How to lead as a new mom in the tech industry

I decided to write this post because I realized there is little to no advice for women in technology when it comes to transitioning into motherhood. When I became pregnant and I had to face the changes that were coming, I had no resources. No one to ask “How do I do it?” or “What should I know?”. Here are a few observations and lessons I wish I had known at the time. I hope that you find them useful.

Lesson 1: Use all of your maternity leave

Out of sight, out of mind, right?

This one is tough for leaders. Every day you make split-second decisions that impact your team. Stepping away from that can feel scary. If you imagine everything that happens in a day — and then imagine not being there — it can make your head spin.

You might find yourself overwhelmed with doubt. And you’ll have concerns about things ranging from loss of momentum (“What will happen if I slow down?”) to loss of inclusion (“I’ll I be totally out of the loop when I come back”), or even loss of position (“What if the person who fills in for me doesn’t want to step away when I return?”).

Being concerned about your job just as you are about to experience the biggest change in your adult life is terrifying. Even so, it doesn’t outweigh your need to actually take your maternity leave. I’d encourage you to take all of it.

MY OWN OPINION ALERT! In two years after having a baby, the benefit to your career if you tried to be a hero and only took a few weeks of your leave will be minuscule whereas the benefit to your relationship with your child could be huge, so why not just use all of it? If you are in a situation where taking your leave means risking your job, I would argue that it’s not the type of environment you want to work in anyway. Again, my own opinion.

So how can you deal with the fear of taking leave? Here are a few strategies:

  • Before you leave, fill your position with someone you trust: Make sure that you have an ally in the person/people who fill in for you when you are out. The way that that person handles your absence will make all of the difference in the world. Work hard on choosing this person before you leave. This could be identifying a strong lead on your team who you’re grooming for management, or putting more on the shoulders of your own manager. But don’t leave it up to chance — you want to make sure you will return to a well-functioning team, not a disaster.
  • During your leave, support the person you’ve delegated to. Don’t armchair manage. It’s tempting to fire off participatory emails during naps or feedings, but it undermines the decision-making capabilities of the people leading the team in your stead and sets a bad example to others. Reinforce that your team can reach out to you if a crisis occurs, such that it frees you from feeling like you need to be monitoring everything. Let them know the times you are most likely to reply and the ways you can be reached instantly.
  • Towards the end of your leave, ramp up momentum and inclusion. A few weeks before returning, try dialing in or attending a meeting or two here and there (even via video), to get a feel for the tone of the office. Very important: if you are nursing, get comfortable with pumping before you go back. It’s a huge PITA and you don’t want to be adding that stress on top of everything. I could go on about how if you are nursing, it’s also important to manage your stress. For me, I let my stress skyrocket and it impacted my breastmilk production. So imagine adding feeling like a failure as a woman to feeling like a failure at work. Not good! That reminds me, make sure your manager knows you need a clean, quiet, private place to pump when you return. Give them plenty of time to set one up if one doesn’t exist.

Lesson 2: Keep your circle of empathy open

I’m so tired. I can’t care for one more person right now.

Many new parents find themselves constantly tired and in fight-or-flight mode all of the time. Soon, your energy for “caring for others” — your empathy — starts to narrow. You might only have time to ask “How’s my kid?” and “How’s my significant other?”. But I encourage you to remember this: your team still needs you too. Please keep yourself open to what they need. Remember, they aren’t all in on the “Let’s care for this person who is becoming a mom” thing. It’s not their job, and unless they’re parents too, they have no concept of what you are going through. They want and need you to include them in the people you are caring for. Don’t ask them to take care of you, or expect them to understand your skipping 1:1s or being emotionally detached. Continue to support, mentor, and coach them or you will surely lose them.

Lesson 3: Don’t be in a rush

Oh crap, I just sent that email from my personal, not my work account. Why are computers so much more difficult to use now?

Because of the new adherence to a family schedule you now have, you need to be more efficient at work than ever before. There is nothing wrong with efficiency — but let’s not confuse efficiency with sloppy work. Don’t let trying to be “efficient” cause you to rush through things that really deserve more time. This is hard to remember because you are sleep deprived, and probably have a blind spot about how you appear to others. So avoid the urge to rush things like writing an email or making tough decisions. Face it, when you come back, you are likely being judged — don’t fail by rushing through your communications. Be cautious about typos, mixed email threads, or any other perception of being harried. I remember once (before I had kids) I went into an interview and the woman about to interview me had her hair all over her face, was wearing an extremely wrinkled dress shirt, and had her hands full of coffee, papers, laptops and mobile phones. When she went to shake my hand everything went flying. I remember thinking, “She isn’t very organized. I wouldn’t want to work for her”. Most likely, she was a new mom. Don’t scare people off by rushing through the details. Even if your output may be 70% of what it was before, your team needs it to be of the caliber they expect from you.

I got called out several times by my manager for writing disaster emails and creating confusion with my communications, don’t let this be you.

Pro tips:

Lesson 4: Get clarity

Am I making myself clear? I have no idea.

You are likely not communicating as well as you think you are. And in the worst cases, you’ll only find out about this after you’ve done some damage. So instead, make it a priority to get on the same page as people you work with. If you find it’s not happening with words, use diagrams, spreadsheets or any tools you need to drive to understanding. Focus on face-to-face conversation, video, or phone versus email — a good rule in general, but critical when you may be introducing miscommunications. For example, when I was out of maternity leave, the lead PM on my project had changed. I had never worked with her before and her first couple of months at the company she was partnering with a different engineering director. I recognized that coming back could be a confusing time for both of us, so when I returned from leave I created a roles and responsibilities matrix that enumerated several of the functions in software production and added a column for each of the roles on the team, I then asked each person to identify themselves and whether they were responsible for that function, influencing that function, or not involved with the function (a lightweight RACI model). At the end of the meeting, the team was re-calibrated and I had a better understanding of what had changed when I was out, and the team understood what would and would not change as I came back. I also started emailing the notes from our 1:1’s with my direct reports and collaborators to ensure that we are on the same page. I will create a separate post about these clarity tools I created for myself. Stay tuned!

Lesson 5: People still want to be challenged

All I want is for things to go back to normal.

As you return to work, you might be thinking, “Please, let’s just get back to stability”. But that’s just you. Even though you are in recovery mode, remember people on your team still want to grow. They want to take risks and act on ideas in ways that might challenge your stability. Recognize that your job is to help the team grow even if it goes against your instincts at this time. Failing to be bold here could impact your team’s perception of your ability to nurture them as growing engineers. Which leads me to my next point…

Lesson 6: Accept that you are being judged

You gotta fake it ‘til you make it more than ever.

It is easy to forget, but as a leader, you are being judged constantly. In a competitive hiring environment like tech, employees are constantly weighing if they trust you to lead them, peers are judging whether you will make a good ally to help them succeed, and your supervisors are judging if they made the right decision in choosing you to lead. When you come back, the judgment is going to be worse.

Sadly, it’s common for people to be concerned, “Will she come back?”. “Will she stay engaged with work?”. While it’s unfair that those concerns are usually asked about women but not men returning from paternity leave, you have to accept that those judgments are being made about you and just dig in. We all hope that the people we work have empathy, but it’s not a requirement. Own your image, and don’t expect people to cut you a break. Find allies that will be honest with you and shine a light on your blind spots.

The best way to do this is encouraging frequent and honest feedback from people you trust. Don’t wait for performance reviews. Make it clear to your team (management, reports, and peers) that they can provide direct and relevant feedback so you can perform your responsibilities to them as best as you can. And hound them for it. It’s far better to hear critical feedback early and address it before it generates momentum and becomes “a thing” about you.

Lesson 7: Get your exercise

I need to get back to me. Who was that again?

As a new mom, your body is all out of whack. Your hips are wonky, your belly is loose. After the endorphins of having the baby wear off, you are left with the new freakish body that you might not have been prepared for. My advice is to get your exercise, no matter how small. I started out by going back to yoga. In fact, most of my team used to join me there. Yoga helped me de-stress, strengthen and gave me a baby-step (ha! puns!) to getting back into shape. As soon as I found myself getting stronger and seeing successes physically, my self-image improved and my mood lifted. I went from tired and overwhelmed to alert and organized. My husband refers to exercise as his “Prozac”. It’s really true — the way you approach your day will be drastically more positive, you’ll make better decisions, and you’ll feel better overall, by repeatedly challenging yourself and getting your heart rate going and moving a bit. If you didn’t exercise much before, don’t let that stop you. Exercise doesn’t need to be HIIT or training for an Ironman. It’s much more about building the habit than what you can achieve during that time. Use apps to help encourage you. Cat Noone wrote an excellent summary of how she used the Gyroscope app to track her self-care.

If you have a significant other, the last thing I will mention about being a new mom is that having a great partner also makes a big difference. I was fortunate in that my husband and I cut all of the responsibilities down the middle. We split everything from feeding, dressing and dropping our son off at daycare to giving each other nights free to do whatever we wanted. We made a detailed calendar so that we knew exactly who was responsible for what at any given time. I would encourage you to require that level of support in your partner too.

Wrapping it up

Ok, you made it. Well, the good news is you’re more prepared. The bad news is you are still totally unprepared, so accept that. What now?

If you’re a new mom and have any questions or thoughts, please reach out on anything I might not have covered, fears you have about the impending life changes, and I’ll add to this piece.

If you’re a mom in tech and are willing to share your own experiences, please do. I’d love to include them in this. Opinions from one person are great, but sharing lessons from many of you benefits everyone!

Thanks for reading this and I hope you find it useful. And…congratulations! It never exactly gets any easier, but in the end, you’ll end up being more efficient, focused, and organized than ever. Please get in touch — I’m @uicynthia on Twitter.