The Coffee Chat (#32)
My conversation with TJ Muehleman - Founder, Standard Co, Nacho aficionado, Writer and Dad to two girls under 6!
Welcome to the new subscribers who have joined us since the last post. Today this email is going out to 842 amazing individuals!
If you’re reading this but haven’t subscribed, you may want to consider doing that. This will ensure future posts land straight in your inbox (and it is free!!)
Hi there 👋🏽
One of those clichés that get thrown around parents who also have another job is that they are like jugglers. They always have a few balls up in the air. This last week our household has been living that cliché (and at this point it feels like all the balls are up in the air!) …work has been very busy, Toddler T has an upset stomach and a runny nose, I feel under the weather, work travel is resuming, a sitter cancelled on us last minute…etc etc.
At this point it is very clear to me that some balls will drop. I keep reminding myself that it needs to be the plastic ones and not the crystal (once shattered can never be repaired)! …(no fresh food maybe just takeout all of next week?)
If there is one thing I have learned from all my chats in the last 2 years it is this - you have got to be comfortable with trade-offs. You can have everything …but not all at once.
Time to make choices and actually put those wise words into practice.
☕ Now, on to today’s coffee chat…
Meet TJ Muehleman
TJ and I meant each other on a writer’s group.
TJ is the founder and CEO of a data analytics company that primarily works in global health. He help orgs like the CDC, WHO, and ministries of health throughout Africa make sense of their data.
While his day job is pretty cool, TJ tells me his favorite job is being dad to his two wonderful daughters 5 year old Lillian and 3 year old Nora.
Below is my conversation with TJ…
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your family
Hi, I’m TJ and live outside of Seattle. I met my wife Megan when we both lived in Atlanta. She told me the PNW is beautiful and convinced me to move here 4 years ago by taking me out on a boat on one of the prettiest days of the year. I was immediately sold. What I did not know at the time is that Seattle only has 17 pretty days a year. Alas, it’s still a really nice place to live. We have two girls, Lillian (5) and Nora (3).
When I’m not cooking dinner or pretending to work in our garden or trying to teach my kids how to breakdance, I run a data analytics company that primarily works in global health. I help orgs like the CDC, WHO, and ministries of health throughout Africa make sense of their data. Since I started the company 9 years ago, I've had the good fortune to travel to over 30 countries, meet with folks at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, present to large audiences in Germany, and help establish data management techniques in several low and middle income countries. I’ve also taken a very wild fishing trip off the coast of Kenya, helped push a car out of a creek in rural Botswana, and played fusball at an urban market in The Republic of Congo. It’s a pretty neat job.
I’ve started to spend more time reflecting on parenthood after my family and I took a 4 month road trip last year that took us to 10 states, 8 national parks, and 9,399 miles on the road. It was an amazing (and grueling) road trip that had me taking on primary parenting responsibilities (while also running a small company). The experience led me to start writing a book about the trip (I’m about half way through!) and a newsletter (more on that below)
For you what was the hardest part of becoming a new parent? How is this different with your second child :) ?
100% no question the hardest part about being a parent is giving up so much of your self, your time, your freedom to take care of these little terrors. Giving up hobbies and the ability to just go wherever you want whenever you want takes some adjusting! But I will say giving up those things was relatively easy for me. I waited until I was almost 40 to have children. And waiting that long means I got a lot of the things that drive FOMO out of my system. I traveled a lot, went out a lot, met a lot of amazing people before I had children. So when we started a family, I was ready to be settled.
The challenge that arrived with our second child is that all of a sudden, our kid expenses doubled over night. Have you SEEN what daycare costs in the US? It’s downright criminal. Adding a second kid to that mix means we had a second mortgage just for daycare expenses. Travel became a lot harder, etc, etc. The good news is this only lasts a few years. My kids are now 3 and 5 and it feels like in the last 5 or 6 months we’ve turned a corner in how much easier things feel.
After becoming a parent did you adopt any new beliefs, behaviors, or habits that have most improved your life?
The biggest change for me came in prioritizing life over work. I don’t really think of myself as a workaholic but owning your own business does put unique pressures on you 24/7. Before kids, I had a difficult time not working for a few hours on saturday and sunday mornings or doing some work while on vacation. Kids forced me to recalibrate what was important and to realize that the dream of building a big company wasn’t going to be my path to happiness.
I’ve also prioritized my health. The men in my family don’t exactly have a solid longevity streak and considering I started a family later than most (i was almost 40 when my oldest was born) I decided to focus on getting in better shape so I could hopefully be around to watch my kids grow old.
Did you take any form of paternity leave? If yes, how was the transition back to work?
I kinda sorta did. I’m a big believer in very friendly family leave. We’ve supported people at my company taking family leave and will continue to do so. But as a CEO of a small company, it was *really* hard to. Not because I didn’t want to spend time with my family, but because at a company with fewer than 10 people, there’s really no backup for me on a day to day basis. So I took a few weeks but still checked in almost daily. But, for a small company, I’m proud that we offer this benefit to our team. Paternity leave is 6 weeks and maternity leave is 10-12 weeks.
The biggest challenge that working parents with young kids have is limited time for themselves. How have you managed this? What are you doing to manage your energy?
Hmmm, sleep less? Lots of guarana shots? Ok, kidding, I actually think my wife and I have a pretty good solution to this. We have on duty / off duty nights. For example, Mondays and Wednesdays are my nights to pick up the kids, bathe them, do story time, and put them to bed. And my wife has Tuesdays / Thursdays (we tag team weekends). This gives us two nights a week where we have 3-4 hours to ourselves each night to do as we please. I usually spend the time writing or going to get a beer with one of my buddies. My wife will be headed to dinner tonight with a girlfriend of hers. We don’t need to clear it with our partner to make these plans; we just know what nights we’re “on duty”.
We also afford each other a weekend away 2-3 times a year with friends. This is concentrated time to not have to worry about kids knowing that our partner is back home holding it down. I find these short little weekends away to be particularly energizing. I think the key to all of this is not being greedy with our time. When I’m on duty, I’m on duty. Same with my wife. I think the takeaway here is you have to be deliberate when prioritizing yourself. I’ve found that when I’m remembering to have a healthy amount of me time, I’m a parent and partner.
What choices have you and your partner made that have helped you become a dual career household with children?
Parking our respective egos at the door has really helped. The common theme for past generations was that the male was the breadwinner. And despite being a pretty liberally open minded person, I struggled early on in my relationship knowing that my wife’s career path would (and has) eclipse mine. She’s the primary money earner in our house and I’m totally supportive of that. But I do think that modern families have to make difficult choices in deciding that one parent will be able to pursue their work ambitions while the other can still work, but might not be able to take the aggressive line towards success and promotion that the other one will. That is, of course, you decide to outsource your parenting to a full time nanny or something. We’ve decided that’s not our path.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investment you have made after becoming a parent?
Ok don’t laugh but I actually wrote about this in one of my newsletters but I have to say it was a good Sonos setup in our house (I’m totally serious). We listen to a lot of music in the house (90s rap if my wife is picking. Indie rock if I’m picking) and we had a handful of Alexas strewn about. They sucked so hard at playing music or actually working that we finally took the plunge and spent some decent money on music. And given that we would much rather introduce our girls to good music (my good music i mean), it’s been a great investment.
Other positive investments I’ve made since having kids: exercise, consistent sleep (930 bed time / 5am wake up time for the win), occasional counseling sessions when stress takes a hold of me, an ebike, nice socks.
Traditionally a lot of fathers were not very engaged or so as you say "engagement was around how to be the fun dad. Mom bore the biggest responsibility (and still does in many families!) and ended up having to play the bad cop". Would love to hear more here. Why was this so formative and pushed you to do parenthood differently? You say I wanted a true parenting partner, not someone I could dump all the hard tasks on while I taught the kids how to shoot fireworks at each other (something my dad actually did). Accordingly to you what does being an involved parent mean, especially a father?
I think I could write a book on this question. My parents divorced when I was 8 and that experience has been one of the more transformative of my life for several reasons. My dad loved us but he was mostly absent when I was a kid. He worked in the restaurant business which can have a grueling schedule with lots of nights, weekends, and holidays. I’ve always liked kids and knew at a young age I wanted to one day be a parent. So after my parents’ divorce, I knew then that I wanted to be a different kind of dad. I wanted to be present. I wanted to show up to things and help with homework and be the little league coach.
But i also think it’s more than just being present (which leads to the second part of your question). I think because I was mostly raised by a single mom (with amazing help from my older sister) I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the toxic masculinity that has (and still) pervades our culture. I learned that its ok to be vulnerable, to be honest, to admit when you have shortcomings. I learned that self awareness is key. I’m hoping to show my daughters that being an involved dad is not just about being present, but about how to demonstrate being a whole person, flaws and all.
Would love to hear more about your passion project 21st century dad?
I had originally created 21st Century Dad as a way to share the stories from our 4 month road trip last year. We set off in March and hit 10 states, 8 national parks, and drove 9,399 miles over the course of our trip. We did this trip while both working and since my wife’s job is a bit less flexible than mine, I ended up taking care of the kids a bit more than she did. So it was a trip full of adventures, hikes, finding really random weird things to gawk at, and everything in between. But the newsletter has morphed a bit to be more generalist than just telling stories from that trip. I now share stories of my childhood (“My dad’s war on McDonald’s” has been a fan favorite), stories from our roadtrip (“The Pracitcal Guide to Hiking with Small Children”), or my thoughts on 80s dads (“Bob Saget and the Xennial Sitcom dad”).
All of the stories center somehow on dads and their interactions with their children. I try to highlight how fatherhood has changed from when I was a kid and from previous generations where dad’s role was mostly for discipline and entertainment. How the long overdo role of women in the workplace is pushing many men to participate more at home. And I’m trying to do this with something that’s one part jokey dad and one part serious dad.
What advice would you give others who are on the cusp of becoming dads? What advice should they ignore?
I think the best advice I got right after my oldest was born was from a fellow dad who said to me “you’re going to feel helpless. And that’s ok. Your job is to do everything you possibly can to make Megan and the baby comfortable for at least the first few months. Because in that “fourth trimester”, the baby wants and physically needs mom. And for a lot of modern men who want to feel useful, you’re going to spend a lot of time sitting on the sidelines feeling kind of helpless. So do the laundry, take the dogs for walks, be supportive, and most importantly, be a good listener”.
What’s the best thing you have watched recently?
Station Eleven on HBO. I just can’t say enough about how much I loved this show. Before I had kids, watching any child on a tv show in a vulnerable position had me on the edge of tears. But now that I have kids? Sheesh, this show just raked me over the coals! I think the show is about hope and determination and how kids are much stronger and more able than we realize. I saw my daughters in the main character, a tough and resilient girl who grows into an adult.
What’s the best thing you read recently?
I was particularly fond of this article about how Germans raise their children. It really jives with our style of parenting: independence is important, letting kids wander and explore makes them into inquisitive and curious humans, and that our job as parents is to guide and steer them while not living their lives for them. I really love that. It also speaks to what I see my goal is as a parent: to give them the skills as early as possible to be a strong, independent person.
What’s the best thing you have listened to recently?
I’ve long been a huge fan of the band War on Drugs. They kinda fit into that #dadrock genre with Wilco, Tom Petty, My Morning Jacket, etc. They recently released a new album “I don’t live here anymore” and the ending track, Occasional Rain, has been on a near constant loop since last October. It’s the kind of music I want my children to listen to. They combine really amazing songwriting with a great rock sound. Also of note, the album was written as the lead singer was becoming a dad for the first time. So comparing his pre children albums to this one as a new dad is very interesting. There’s patience and a mellow vibe in this album that didn’t exist in their older material.
📖 My private thoughts from my very public diary…
I would love to hear from you, feedback is always welcome!
And if you happen to know an inspiring working parent who should be featured in a future edition (or if you yourself are one) - please do get in touch
P.S. If this email landed in your Promotions tab in Gmail, please take a second and drag it to your Primary tab. It makes a big difference to the Google inbox gods, plus you’ll never miss a post!