How She Does It: Sabrina Parsons

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 Sabrina Parsons might be Super Woman.  And the thing that makes her the most superhero-ish, in my opinion, is her devoted commitment to bringing issues of working motherhood and what it takes for women to succeed in the workforce to the fore.  She is determined to keep an open dialog about these important issues, which you know I care deeply about, and in so doing she’s become one of the voices I listen to most carefully in this sometimes-cacophonous discussion.

 Sabrina is the CEO of Palo Alto Software, and she and her husband Noah have three sons. Sabrina writes about the work-family landscape for Fortune and recently attended the White House Summit on Working Families.  The fact that one of her sons accompanied her on that trip and shared the experience with her tells you a lot about Sabrina’s values.  She believes in taking her sons to work and encouraging her other employees to do the same, as as you can see below, she has a jammed, rich, wonderful life in which she weaves together motherhood and business success.  I’m inspired by Sabrina and know you will be too!  I highly recommend following her on twitter, too.

Tell me about the first hour of your day? (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)

During the week the first hour of the day is all about getting the kids up and going, and getting out the door. My husband and I have an agreement where I get to work early, and he deals with most of the morning routine, and then I get home earlier and deal with the afternoon and dinner But it means in about an hour I get, up, help the kids get dressed, make beds, get showered, dressed, ready for work, and make sure our nanny has a note (written in Spanish) with everything going on for the day. I use Google Docs for the notes for our nanny, so that when I travel I can still write the notes and my husband can print them out.

Of course this is assuming that the 3 boys cooperate, and no one has a “fit” as we call them in our house. My 4 year old has recently been particularly difficult, so stubborn about things –like whether he is going to wear a sweatshirt when it is still only 45 degrees outside. Being that he is the baby, I know that too often I excuse his actions because he is a “baby” and because we need to all get out of the house. The older boys are not buying this anymore (and they are right), and I am working on dealing with the baby as a little boy, and not a baby anymore.

Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed? What is it?

Working in a tech company, and in the northwest, I really have it pretty easy. When I have meetings with outside people, I dress up, but that still just means nice black pants/skirt and a nice top or jacket. Black is the majority of my closet, besides jeans, making it easy to make sure everything matches and looks business appropriate, no matter what. Most days I wear jeans and nice tops. As I have gotten older I definitely need to deal with my hair and make up more, which is absolutley the most time consuming part of my routine. 10 years ago I could get away with leaving the house with wet hair, some lip gloss and eyeliner. Those days are long gone.

How do you and your spouse resolve conflicts about scheduling?

We use a Google calendar. We can both see all of our work commitments on it, and then we have a shared “kids and home” calendar. If it doesn’t get on the calendar, it is likely not to happen.

Red is my calendar, orange is my husband’s, and purple is the “kids ad home” calendar. For the most part, I get to work early, and need to be home by 4:45. He gets home by 6. Occasionally when we both have something in the evening, we try and plan ahead, with our nanny, some babysitters, or if they can, my parents, who live in town.

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Do you second-guess yourself? What do you do when that happens?

All the time. When the kids were younger, I had more emotional “mommy guilt” and second-guessed myself about what seems now like such little things. Things like temper tantrums, and whether or not to give in to a toddler, etc. Now I feel like the issues are bigger, as the kids are older. Do you let a kid deal with a problem with another child on his own? Do you step in and talk to the other kid’s parents? How much do you help with homework, vs letting them do (or not do it) on their own? Is it worth the fight to make the 2nd grader do all the extra credit homework? Are we filling the kids schedules up with too many extracurricular activities? Or not enough? In Eugene, OR there are not great private school options, so the kids go to public school. In order to get music, and sports they have to do it outside of school. And then there are the language classes, and extra math classes (their public school classes are 25-30 kids, too big for individual math attention) etc..

 What time do you go to bed?

I usually got to bed around 11pm. I really try hard to make it to bed by 10pm, but by the time the kids are in bed and asleep (with ages from 4-10 years old, bedtime is spaced from 7:45-8:45 or 9pm during the school year), and I finish any work I need to do, it is usually already 10 or 10:30. And then I need a little downtime before I can actually go to bed.

Do you exercise? If so, when?

I am trying to make time 3 times during the week at lunch. This means booking the time on my calendar so that I don’t book lunch meetings, and other people in my office don’t book me either. Weekend are always really active with the boys, skiing every weekend in the winter, and then hiking, running, biking, kayaking ,etc the rest of the year.

Do you cook dinner for your kids? Do you have go-to dishes you can recommend?

I try. We don’t always have food in the fridge, if I haven’t had a chance to get to the supermarket. During the winter we ski, and don’t get home until Sunday night at about 8-9pm. It makes it hard to go grocery shopping and get enough food ready for the week. Sometimes Monday night we go out to dinner to a local healthy kid-friendly restaurant that is right next door to the grocery store so that we can shop for the rest of the week.

When I cook, I do fall into a routine menu for the week, as I usually have not had time to meal/menu plan before I go to the grocery store. Some go-to dishes everyone in our family likes:

  1. Roasted chicken with veggies I get a whole chicken and put it in a roasting pan the night before. I put baby potatoes, sweet potatoes, baby carrots, onions, and some garlic in the pan along with the chicken, and the use olive oil, paprika, and smoke salt to rub the chicken, and I put 1 cup of chicken broth (store bought) in the pan on the veggies. I put the chicken in the oven as soon as I get home at 4:45, and then can run around getting kids to and rom swim practice, and extra curricular, so dinner is ready to eat around 6:30ish. It takes so little time to prep, cooks all by itself without me needing to watch it (I use a timer on the oven) and is a healthy dish with protein and veggies
  2. A taco bar. I use corn tortillas, as they are healthier, not to mention more authentic. I get nice thinly sliced steak at the market to make carne asada tacos. I slice avocados, warm up some black beans (from a can- but organic and low sodium), chop tomatoes, grate cheese, slice some limes, and of course get some yummy fresh salsa, if possible from the Mexican market. The kids can then make their own tacos.

Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?

Because I have worked their whole lives they see it as normal. If I get really busy, and book too many evening meetings (I usually try to book evening meetings at 7pm so that I can get home and do the late afternoon/dinner routine) they quickly tell me it is too much, and I pull back. Sometime I get the “why don’t you pick me up at school- all the other moms pick up their kids”, but really the kids actually don’t do that more than a few times a year. Occasionally they realize that other moms don’t work, and then we have conversations about why I work, and why that is best for me and our family.

The hardest part is when I travel for business. I have to travel for work, and I hate it and the kids hate it. Its not crazy travel, but I do end up flying between 30,000-60,000 miles per year. When the kids were babies and nursing, my mom would come with me and the nursing baby would come. Then they got to the age where they were really hard to travel with, and I didn’t absolutely need to bring them anymore, as I was not nursing them anymore. Now as they get a little older, I try and bring 1 boy with me at a time, if my meeting schedule permits it. The older boys (almost 8 and 10) can sit quietly for an hour or so that I am in a meeting using their kindles and reading (or lets be honest, probably playing Minecraft). I let the person I’m meeting with know ahead of time, and everyone has been great about it. There are times of course when this doesn’t work—and I have too much going on, and I can’t bring anyone with me. I am actually writing this after being at a conference for 4 nights that was crazy busy and just not something I could pull off with kids without help. My mom was not available, so I just had to suck it up and go alone. It’s hard to call and have the kids miss me so much, and it’s hard to miss out on the everyday with them, and miss them so much.

What is the single piece of advice you would give another working mother?

Don’t apologize for being a mom. Working moms have to work together to show that we can work just as hard, bring a different viewpoint to the table than other people, and given the right flexibility will always go the extra mile and work as hard or harder than anyone else.

Corporate America needs to change, and we need to get more women in leadership roles. This means we need to figure out how to not “Mommy Track” people who could be our best leaders. From 35-45 years old is when men achieve leadership roles. Not surprisingly, from 35-45, women are often juggling babies and small kids. Their careers are often what they give up. I absolutely don’t judge a woman who makes that choice willingly, but too often I know women feel forced to do it because they are in positions with absolutely no support or flexibility.

And, inspired by Vanity Fair, a few quick glimpses into your life:

Favorite artist?

Right now, my older sons who go to a French immersion School, have been really into Matisse. I have been sharing their passion.

Favorite jeans?

I currently have a few pairs from Black House White Market that fit great, look great, and if they get ruined from something from the kids (wet paint on hands, Gatorade spilled, glitter glue that somehow doesn’t come off, etc.), are inexpensive enough that its not a big deal.

Shampoo you use?

Alba. Its organic, no sulfites, has a great coconut version for volume that works for my hair. I can also get it at our natural grocery store. I’m a no frills type of girl!

Favorite book?

Ahh to be able to find time to read. The last book I read was called “The Power of Habit” a great read, but really a business book, read for the book club we run at my company. The most recent fiction I read was Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a beautiful book, and inspiring. I love historical fiction and this book is just amazing.

Favorite quote?

“You don’t get what you wish for, you get what your work for”- The motto of my 2 older sons’ swim team.

Favorite musician?

The kids and I are digging Bruno Mars

Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children?

The kids and I all love their basketball shorts. They are comfortable, inexpensive, sporty, and easy to wash. I also love summer when the kids can just throw on flip-flops. No shoes to tie, easy to get on, and even the 4 year old knows which go on which foot.

Thank you, Sabrina!


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  1. Posted June 30, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I love reading how other people get it all done! And I must say, I think my favorite part of this is the swim team motto- “You don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for.”- Love that and need the reminder today!

  2. skt
    Posted June 30, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Learning how to comment directly on your blog as opposed to always emailing 🙂 I love this series, thank you! And I love this post. Especially the quote, “You don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for.” Perfect. Thanks!

  3. Posted June 30, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Love, love, love the shared calendars (although ours is paper). I’ve been doing that for years and have even trained my boys to do it as well. My saying to them has always been, “If it’s not on the calendar, then it doesn’t exist.”

  4. Posted July 17, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I love these posts. So inspiring!