Working While Parenting: A Conversation with Johnson & Johnson's Christina Tovar

Mentorship is a core component of the Data Science for All (DS4A) model, but it doesn’t stop at how to manage a database or run a regression analysis. It’s about helping our Fellows build their careers holistically—which includes integrating that career with the rest of their lives.

In today's world, many working professionals face the challenge of balancing their career aspirations with the responsibilities of parenthood. It’s a juggling act that can be particularly daunting for those who are striving to excel in both their personal and professional lives.

Christina Tovar is is Director of Quality Systems Automation in the Emerging Technologies and Solutions Group within the Enterprise Quality and Compliance Organization of Johnson & Johnson. She’s also a mom of four, ranging from two-and-a-half to ten, and a mentor with DS4A. Recently, Christina joined us to discuss her experiences working while parenting and how she manages integrating these important dimensions of her life. We share some of the highlights of Christina’s insights below. 

Note: The following responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

On how being a working parent has made her better at her job 

A big thing is my ability to prioritize. At a company like J&J, we’re gigantic, so there's so much that you could be working on. It really requires you to focus your attention, not only from a project perspective, but even just what meetings I accept on my calendar, what people I network with. A lot of that becomes much more laser focused when I know that I have family at home and other responsibilities that I have to take care of, and I don't have that benefit of doing it later.  I need to be able to figure out how to do it now.

I think working parents make some of the best kind of employees because while you're trying to manage a lot, you're also doing it with a really clear purpose.

Share the mental burden

There are things that we do on a short term and a long term basis. Every night, before we go to bed, I look at my calendar, and my husband looks at his calendar, and we see what's going on. I've also color coded the things on my calendar that are related to my kids’ stuff. We actually have a family digital calendar, so my kids and my husband and myself can always see the to-do list items. It's worked really well to take some of that mental load off of myself, which I think is a big challenge. Even when you start to split actual physical duties, it does tend to be that one person over the other carries more of the mental burden of what needs to happen. Now we all have the same information.

Know what is a must-do

[Juggling work and parenting] is about figuring out what on your schedule for that day is an absolute must do. There are some meetings that feel super important. But is it actually necessary to happen on that day? The first thing that I do at the first sign of a kid needing to stay home is to evaluate my calendar as quickly as possible, and to see what can be pushed.

The key is being able to look at your schedule and prioritize and be honest with yourself. If you were to ask me, “What can I not do tomorrow?” I'm going to tell you, “Nothing, I have to do all of this.” But when you're really up against a wall and you have to look at what you need to move, I think that's when you start to ask yourself slightly different questions about whether or not something has to happen. 

Lean on your village

Kids benefit from having other caretakers in their lives. Having them build strong relationships with others, not just with me, helps them to be more well-rounded individuals. I always tell my friends that you need a village. My husband and I are not from San Diego, we don't have the benefit of having an extended family nearby to help support us with childcare. So we've created our own village — other parents who are in the same boat, friends that we know, friends of our kids or families, we're always trying to support each other.

Treat life like a work problem

I look at my life the way that I look at business processes. Where do I have inefficiency? Where do I have things that are just taking up so much time that I can't seem to manage? For example, I make lunch for my kids every day. And the way that I have found that works best for me is I actually make lunches for two days at one time. Why should the socks be all the way upstairs in their bedroom when they need them downstairs by their shoes? We have employed different systems for putting things in the places where we need them.

It’s about tackling [life] as it comes and being creative the same way you would be at work with a problem. Brainstorm, try something out. We pilot things. If it doesn't work, we come back and we revise it.

Take turns in the backseat

My husband is a full time working professional as well, so we've had a lot of career conversations. In our view, we haven't seen it work well where both partners are trying to accelerate their career at the same time when there are kids involved. So one of you takes a little bit of a backseat for a period of time. It doesn't mean that you're taking that back seat forever. Maybe it's for six months while a big project is going on for your partner. It's just being able to talk about those ebbs and flows, where you need more support versus less support, and what is the best thing for your overall family unit, when you're working towards your career. 

On going back to work after a prolonged break 

Ignore everything that's sitting in your inbox. Ignore all the stuff that you missed and just start fresh. A lot of the time, things resolve themselves. So there's no point in going back to that email that you got last year and trying to figure out where it is.

Some advice I've heard from top leaders is, if somebody really needs it from you, they'll come back to you. If they haven't gotten it, and they really need it, they'll be back. So there's no sense in spending all that time and energy going through stuff that's old. Put them all in a different folder and just start fresh. Meet up with the network that you need to start moving forward back into your meetings. But just get
started and start a little slow, right? Give yourself some grace that you've been out and that you're going to need to catch up.

And don't be afraid to tell people that. You get a little bit of a grace period when you come back. People are willing to give you that benefit of the doubt.

On balancing “the three marriages” 

I recently took a leadership development course at J&J where they introduced the concept of the three marriages, based on a book by David Whyte. The three marriages are your marriage to self, your marriage to work, and your marriage to others. “Others” can be your spouse, your kids, your community, your church, your school. What really resonated with me was that you are impoverishing them all if you impoverish one. It's not necessarily that life is about some type of work-life balance, it's more about expressing who you are in these different ways and through these different marriages.

I have definitely had times in my career where I've thought, “Should I bow out and be a stay at home mom?” My kids are young, they grow so fast, and maybe I'm not getting to be a part of things as much as I want. But then at the end of the day I know I wouldn't be the person I am if I wasn't working. I get so much satisfaction from my job. I love the challenges that I'm faced with everyday. I love the people and the collaboration. And I also don't necessarily think that it would be the best thing for my kids or my family. They wouldn't be getting that best version of me if I did not work.

I think it's about understanding what it means when I say I'm going to be the best parent I can be. That doesn't mean smothering my kids and doing everything for them. It's about preparing them for who they are, and who they're going to be, and how they can be most successful at that. I think the example that I provide just by me working is a big part of that.


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