Parenthood

Stuck in a Professional Rut? Try Cocooning.

How the author of The Likeability Trap radically changed the way she worked

Three years ago, nine months pregnant with my first child, I left a very public-facing job as an anchor and correspondent at a fledgling cable network, and began investing in several long tail projects. It was a lot of change all at once, and the shift was unnerving. After years of building a public profile, I worried that not constantly being on television, at events, and sharing those exploits on social media would render me irrelevant (whether I was actually “relevant” at the time I expressed these anxieties is another matter altogether). Without a tie to an organization or institution, what, for example, was I supposed to put in my Twitter bio? When I reached out for interviews, how would I quickly explain who I was and why I was calling? Who was I without the context of being an employee of a place that people knew of, even if they didn’t know me? 

To complicate matters, I was becoming a mother. Prior to my first daughter’s arrival, unable to imagine the way motherhood might expand my definition of self, I instead focused on the way it would contract who I was in the eyes of others. My entire identity — an ambitious woman, a Jersey girl, an introvert who had perfected the art of the Irish goodbye — would, I worried,  suddenly be rendered secondary to my identity as a parent.   

Prior to my first daughter’s arrival, unable to imagine the way motherhood might expand my definition of self, I instead focused on the way it would contract who I was in the eyes of others.

At the time, I shared my concern with my friend Janet Mock. As I explained my reservations about shifting gears, Janet said to me, reassuringly, “You’re cocooning.” I loved the expression. I wasn’t disappearing; I was metamorphosing. 

At first I understood cocooning in the context of the work I’d produce during that period: a docuseries pilot, a book, a screenplay and a podcast. The payoff, the stretching of my wings, would be in the subsequent output. I’d put my head down, do the quiet labor out of view, and then enjoy the delayed gratification of sharing that work with others. 

What I didn’t anticipate is that in that metamorphosis, the grand reveal was actually the ways I would change. 

What I didn’t anticipate is that in that metamorphosis, the grand reveal was actually the ways I would change. 

After years of working for others, I was for the first time creating things that I partially owned. I was responsible for everything from the partners I chose to the realities of financing and budgets. That control brought with it humility. For the podcast, Latina to Latina, I act as the show’s booker — identifying potential guests, finding their representatives, and pitching them on the prospect of joining us. At the beginning, there were lots of unanswered emails. Then, guests started saying yes. As each episode was recorded, produced and published, our listens and downloads ticked up. The show’s co-owner and Executive Producer, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams and I constantly analyze our listens and downloads for insights about our community, and adjust the program mix accordingly. Our expansion includes repeat advertisers, merchandise, and live events. We’re doing more than producing; we’re building a business.

The next change took more time to take hold. Raised online and entering the workforce alongside the advent of social media, I understood sharing as a requirement of the modern professional age. Freed from the perceived professional necessity of social media, I didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every cultural and political moment on Twitter. I was happy to amplify the voices of those who really had something to say. Freed up from that expectation and slowly weaned from those platforms (it turns out your thumb will search for an app long after you’ve deleted it off your phone!) I realized how much happier I was, and how much more engaged I was able to be in my life offline. Instead of exclusively soaking in the hot takes of Internet strangers, I found myself probing those in my real life for their perspectives on everything from news stories to unpopular food opinions. (Turns out, I have a friend who believes you should pour the milk into the bowl before the cereal. Have you ever heard of such a thing?)

Then, there was my shift in perspective around what work looks and feels like. After years of producing live television, my professional metabolism was accustomed to a daily diet of building a rundown, booking guests and writing scripts. Shifting my energy to something like writing a book, something that couldn’t be completed in one day, forced me to learn how to work well without the pressure of an immediate deadline. I learned to sit back, to give myself the time and space to think, and to recognize that process as a part of the work. 

Finally, I didn’t disappear into motherhood, but I did change. Two months after I gave birth, I traveled for several days to film a pilot. I was working with a new crew, people who I’d never worked with prior to being a mom. I wanted to make a good impression, to be my pre-baby grab-and-go self. I was exclusively nursing, but worried that asking for time and space to pump would make me seem fussy. The result was a low-grade headache from waiting too long to pump, then finally pumping in dive bar bathrooms, and cursing my lack of planning as I dumped milk on highways because there was no way to keep it cool over the course of a 14-hour shoot. That experience was illuminating. My needs had changed, and I would have to learn to assert those needs to others. Plus, the work-life fit wasn’t as I had imagined it. I both loved working and loved returning home to my baby. I felt compelled by both in equal measure. I wasn’t fitting a baby into my work life or fitting work into my home life, I was trying to find a way to do two things I love deeply in tandem.  

I wasn’t fitting a baby into my work life or fitting work into my home life, I was trying to find a way to do two things I love deeply in tandem.  

The drawback to shifting gears is obvious: what if your gears get stuck and can never be unstuck? What if the work never becomes what you hope it will be? What if you change and decide you preferred who and what you were before? The beauty of cocooning is that the result is not a final product; it’s a process of being and becoming that offers a shift in perspective on the work — and on yourself. 

Alicia Menendez is an MSNBC weekend anchor and host of the Latina to Latina podcast. Her first book, The Likeability Trap, is out now.