N=1: My Experience with Motherhood in Tech

Over the past year, I’ve gone through pregnancy, experienced childbirth, took maternity leave, went back to work (while pumping), and worked from home while taking care of a baby during a pandemic. It’s been quite a ride, and while I still love tech and data science and don’t have any plans to change the general theme of this blog, it’s important that I acknowledge that my life looks a lot different than it did a year ago. 

I have a few reasons for wanting to discuss my experience with motherhood so far. Mostly, there was so much I didn’t know before it started, and I would have benefited greatly from hearing someone walk through their whole journey from planning through birth and beyond. In particular, I would have loved to hear about this journey from a person similar to me — a woman in tech who cares deeply about her career and community as well as her family. Influencers can be great, but sometimes you just want to know how a regular person told their boss they were pregnant, and maybe what stroller they picked and why. (I’ll cover both.)

Folks, this is a long one. Before we dive in, I want to take a second to acknowledge that creating a family is a profoundly individual, unique, not always easy thing, full of hard decisions. Whatever stage you are in or family you have chosen, I wish you the best.

No perfect time

Before writing this post, I asked on Twitter if anyone had aspects of this journey that they’d be interested in reading about, and I got several DMs about timing — how to decide when is a good time, if I waited for a particular milestone, etc., and so I want to start by sharing my experience with timing. 

My husband and I knew early on that we wanted to start a family, and checked in about timing a few times each year. We’d heard that there’s never a perfect time to have a baby, so we set our sights on feeling “ready”. We wanted to both be in good places with our careers, to own a house, and to be ready for a big lifestyle shift. We pushed back our timeline several times when we realized we weren’t there yet.

At the beginning of 2018, my husband was chasing a promotion, and I was at a company without paid parental leave. We realized that saving to buy a house in Austin was going to take longer than we expected and wasn’t a must-have before baby. The timing wasn’t right, but we set our sights on the end of the year — “Q4!”, we joked — and hoped things would come together before then. In early fall, things were starting to fall into place. My husband got the promotion, and I got a new job earlier in the year that I loved.

Then a month before we were planning to start trying, I got laid off from my still-pretty-new startup job and started in a new position at another company I’d been contracting for. We debated delaying our timeline, but everything else was lining up. Plus, we had no idea how long it would take to get pregnant, and just didn’t want to put it off any more.  

There’s no perfect time, right? 

The joy of oatmeal (or, the first trimester)

I didn’t tell anyone at work that I was pregnant until toward the end of my first trimester. I’m going to pause here: this was tougher than I thought it would be. 

I didn’t have bad morning sickness but the only foods I wanted to eat for about four months were oatmeal and an occasional (very plain) rice noodle soup. This was noticeably weird. One of my still-new coworkers commented that I was “very into oatmeal”, and beyond chuckling, I had no idea what to say. 

The timing of my first trimester also coincided with the company holiday party. When I asked the waiter for a seltzer water with lime, I was served a large red plastic Coke cup that didn’t exactly blend in with the other mixed drinks. By the time I reached the 12-week mark, I felt like my pregnancy was painfully obvious (though it probably wasn’t), and I was very ready to talk about it.

The first person I told was a coworker who had just returned from maternity leave. I wanted to ask what her experience was like and was relieved to hear her talk about how supportive everyone at our office had been. My company is small (about 40 people at that time), and I was adamant that my boss hear the news from me directly (and before I told my coworkers), so I made a point of telling him as soon as I felt ready, just after I hit the 12-week milestone.

Telling my boss

It’s possible that I was more nervous to tell my boss I was pregnant than I was for actually giving birth. This is no reflection of my boss, who was wonderful throughout the whole experience, but is seemingly very common: a search for “tell boss pregnant” yields 62 million results. I spent hours preparing for this conversation by reading articles, looking for personal stories from Reddit strangers, planning what I was going to say, etc.

I brought it up during our regularly scheduled 1:1. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I will never forget that the first thing that my boss said was “Congratulations!” with a big smile. (Note: this is the best possible reaction that you can give, especially as a boss, and I will be adopting it for future use.) We had a friendly conversation about due dates and daycares. We’d figure out the details when my parental leave was closer, and I walked out of his office feeling majorly relieved.

Telling the rest of the office was still a little awkward. I would have felt weird making any kind of formal announcement, but I didn’t want people to feel like it was a secret, so I tried to slide it into conversation whenever it fit. (Would love to hear how other folks have approached this one!) Eventually it seemed to be common knowledge, and it was a relief to be able to talk about it openly. 

Preparing for liftoff

Gearing up to go out on parental leave felt like wading through six waterfall projects at once, all with the same due date.

Before I was pregnant, I committed to three talks, the last of which involved me flying to Ann Arbor while 7 months pregnant to discuss data infrastructure (worth it). Giving talks while pregnant felt badass. I found out I was having a girl about an hour after getting off stage at rstudio::conf, and felt her kicking me during a panel at SXSW. On a less badass note, I had to turn down my first keynote opportunity (at a conference I love!) because it was too close to my due date.

At home, we were doing everything from booking daycare to attending classes and learning about the birth process to squeezing in time with friends and building furniture for baby’s room. During the first and third trimesters especially, it was not uncommon for me to come home from work, take a nap, and still go to bed early.

At work, about a month before my due date, I started training a coworker on taking over my responsibilities, and creating a plan for while I was out. As a community organizer for two groups (R-Ladies Austin and the ALL the Ladies in Tech Happy Hour), I recruited helpers and passed projects on to co-organizers. Documentation was key to all of the above, and something I probably would have started sooner in hindsight.

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Author, pregnant at work

One of the weirdest things about being pregnant, at work and in the world, is that your personal life is so physically on display. In some ways, this could be a little awkward (like being the only person sitting during hours-long, stand-up only event storming sessions), in some ways, it made for an easy conversation starter, but mostly it felt weirdly normal. I didn’t really experience the “pregnancy brain” that I’ve heard referenced, and generally I walked slower than usual, but it was fine.

My office happened to have five people whose families were expecting at once (!), so we did a big, casual office-wide baby shower for everyone, an approach that I loved. Our gifts were gift cards to Amazon, which was great; it avoided the awkwardness of opening gifts in front of others, getting a single gift card was super useful, and the celebration was a great way to acknowledge the growing families of our employees.

I ended up working until the day before I went into labor (choosing to save my parental leave for spending time with baby), at which point I was very ready, mentally and physically, to be done working.

On birth and baby blues

This part has nothing to do with tech (but everything to do with motherhood) and I feel compelled to share it, so I will.

I delivered at 11:44pm, and barely slept the first night. The hospital counted this as our first of two mandatory nights, and about 36 hours after our daughter entered the world, we left the round-the-clock care of the hospital for home. 

In addition to the physical exhaustion, I felt mentally and emotionally exhausted. For the first week or so, whenever afternoon faded into evening and dinnertime, I’d find myself crying for no reason. Enter baby blues. I always thought that baby blues was a euphemism for post-partum depression (which I was watchful for signs of!), but was surprised to learn in the midst of all this that they’re actually two separate things. I felt like hormone soup for a couple of weeks, and eventually my baby blues went away as quickly as they had come on.

Beyond baby blues, I experienced more anxiety than I ever thought I would. I’m generally an even-keeled, roll-with-the-punches kind of person, but the first few weeks were so, so stressful. There were words I wished I’d never heard (SIDs, failure to thrive), and more anxiety than I’ve ever felt before or since. I learned pretty quickly that Googling made things worse. A mother-of-two friend confirmed this and recommended I consult a single source before Googling anything: Baby 411. She gave us her copy, and looking there first when we had one of our “is this normal?” questions proved to be very helpful and majorly cut down on the number of late-night Google searches.

The anxiety got better with time, experience, and a dedicated effort to avoid Googling things. Before I was pregnant, I hadn’t heard many people talk about that particular part of the experience, so I wanted to share it now. If you feel this way, you’re not the only one. 

Parental leave (is not a vacation)

I took eight weeks of paid parental leave, and my husband took seven. One of the biggest questions I asked other moms before delivering was how much time they were able to take, and how that amount of time felt to them. This is a personal decision, and obviously depends on what options you have available to you, but knowing what I know now, I’ll likely take more time if we do have another baby.

For the first few weeks, newborns have to be fed about every two hours during the day and three hours at night. When you’re nursing, “every two hours” means from the beginning of one session until the beginning of the next — so if a session takes 45 minutes (because you’re both learning!), you have an hour and 15 minutes until the next session. At night, in the “spare time” between sessions, we were soothing the baby and doing the whole dance that is getting a newborn to fall asleep, and then trying to sleep ourselves. 

In general, having both of us home made a world of difference. We could take turns napping to catch up on sleep, and we felt connected and supported generally by family staying with us and helping out, friends who made us food, and folks who came over (for brief visits!) to meet the baby and catch up. I made a point of getting out of the house by going to our local coffee shop every day — some days, not until 2 or 3pm, but I still made it — and spending time outside of the house helped me to feel more connected. I also bumped into my boss there, and just catching up on office stuff made me so happy. I did check Slack occasionally while on leave, but mostly just to keep in the loop on big stuff as it was happening.

Toward the end of week seven, my husband and I visited our daughter’s very-near-future daycare, baby in tow, for a new parent orientation. The sight of a classroom cubby with her name on it made me teary. When friends asked if I was excited to come back to work, my honest answer was “a little”. I love my job, and find it immensely gratifying, but I loved the time I was getting to spend with my daughter and didn’t want it to end. 

Returning to work

Going back to work felt good, but it was tough (especially at first). As a lifetime lover of fall and school supplies, in some ways, I had major back-to-school vibes, except instead of a new backpack, I started carrying an extra tote bag for my pumping stuff. On my first day back, it was great catching up with my coworkers, but I definitely did the first-time-mom thing and snuck out to call daycare and check in.

Returning to work meant pumping three times a day (about every 3 hours). Thankfully, we have a great mother’s room where I could keep my pumping stuff and avoid any sort of community refrigerator. (I know that others are not always so lucky.) Even so, the context switch of having to think through bottle logistics and then transition back to work is a mental load worth mentioning. Breastfeeding is, hands down, the hardest thing I have ever done — and I mean that mentally and physically. During this time, my life felt very dictated by the clock, and lived in 2-3 hour increments. I put this time on my calendar so that I didn’t accidentally get scheduled for meetings when I’d need to pump. That worked great, and during longer half-day kind of meetings, I just mentioned up front that I’d need a long break a couple of hours in.

The first couple of months back were really a grind. I found that I was just as interested in work as ever, but taking care of a baby, even with full-time help in the form of daycare, takes a lot of time. The make-up of my days changed a lot during the first six months, and after trying to explain these transitions (and how dropping a feeding somehow magically gave me multiple hours of free time!), eventually I settled on a visualization to describe these transitions, which you can see below.

time baby

Even with a baby who was a Good Sleeper, I didn’t really have free time until 5 or 6 months in — and by “free time”, I mean time to do anything not baby- or work-related, like cooking, cleaning, laundry, catching up with friends, etc.

Wrapping Up

I wrote this post because I wanted it’s the kind of thing I wish I could read before I started my own experience with motherhood in tech. I had so many questions, and even in this 2700+ word post, I haven’t come close to answering or covering them all. I learned by asking a lot of questions to a lot of women I knew who had children while working with tech, and I’m very grateful for all of the tips, big and small, that they gave me. This post is my attempt to pass it on.

If you’re someone who is on this journey, or thinking about this journey, this post really just scratches the surface of motherhood in tech (n=1), and I’d love to hear about the kinds of questions you have (or, advice, if you’ve been through it!). I also wrote up a sort of companion piece on my “baby stack“, for anyone interested in more specific details on things like pregnancy wardrobes, what I packed in my hospital bag, and how we decided which stroller to get. You can comment here or find me on Twitter. Thank you for reading!

**

I owe a giant thank you to Alex Ensch, who has been a sounding board for ten years and running, for her encouragement and reading of many drafts of this post. Thank you, Alex!

 

1 thought on “N=1: My Experience with Motherhood in Tech”

  1. Really enjoyed your post! I am also a woman in tech and now have a 2.5 yr old. Very much a journey and nice call out of both the baby blues as well as the anxiety that can happen.

    I also love your diagram of how to think about days at work and the amount you pump. The context shifting that happens back and forth between the two can be pretty hard.

    Like

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