Life As a Game Dev Mom

The difficulties of parenting in an industry with a history of poor work-life balance

I had been following EmberDione for some time on Twitter before I found out that, like me, she was both a game developer and a mom. The game developer part I knew — it was the mom part that surprised me. But finding out made me so happy, because I felt like one X-Men character discovering another secret X-Men character — neither of us had really revealed our mutant power to anyone else. I so rarely meet other women in game development who are also moms, and I realized after having my son over two years ago that knowing so few of them made me feel kind of lonely. I mentioned that, and based on our conversation she wrote this terrific blog post that should be mandatory reading by everyone in the game industry, especially managers and leads.

When I read it, I felt like I was reading mostly my own story. Nearly everything in there I could identify with, save for a few details here and there. I wanted to follow up with my own story, and my own feelings of what it’s been like to be a game dev mom and the issues I’ve faced, and how it’s made me feel.

My husband and I got married in 2010, and we knew we wanted kids so we started trying right away. Two months later (lucky us) we were thrilled to find out that we were pregnant.

I was working at Uber Entertainment at the time, a company of about 17 people, nearly all of whom had been working together since our previous company, Gas Powered Games. Uber was — and remains — one of the best places I’ve ever worked. The team was tight-knit and worked hard. I happened to be the only woman at the time.

Prior to getting pregnant, my husband and I had talked about what our plan was. I was almost certain that I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom — I love what I do for a living, and I loved where I was working. Although I had some societal-based guilt that made me wonder if I should be a stay-at-home mom and try to figure out some kind of contractor thing, I was certain that I wanted to come back to work, and my husband — also a game developer — was supportive of that. He understood how much I love what I do and knew that it would make me a happy person to be able to keep doing it even through parenthood.

I was nervous about telling the guys at work, but most of the owners and directors were dads themselves, so I felt there was some safety in that. There was a big difference, though: for most, if not all, of them their wives were stay-at-home moms. I found that when I shared my thoughts and feelings about what life might be like when I come back to work, it felt like I was talking to another culture entirely. I felt like I had no one to relate to. My coworkers were certainly sympathetic and had great advice on general motherhood that they imparted from their wives, but it felt like I was jumping into a chasm that no one else I knew had jumped into.

I had absolutely no idea what was considered a reasonable maternity leave plan, but I knew I had to come up with one, of course. I worked out a plan for my maternity leave that I would pitch them on, figuring that it might be a hard sell because I knew that I wanted to take at least four months off, and then come back in part-time during the fifth month, and finally be back to full-time in the sixth month. I figured this would give both my son and me time to transition into daycare and back to work. I had also absolutely planned to breastfeed exclusively, and so I had to plan how I would pump milk when I was back at work. Additionally, I did the math on our project and tried to project where my absence would fall, and tried to think of how I could minimize the impact, since I was the only UI designer. So many questions ran through my head: would they need to replace me somehow while I was gone? Was there any chance I was going to be able to do any work while I was on maternity leave? Did I even want to commit to that not knowing what to expect as a first-time mom? What if my pregnancy had complications?

Despite not being at Uber today, I still look back and think about how supportive Uber’s owners were about my announcement and what they could do to help. I got up the nerve to tell our CEO and one of our directors in the CEO’s office. I still remember the CEO’s exact words to me, which he said with a smile, as I explained that I wanted to work out the best plan for my leave that would impact the team as minimally as possible: “Don’t worry about any of that, you’re gonna be a MOM!” The response was that I could do whatever I wanted for leave with their support, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Later, the CTO would tell me that the company was giving me a few weeks of paid maternity leave, and that I could take however much unpaid leave I wanted. I’m pretty sure that few other women in game development are as supported as I was in that regard.

So over the next nine months, our small team got closer to shipping Super Monday Night Combat and I got closer to shipping a baby. I had planned to continue working right up until I gave birth, because why not? I had a desk job as a UI designer; there wasn’t any reason that I could see for taking maternity leave early, unless something went wrong. We had the office pool going for my due date, and since my office was fifteen minutes in good traffic (which isn’t typical for the Seattle area) away from both my husband and the hospital we’d be going to, the guys had me write down my doctor’s information and phone number on my desk so that anyone could grab it and be ready to drive me there if my water broke or I went into labor at the office.

Aside from a scare at week 29 that left me on bed rest for a week, my pregnancy went fine. And since this was my first, I went over my due date in traditional fashion. (Everyone lost the office pool because no one predicted a date past my due date.) I kept coming in, even at over nine months pregnant. The guys joked as I walked into the office each morning, further and further past my due date. “What are you doing here?!” They’d shout. “Do you know how bad you’re making us all look? None of us can call in sick because we’ll look weak!”

Once I got close to my due date, I started making sure that I didn’t leave the office at the end of the day with files checked out in Perforce. My water broke on a Tuesday night at 11:30 pm; I remember sitting up in bed and immediately wondering, with some panic, if I had adhered to my plan that day for checked out files, because I knew I was on my way to the hospital. I sent a note to the team that the release candidate was imminent, and off I went to have a baby and be a first-time mom.

Those four months at home with my son were all kinds of things: wonderful, anxiety-ridden, sleepless, scary, amazing, and confusing. My husband — also a game developer — took nearly a month to stay home and not just help, but spend time with his new son. His company was supportive as well — whatever time you want to take, they told him, go ahead and take. (I should mention here that my husband is the most supportive, awesome husband and father anyone could ask for. So there’s no stress there, at least.)

Going back to work, even easing into it slowly, was so very, very hard. Nearly every day that I walked out of daycare leaving him in someone else’s arms was a day that I felt wracked with guilt. It didn’t matter that I had been exposed while growing up to strident feminist ideals (my stepmother was a Ms. Magazine subscriber); everything about the world I lived in shouted at me that you should never let someone else raise your children. People actually used that phrase when they asked what my post-birth plan was in regards to working (“So are you going to go back to work and let someone else raise your child?”). On one side of society stood all of the people who looked down at me for what they considered abandonment of my child: going back to work and not being a stay-at-home mom. On the other side of society stood all of the feminists that argued that I would be a traitor to the cause for even considering such an option. My own relationship with my long-since-deceased mother had been incredibly complicated and abusive, leaving me with little in the way of a positive example to follow. So every day was an exercise in deciding whether or not I was doing the right thing by our son.

Once daycare was a full-time thing, exclusively breastfeeding became incredibly hard. While my son nursed wonderfully (once we figured it out) and got plenty to eat when he was actually nursing, my body refused to respond well to pumping. I tried everything, but pumping enough milk to send to daycare every day was a nightmare. Our daycare was ten to fifteen minutes away from work, so I would race down there at lunch time to nurse him — this allowed me not only to avoid having to pump a bottle, but was a way for me to assuage my guilt at being away from him. I pumped on the way back from daycare, too. While driving.

And this is something I really want to stress here: I can’t even begin to express to you how important nursing and breastmilk was for me at this stage of being a working mom, despite how difficult it was to do.

As my pumping difficulties increased, I sought more and more help from things like the La Leche League web site (and got wonderful support there), but others around me were insisting that I just give up this thing that was stressing me out and go with formula. “You know,” a well-meaning colleague said to me, “they won’t die if they drink formula. My kids were on it. It’s fine.” People were incredulous that I was trying so hard to continue nursing and exclusively breastfeeding.

What I wanted to shout in people’s faces was that they didn’t fucking understand. My only templates for motherhood were my own mother, who suffered from drug abuse and mental illness, and my grandmother, who is wonderful but comes from a completely different time period with different frames of reference that I had a hard time relating to. I didn’t even know if I had the capability to be an okay mom, nevermind a good mom. Every time my baby cried and I didn’t know what to do and I got flustered and started to think this is it, this is where I break down and realize I can’t hack this, I don’t have the genetic capacity to be a mom, I’m going to turn into a terrible mother just like my mother, I sat down to nurse him, and everything in the world stopped and nothing else mattered, and everything was okay. It was okay that I was trying to work and be a mom. It was okay that I didn’t know what I was doing. Because this thing right here, this nursing and connection thing, this made everything okay. It was my lifeline.

That only scratches the surface of how important it was to me that we protect our nursing relationship, and that meant pumping.

And that meant getting up at 3 am and 5 am, seven days a week, between feedings, while my son and my husband both slept, to try and squeeze in two extra pumping sessions. It meant a lot of nights where I spent a half an hour at 3 am with a cold, mechanical pump attached to me, trying to read web sites to stay awake, and then breaking down in tears because I’d only managed to pump a measly one ounce or so. It meant a lot of mornings near the end of the week — when I would start to catch up on whatever I managed to pump in the middle of the night and over the previous weekend — where I looked into the fridge and realized, I literally cannot feed my baby on this amount, and then tried not to cry in front of my husband because I knew how much he values the strong person I am, and because I felt like I was falling into the stereotype of the hormonal new mom.

It meant a lot of creative, supportive solutions from my husband when I would say, “I don’t know what else to do. We have to buy formula today.” Solutions like going in to work just a little later so that I can nurse our son right when we dropped him off at daycare, and leave work a little earlier so that I can nurse him right at pick up, saving us a potential bottle.

But all of that felt like it was adding up. I was rushing to be with my son at lunch time, and needing to pump twice a day for a half an hour at work. Our schedule at Uber was incredibly fast-paced — we released updates on a very quick schedule, which often meant that every day felt like a mini-sprint. Things had to be done within hours, not days. I still recall days of pushing hard at my desk to get something done before my 10:30 am pumping time, and then realizing that I still had something to fix and couldn’t check in, or someone needed to discuss something with me, and so my work or a conversation had to stall while I went and pumped. Since I had to pump in the locker room, there wasn’t any way for me to do any work while I was pumping.

We were all often working late nights a couple of nights a week in order to get our updates out the door. Sometimes my husband would bring our son to the Uber offices and I would work for a bit and then nurse him between check-ins and testing. There were a few nights like this, but I recall one night in particular that I needed to be there for, working on an important piece of UI for a big update we were trying to ship.

My husband picked up my son and brought him to the office, and picked up some takeout on the way. Our son was just starting to get into solid foods but they weren’t his mainstay by a long shot yet, and so my husband juggled feeding himself and our son while I frantically tried to get my shit done so that we could all go home. I felt guilty for needing them to be there while I worked. But whatever I was working on wasn’t coming together in the time needed, and I remember standing at my desk around 9 pm, my husband holding a tired, cranky child who needed to go home and be nursed to bed, and one of my bosses standing nearby. Both were looking at me, needing me to decide what to do. It couldn’t have been a more surreal moment: a decision, work or motherhood, each one literally on either side of me.

I felt like a shitty mom whose body couldn’t feed her son properly, and who was putting work ahead of her son. And I felt like a shitty coworker, who couldn’t get her work done because she had to do mom things. I was one of those moms who was supposedly having it all, only I felt like I was pretty much half-assing everything.

Some time after, I was one of a tiny handful of people that had to be let go — with the hope by everyone in the company that it was temporary. And it was for some of them. It wasn’t for me, but I’m almost completely certain this had nothing to do with my quandry of being a working game dev mom.

I say almost, not because of anything anyone has ever said to me, but simply because it’s so incredibly hard to have gone through those months of feelings of failure in both motherhood and career and not feel like I simply wasn’t cutting it. It’s impossible to separate out the different kinds of pressure I felt during that time: the self-doubt that comes from trying to be a good mom and a good game developer, in a professional that lends itself well to The Impostor Syndrome; the guilt trip that comes from society about choosing to be a mom who works; the pressure that a company faces when it has to accomodate this yet exists in a structure — the game industry — that is actively destructive to it, no matter how supportive the people in that company want to be.

Three weeks later, I got a new job at the company I’m at now. I really enjoy it now, but at the time it felt alien and frightening. I’d just spent nearly three years at a company I loved of only a handful of people, all of whom had been there during my entire pregnancy, had given me advice, had joked with me about taking me to the hospital, had cooed over my son when I brought him in. I still felt like a new mom when I took this new job in a place that had nearly a hundred people, and only one or two that I actually knew. And the longer commute posed new challenges in regards to trying to get to daycare and home at a reasonable time for our son.

My son is two and a half now, and we’ve long since left behind the challenges of being a nursing working game dev mom. But we still have to navigate the industry problem of crunch time. The company I work for now is made up of people who are mostly much younger than the guys I worked with at my last company. I used to hear of things that my coworkers kids did; now I see first-time baby announcements happening for younger people. It’s a company also run by parents, and like my last company, it really does its best to understand the needs of its employees who are parents.

But that doesn’t eliminate, or even really reduce, the pressure that parents feel working in the game industry. I see it whenever a fellow employee becomes a parent: the apologies for not being able to crunch because they need to be home with the wife and baby. Because even when management is as understanding as they can be, we as game devs are conditioned to know that families conflict with deadlines in an industry not known for its ability to plan smoothly.

Now imagine that effect not just on new male game dev parents, but on new game dev mothers, women who are already feeling pressure for being in an industry that’s only recently begun to acknowledge how unwelcome it has been to their gender. It’s no wonder so many women in the game industry are either putting off motherhood or deciding to forego it entirely.

What can we do to fix this?

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