these as “part of the job.”  I did not recognize them for what they really were: projections of someone’s discomfort with me as a person, of their inability to accept me for who I am.

That changed when my son came into the world. His arrival was highly anticipated, after an anything-but-easy conception and pregnancy. When I delivered him, he came out gray and unbreathing. I only briefly brushed his hand before they took him down to the NICU, my husband rushing after.

Disoriented and dazed, I stayed upstairs while my OB took vitals, tried to get me to eat, and, after leaving my room, called up from the NICU with questions I felt wholly unprepared to answer. My only company was a nurse who talked at me, not pausing to answer my whispered questions about him. Several hours later when I finally laid eyes on him, that same nurse told me I couldn’t hold him, I was too tired and needed to recover. She wheeled me upstairs, and I fell asleep with guilt churning in my head. That same guilt woke me several hours later. Should I go down there? COULD I go down there? Was he scared? Was I failing him already? Was he hungry? Was I ruining my chances of bonding? Instead of asking (or waking my partner), I stared at the clock. Six hours ticked by before we finally went down to the NICU.

It was a blur. They wheeled me in, and everyone again was telling me what to do: wash my hands; sanitize my cell phone; “Don’t move too quickly, you’ll hurt yourself.” I felt like a child. They parked me next to his crib, and the nurse placed him in my arms.

In that moment, everything changed.

My son nestled into me, and rooted immediately. “Is this ok?” I asked the nurse. “Of course,” she said.

“I’ve never seen a NICU baby do that so quickly,” the nurse said, laughing. “He sure knows you’re his mama.” At that moment, something clicked, and everything was clear. “Get me a towel,” I said to my husband. And Thomas and I began our breastfeeding relationship.

I’m not saying I had the perfect postpartum recovery after that. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I struggle deeply (to this day) with postpartum anxiety and depression. But the voice of that nurse stayed with me, reminding me that I was now forever tied to him,  that I was his advocate. And that voice also reminded me of something else: to be his champion, I also had to be my own.

I began speaking up. At first, it was to recognize postpartum issues, driving awareness and education. I spoke up when teased as being “emotional and hormonal,” first in safe spaces and then when I heard others referred to as such.

Finding my voice as a mother also helped me center myself as a woman in tech. When I returned to work and found out the pump room was being used as a nap room, I immediately spoke up and had the issue addressed. When I changed companies, I didn’t accept a job without thorough review of the parental leave policy. I proactively told them I wanted to help define postpartum policies and support for moms in the workplace. I told my story identifying my postpartum mood disorder, loudly and proudly, instead of with shame. I started calling out blatant sexism, and even left an organization after recognizing red flags consistent with gender bias. And when a sales guy I worked with recently told me I needed to “soften,” I responded with, “that’s sexist,” and started a conversation about why.

This isn’t to say I don’t still struggle. There is a part of me who wants to prioritize being the cute, funny girl with whom everyone is comfortable. The Jess you see laughing because an executive team member once told her “you come across as a bitch,” or who is lecturing the TSA agent about the actual regulations for bringing breastmilk through the security line … that Jess often wants to hide. But when I feel like running away, I remind myself that I once wish I’d had someone to speak for me. By telling these stories, I hope to create space for others to feel empowered to tell their own stories as well.

Jess Stetson spends her professional time translating between technical details and business objectives, and her personal time running on the Springwater Trail and / or after her two-year-old. She is building an advocacy project, Beyond the Fourth, which seeks to support moms and those who need them through connection and story-telling. Connect with her on twitter and LinkedIn.