Tami Sigmund is a senior producer at Zynga, the social game developer that brought us FarmVille, Words With Friends 2, Zynga Poker and CSR Racing 2. As someone who’s been making video games for past 11 years, she wants to help make the game industry a more inclusive place for marginalised game enthusiasts. She talks to us about balancing her career and being a queer single mum of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy. Here’s how she parents.
Name: Tami Sigmund
Location: Austin, Texas
Job: Senior Producer, Zynga Inc.
Family: Me, my son Henry (almost three), and our rescue lab mix Queso
Tell us a little bit about your family and your career. Did life happen mostly as planned or were there surprises?
Almost nothing in my life has gone as planned, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! Out of high school, I had a couple of false starts with university majors until I fell into a nursing program.
Throughout school, I was fuelled by an (arguably unhealthy) obsession with EverQuest and ran a now-defunct hobbyist blog about video games. I built up a few contacts in that industry and ended up getting an offer to manage a community for a new gaming startup, Metaplace, in 2007. I was faced with the decision to walk away from two years of nursing school and follow dreams I didn’t even realise I had.
I jumped at the opportunity, moved to San Diego, and have been working in games ever since at companies like PopCap, Playdom, Disney, Riot and now Zynga.
I met my (now ex-) husband along the way, we made a baby boy happen in September 2015. The kiddo was planned, but the divorce shortly after was not. I moved to Austin last summer with my son and best friend and have now been juggling life as a full-time video game producer while co-parenting like a boss with his father who still lives in San Diego.
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
I run literally every aspect of our lives with a routine, which is probably an effect of being a producer for a living.
In the morning, I’m typically awake at 6:30AM so I can shower and look halfway presentable for work by 7:00AM, when Henry usually wakes up. Sometimes he wakes up early and I end up having to set him up in my room with an episode of Daniel Tiger so I can finish getting ready without him throwing my makeup in the toilet.
I get him on the potty, we brush our teeth, and I get him dressed. Some days, it goes smoothly and we’re downstairs by 7:30AM for breakfast. Other days, every single step of the process involves a fight of some sort and we don’t wrap up and start eating until 8:00AM.
My best trick is that I make every step a choice. When it’s time to get dressed, I let Henry pick which outfit he wants to wear so that it’s “his decision”. When going down the stairs, I ask him if he wants me to carry him or if he wants to walk himself, but refusing to go down the stairs is never an option I allow. I basically always set him up to do what I need him to do and he gets to decide how he wants to do it.
I also avoid confrontation and tantrums. While it might make me seem like a pushover and hopefully won’t turn my child into a spoiled brat, it’s the only way to get through the mornings without them escalating into an hour-long meltdown. Oh, toddlers.
I drop him off at school by 8:30AM (it’s five minutes away from home) and then I’m at the office by 9:00AM.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
I get a decent amount of outside help. Though I don’t have any family here in Texas, Henry’s father is the perfect co-parent from a distance.
We made the decision early on that everything we did would be in Henry’s best interests. He’s never used as a pawn or a weapon. We keep things very civil, especially when Henry is around.
His dad flies out to Austin frequently and we spend the time together as a family, going to the zoo or playgrounds, just the three of us. We spend major holidays together as a family. His father provides ample financial support, pays for half of Henry’s preschool, and takes him to do special things together. It’s important to us that even without a traditional home environment, Henry doesn’t feel like what he has is “less than”.
I also live with my longtime best friend, Caitlin, who is a ton of help. She’s the person who allows me to have those five minutes to use the restroom in peace. She can pick him up for me from school when I get tied up at work, and she’s often available for last minute babysitting if I need to run errands or have a bit of child-free fun. Henry calls her “Auntie” and they love each other very much.
My parents are helpful when they come out to visit, and Henry loves to talk to his grandparents on Facetime. It’s nice that technology offers him the ability to know them and have a relationship despite the distance.
And finally, I absolutely couldn’t live without full-time preschool. Henry goes to a Waldorf-inspired, outdoor farm school that offers him the home-like environment I’d want to give him if I were a full-time stay-at-home parent. It’s a peace of mind that I really can’t put a value on, and I based my living location on this school alone.
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on?
For a techie family, we’re actually pretty light on tools! The iPad is a godsend for when we’re on flights, long car trips or getting a haircut. I used a sticker chart when we started potty training, but that lost its impact as a motivator as soon as Oreos were introduced to Henry’s life.
I’m not sure if it counts as a gadget, but Henry’s kitchen helper helps me out so much. It allows him to participate in cooking while also letting me actually get food cooked for him without him being under foot.
And personally, I live or die by using YNAB (You Need a Budget) to run my finances. I have never been great with money, but YNAB makes me feel like I’m a financial genius and it has seriously changed my life.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
My goodness, yes. The video game industry is a demanding one, known for long hours and crunch time, neither of which is an option for me. I have to work as efficiently as possible, even though thankfully my office offers lots of flexibility. I’m at the office from 9:00AM to 5:00PM (a rarity in games, especially as a producer) and I really need to maximise output during that time.
When I’m at work now, my power switch is “on” the entire time and I pack a ton of work into the day. Not that I was a slouch before, but there’s a level of rigorous organisation in both my home and work life that’s required in order to hold the fort down as a working single parent.
How do you decompress?
My decompression time usually comes after Henry’s in bed and I’ve done a nightly house tidy-up. It starts right around 8:00PM, when I decide how I want to spend the next two hours of my life. Many nights, this is the time when I catch up on work I wasn’t able to finish during the day. Some nights, I’m actually able to dive into a video game (currently: God of War) or watch a TV show (currently: Dear Black People, Sharp Objects).
On the weekends, I admittedly don’t get enough “me time”. I try to schedule a babysitter for one night a week so that I can go to karaoke or see a movie, but I’m home early because mama time starts early. When Henry actually decides to take a nap on the weekends, I often spend it doing chores that I can’t get done while he’s awake.
And most nights at around 10:00PM, I dive into a book on my Kindle (currently: Stephen King’s new book The Outsider) but I’m usually fast asleep by 10:30PM. I’ve kind of learned to just live without much decompression time in a constant state of stress, I suppose.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
I could probably say something like “when my son pooped on the potty for the first time!” (which was two days ago, by the way) or “his first day of preschool”, but honestly my proudest parenting moment was making the decision to move to Austin and actually carrying out that plan pretty seamlessly with a 20 month old, as a single mum.
I firmly believe that moving here was one of the best parenting decisions I could ever have made because here I can afford to give him the quality of life I want for him. That would have been a constant struggle in beautiful San Diego. While I love California and miss it dearly, I can’t see a future there in which I’d have been able to balance home life and work without something suffering.
What moment are you least proud of?
Ripped from a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, I have been guilty of giving Henry a dose of Motrin for a low fever and sending him off to school. I think it’s one of those things that most working parents have to do at least once and they never talk about it, because sick time and PTO benefits have limits to them. My son always comes first in my life, but my job is what pays the bills and provides for him.
Henry also has a periodic fever syndrome called PFAPA which means he’ll get auto-inflammatory fevers that are not contagious and don’t cause him any distress. I felt so guilty all day when I did this and ended up picking him up from school early, but it bought me enough time to make it to an important meeting. Sometimes life is hard.
What do you want your kid to learn from your example?
I subscribe to the “peaceful parent” philosophy, and while I certainly can’t claim to be perfect, I really believe that I’m setting a good example for Henry for the most part.
I parent him the way I’d like him to act in his life. I have never yelled at him, and reserve that for when safety is a concern. I explain things to him in detail, using a lot of Janet Lansbury’s methods to treat him like a human capable of understanding things beyond his years.
What are your favourite family rituals?
We don’t really have a ton of rituals firmly solidified yet, but I will say that spending time outdoors is everything to us.
We’re very active on the weekends and holidays, spending our time outside exploring new playgrounds, hiking, going to the zoo, splash pads, fairs, theme parks, you name it.
Luckily, Austin is an awesome city for outdoor fun even if it’s currently 39C at 8:00PM. I even have an outdoor adventure blog that I should update more…
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
It’s not from a person that I know, but this article that explains the “train analogy” for tantrums is an incredible piece that I reference in my brain weekly when we’re going through a rough moment.
It’s a simple one: “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains travelling through them.”
In my own life, I’m completely guilty of often shutting down my own feelings, avoiding confrontation, and trying to avoid difficult emotions. Especially with raising boys, this can be a problematic way of dealing with feelings, so I think about the idea of a tunnel and how he’ll make it to the other side. That stopping and reversing isn’t an option — it’s full steam ahead in order to work through things.
What’s the hardest part about being a single parent?
Everything? Haha, just kidding. Honestly, logistically speaking, the hardest part is when we’re both sick. We had a particularly rough weekend where we both came down with a stomach bug (thanks, preschool!) and it was a constant state of throwing up between the two of us. It’s so damn hard to see your child sick and to care for a sick kiddo, but when you’re also sick… it’s a special kind of hell.
And also, just having to be on all the time is rough. Having to be the person to deal with every middle-of-the-night wakeup, every morning wakeup, every meal, every source of entertainment — it’s just an astoundingly unimaginable amount of relentless work. Obviously it’s worth it, but man I can’t even remember what it feels like to be bored.
What’s your favourite part of the day?
Aside from nap? It’s the mornings. A freshly-slept toddler, the potential of a new exciting day, going to get coffee together, heading off to swim class. By the end of every long day I’m an exhausted mess, but in the mornings it’s like everything starts over again with a clean slate.
What’s your take on kids and video games?
I feel much the same about video games as I do about TV and movies. There’s a lot of inappropriate stuff out there, and there’s also wonderful stuff as well. I tend to lean on the Common Sense Media recommendations to research games I haven’t played. My son is too young for video games at this point, but I definitely hope they’re something he wants to engage in as he gets older.
Personally, I will be leaning toward games that encourage building things (Minecraft, Trove) or solving puzzles (Professor Layton, Zelda) rather than violence. There are so many awesome games out there without blood and weapons.
For older kids, it’s inevitable they’ll come across Fortnite or Call of Duty or GTA, and my advice in this realm would be to sit down with your kids and play these games with them if you decide they can handle the content. Talk about the games with them. And be wary of games with voice chat, because Hell is other unsupervised children with microphones.
The one thing I would tell other parents who are juggling a career:
Don’t compare yourself to coworkers. It’s so easy to get stuck in a trap of wondering if your output will be lower than your child-free colleagues because you have a family to think about. Don’t put guilt upon yourself when you have to stay home with a sick child, or spend less hours at work.
All of life is a balance and everyone’s pendulum swings different ways at various points in their lives. The quality of your work doesn’t depend on your hours spent there — the internal motivator of having children to support can often be the fire that other coworkers may not have.