Parenting at a Startup: A Retrospective

Insights on balancing time and energy I gleaned from parenting at a startup.

Lou Kratz
A Parent Is Born

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Last year, the software startup I worked for was acquired, thus completing an eight-year chapter in my professional career. During this stint, I had two children (now 4 and 6) and parenthood became an integral part of my identity. Parenting is a challenge at any job, but startups are unique as they already require your spare time and energy. Here I share some insights that helped me strike the right balance between nurturing a small company and nurturing a small person.

Build vs Buy Applies to Home Life Too

Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash

It’s common for software startups to pay for hosted services instead of building things in-house. This lets them get to market faster and reduce the number of systems they have to maintain (albeit at a slightly higher operating cost).

This strategy, short-term spending for long-term gains, can be applied to parenting as well. Will that $5 plastic doohickey save you 5 minutes? Buy it. Does substituting Uncrustables for lunch this week get some extra time for that deliverable? Do it. Will an extra set of Munchkin Sippys prevent you from hand-washing them every night? Time to invest.

Now you might feel like this is over-consumerism. I did at times. In addition, it’s easy to worry about finances when you become a parent — especially if you pay for daycare or want to save for their college. But you have to look at the cost-benefit here. You’re spending a few dollars now for a larger, sometimes less tangible win: your career, time with your family, or reduced stress. All of which are well worth $5-$20.

Routines Are Your Friend

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Children love routine — it helps them understand expectations and gives much-needed structure. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice from countless pediatricians and what-to-expect books. I’m also sure you’ve cursed this advice at 4 am when you’re up, again, for that feeding / diaper change / the blanket fell on the floor and I need you to get it because I absolutely can’t get it myself time.

But forget about the children’s routines, routines are your friend. Putting them in place will streamline your time and give you more mental and emotional energy to handle the unexpected at both work and home.

Why does this work? Because decision fatigue is a real thing.

Clothing, for example, offers a simple but easy place to inject a small routine to avoid that I don’t know what to wear today morning moment. I’m not suggesting you go full Mark Zuckerberg (though I admit I’ve done it much to my daughter’s amusement) — just take the guesswork out of it. One extreme but silly thing I did was buy all the same socks. I never have to match them on laundry day, and each morning I just pull two out of the drawer.

Being overwhelmed is also a thing. When we had our first child, I struggled to keep up with the job, the new demands of parenthood, and housework. I found routinizing our household chores took the stress out of it. Laundry? Once a week. Thursdays only. Sure I needed an occasional load for the Oh my god I didn’t know so much puke could come out of such a small person moments, but a weekly cadence eliminated that laundry is never done feeling. It was done. On Thursdays.

Similarly, I found a lot of value in subscription services for household goods. Toilet paper, paper towels, deodorant — all delivered on schedule. Amazon’s subscribe-and-save, for example, gives you a lot of flexibility in products, cadence, and pricing. Sure, it takes a bit to figure out the cadence, but never having to run out to the store because you’re out of something is a real-time and stress saver.

Perhaps most importantly, routines help your co-workers know where your boundaries are and how to work with you efficiently. My team knew I had a hard stop at 5 pm to pick up my kids from daycare. It was routine. They also knew I’d be available on slack around 7:30. This mutual understanding let me focus fully on my family at the right times, while still meeting expectations for my availability at work.

It seems small, but those little amounts of mental energy you save really pay off when you have to focus at the office. Routines eliminated the feeling of juggling career and family life. Instead of keeping balls up in the air; you’re just swapping them out from their place on the shelf.

Growth Comes in Different Forms

When my first child was born, I consciously put the breaks on any “career growth” endeavors. My approach was to keep “heads down” and just produce deliverables. This was the right mix of value-add for the company and mental energy conservation for me to be able to handle a newborn. I was fortunate that my manager supported me and agreed.

I thought I was plateauing, and I was okay with that as I adjusted to being a parent.

It took me that whole year, however, to realize the time I thought I was plateauing actually made me a better engineer. It makes sense, right? If you practice something every day, you’re bound to get better at it. Programming, software design, debugging — I did all at a higher quality and speed just so I could get home and get more time with the baby.

In addition, it made me love my job. I got into this field because I liked the creative and problem-solving nature of building software. Career focus was taking me towards manager roles which I discovered I don’t have a passion for. It just took the need for personal growth at home to remember the aspects of my job I loved.

In retrospect, that year taught me a deeper truth: ladders don’t fit everyone. Companies use ladders to help employees advance and clarify expectations, but the way up doesn’t always align with what you need or want. That’s okay: just acknowledge it may not be the right fit right now and find opportunities that align with your desires and the business needs.

Happy Hours Don’t Matter

At least, not as much as I thought they did.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

A large part of any startup is the culture. It’s the company against the world, and your co-workers are your comrades in arms battling against the statistical likelihood you’ll fail. Where I worked, happy hour was a time to shut your laptop, unwind, and deepen your personal relationships so that when shit hit the fan you knew you had each others’ backs.

New parents can feel alienated from happy hours very quickly: it’s hard to make the time and, even if you do, it’s challenging to hold a conversation and relate to people who aren’t also in baby mode.

I quickly stopped going and thought I was ghosting office.

After some time, however, I found a newfound kinship: the other parents. There were only 2 or 3 other parents, but that’s all it really took to give me a way to impact culture. In addition, it’s a lot easier to build a relationship by discussing parenting: you get to know someone pretty quick the minute you start discussing diaper pales. Also, we had similar time constraints, which made it easier to find short lunches together (the parents always seem to bring food from home), and pretty guilt-free if you have to stop a conversation short.

In the end, much like other ways, your life will change when you become a parent, your impact on culture and how you relate to your co-workers will change, too. You might feel isolated during this transition, but I’ve found the relationships I formed with other parents have been stronger and lasted longer than those I formed over whiskey cocktails and wizard staffs.

Pick Your Hats

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Employees in startups wear a lot of hats. There is more work to do than people to do it, so you fill in where you can. As a research engineer, sometimes that meant playing a PM, QA, data scientist, etc. — whatever it took to get the project done and make an impact.

But when parenting came along I had to be more selective. It’s not that I didn’t want to wear many hats — that’s part of working at a startup — it’s that I realized often you produce the most value by playing to your strengths.

This means saying no, sometimes even to yourself.

Mark Manson captures this idea well in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. He writes:

We All Have A Limited Number Of Fucks To Give; Pay Attention To Where And Who You Give Them To

For me, this meant staying within my role a bit more than I did pre-children and being less willing to interject into decisions that didn’t directly impact my deliverables. I focused on how my specialty could bring more value to the company and stopped trying to be a jack of all trades. This proved to be a winning strategy as the company grew and we could hire people to fill out roles for which they were much better suited than I could ever be.

You’ll make a lot of sacrifices as a parent without a second thought, and saying no at work is a form of this. To make the best impact, play to your strengths and be thoughtful about which hats you put on.

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Lou Kratz
A Parent Is Born

AI practitioner focused on computer vision and machine learning. I’m here to enable readers to build AI into fun products. I also like photography and cooking.