Most people assume an engineering degree and career just prepares you for a technical job. But when I made the transition from career woman to career mother, I learned that many of the skills I'd established as an engineer had prepared me for the adventure of parenthood. Being a parent, like being an engineer, was more about sticking things through than getting things right the first time. As my son grew older and I became a more experienced parent, I learned to use the skills I had as an engineer to my style of parenting. Keep reading to learn how engineering taught me about parenthood .
Experience is Better Than Book Knowledge
Once I graduated with my engineering degree, I was pretty impressed with myself. I had completed a very difficult degree that included over 100 hours of math and science classes. I felt like I could tackle any technical problem that came my way! During my first job at a plant, however, I quickly learned that I knew NOTHING. I would look at a process and take hours figuring out what was going on, then come up with several options. I then brought my list to the mechanics and they would immediately know which one would work. I didn't understand how they knew the answer so quickly. I mean, I had the college degree! But what I learned was that all my classes didn't add up to the years of on-the-job training these mechanics had. They had seen anything and everything that could go wrong and figured out what worked.
Similarly, when I became a first-time parent, I read all the parenting and newborn sleeping books and Googled all I could about having a baby. I thought I knew what I was in for. But once that baby arrived, it was like my first job out of college all over again. But this time, I didn't fight it. I threw all I had read and researched out the window, and my husband and I started trying to figure this parenting thing out together.
Quiet Means Something Bad is Happening
Working in a factory, an engineer becomes used to the noises and sounds from the machinery. When working at a factory that made diapers, I could tell if a piece of equipment was out of balance or not set correctly by the sound it made when it was running. The sounds of the machines working was a comforting background music to my day. But when the factory floor is quiet that means something went wrong and the equipment is off for some reason.
My 2-year-old taught me this also holds true as a parent. Recently, I had the audacity to take a shower. He didn't want to be locked in the bathroom, so I let him out. Bad decision. My toddler is not a quiet kid. Whether he's playing with dough or drawing a picture, he's always making noise. So when I got out of the shower and didn't hear his usual sounds I feared the worst and ran for the living room. Guess what I found? He had drawn in permanent marker on the tile, walls, couch, and a Kindle! Lesson learned. Always keep the toddler locked up where you can see him.
You Don't Have Weekends Anymore
The weekend in college starts Thursday night unless you're an engineering student. My sophomore year I lived with a non-engineering major and every Thursday thru Saturday night I would watch her as she headed out to a party each night while I headed to a study group or project team meeting. Of course, I had my nights of house parties and listening to local bands, but these nights were more like special events, rather than my regular weekend activities.
So my loss of freedom as a parent was a little easier for me than others. As the song says, "everybody works for the weekend." Weekends are full of happy hours and late nights. But when you have a newborn, you no longer dictate your own schedule— You're controlled by the whims of a tiny person.
When you have a newborn, you no longer dictate your own schedule— You're controlled by the whims of a tiny person.
Trial and Error is Your New BFF
A part of becoming an engineer is getting comfortable with failure and how to learn quickly. So when trying to solve a problem out there in the real world, you usually come up with some fails before you find the actual solution. Each time you fail, you learn a little bit more, which leads you to the right answer.
Parenting is very much the same. Right now I have a 6-month-old, and it seems every time I "figure" him out, he changes. Like his sleep schedule. When he was born, he woke up like every 45 minutes. I went to his one week checkup and turns out he wasn't getting enough to eat, so I increased his milk and he slept longer. Then at about 4 months, he stopped sleeping again so we tried a few different things and he eventually started sleeping well again. Most recently, he started waking up screaming with really bad gas at about 11:30 p.m. and not wanting to go back to sleep. I tried changing what I fed him for dinner and that failed, so I tried removing all solids, and that failed too. I talked to a friend, gathered some new data, and eventually decided to stop giving him solids for lunch. Voila! Now he's sleeping well again, and so are mom and dad.
Learning to Survive on Coffee and Little Sleep is a Must
Everyone has those crazy late night college stories, but those stories are a little different for engineers. Ours involve multiple trips to the local coffee shop so we can stay up all night to finish our final projects that are due on Monday. Or late night study groups because you have five tests the following week, before Wednesday. Engineering students become used to functioning on 5 hours of sleep and a steady flow of caffeine.
I can't explain how helpful learning to function on little to no sleep is to being a parent. From newborns to stomach viruses and nightmares, kids seem to never sleep. Now with three kids, even if I can get one to take a nap another one is still awake, so there's no napping for this mama. But it's all good, just put on another pot of coffee!
You're Surrounded by Illogical People
Engineers are all about logic. I remember being frustrated with people I worked with when they made decisions because of a "gut" feel, or because they had some emotional connection to their solution. I was all about "What did the data show us?" or "What historical information did we have that would lead us to the right answer?" Gut feelings and emotional connections made no sense to me. This was work people — There's what works, and what doesn't. But I had to learn to work with these people. I learned to listen to them, and lead them to the logical answer. I stopped insisting my answer was the only answer (even though it was right) and went down the wrong turns with the team until I learned patience.
This patience is exactly what I needed to parent a toddler. Talk about someone who is emotionally attached to a decision! He wants this unopened juice and not the exact same one mommy just opened. He wants the toy that big brother has, not the exact same one mommy is giving him. He wants to wear the orange shoes and refuses to put on the blue ones that match his outfit. None of these make any sense but result in screaming and tantrums if you choose poorly. Don't get me wrong, I still correct the toddler, but sometimes it's just not worth the fight. Sometimes I just go ahead and open the juice box, then drink the one I had already opened.
You Need to Set Expectations
I really learned to manage others' expectations when I was a project engineer for a small company. When I first started, I said yes to any request people made. I figured it was a great way to learn the work process, and understand everyone's roles. It was but eventually I became the only project engineer and I could no longer do anything other than what my job required. It really was flight or fight! I also learned to be realistic about when I would be able to complete work. I knew my priorities (family first) wouldn't allow me to work crazy long hours, so I let people know exactly when I would finish things. I also let them know that I was not available between the hours of 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., the time I had to spend with my son. Managing people's expectations made sure people could trust me when I told them I would have something to them by a certain time, because I also told them when I couldn't help them.
As a parent, I found I also needed to manage my son's expectations. We went to Build -A-Bear the other day because they were having a special where you could build a pre-selected stuffed dog for only $5. I decided this would be something fun to do before daddy came home from work, so I told my oldest about it and he was excited! I also let him know that he was only allowed to get the $5 animal, so if there was any whining of any sort we would just walk out. So we get to the store and he's of course drawn to the expensive stuffed characters from his favorite show. I reminded him what I said, and he walks directly over to the $5 bin and picks out his puppy. No complaining, no whining, no negotiating. The toddler, on the other hand, is a different story. . .
Murphy's Law Can't Be Escaped
Murphy's Law is the belief of what can go wrong will go wrong. My husband (who was also a project engineer early in his career) was running a project where they were installing new equipment into an existing building. He managed the project schedule and budget to make sure the equipment would start several weeks ahead of schedule and come in under budget. He managed the design of the building using the drawings provided by the project site to ensure accuracy. Everything was in place to start construction, and then Murphy hit. Right in the middle of where the machinery was to be installed was a structural building beam! My husband checked the drawings of the building provided and the beam wasn't on the drawings. He and the project team had to redesign everything right there during the installation.
My experience as a parent has been so similar to my husband's project — Especially with the arrival of our third boy. I had always planned to have two kids and that was it. I even had my tubes tied to make sure of it. That's what I thought anyways. But a year and a half after having kid #2, the stick showed two blue lines. WHAT?!?! After the initial shock wore off, we just rolled with it. Engineering and parenthood have taught me that I can plan all I want, but sometimes Murphy just shows up.
How to Keep Calm
When Murphy shows up it's important the engineer stays calm because how she reacts to a situation sets the tone for how everyone else will react. Unfortunately, a fellow engineer recently learned this the hard way. He works in a plant and where a compressor in the facility stopped working due to maintenance neglect and since this is a critical piece of equipment to the process he became flustered and started playing the blame game. Others took offense to his accusations and things got heated quickly. Had he stayed calm and focused on working with the team to get the equipment back up and running, no feelings would have been hurt and a proper analysis of what went wrong could have been done.
I'm so glad I learned to stay calm before becoming a parent — Especially since I'm a mom to three boys who always seem to be falling and getting hurt. I learned early on to not react immediately to their accidents. Instead of running to them and immediately picking them up, I first ask them if they're OK so that they think about it instead of crying. Most of the time they realize they're not hurt and get back to playing. With my accident-prone boys, if I stay calm, then they stay calm.
Being an engineer before becoming a parent prepared me in ways I could never have imagined. If only I had been a parent first . . . maybe I could have avoided a lot of the mistakes I made early in my career. Eh . . . probably not.
Christy worked as an engineer for over 10 years before making the leap to stay home and raise her three rambunctious boys. But once an engineer, always an engineer. Now she loves to teach her sons about the world through the eyes of an engineer and share her experiences at From Engineer to Stay at Home Mom.