Pregnancy and startups
I’m currently 29 weeks pregnant with our second child. In the tech world where startups attract newly graduated CS students with ping-pong, free beer, and late-night hackathons, and shows like Silicon Valley glorify a hacker-house culture with almost all young socially awkward guys with zero attachments or non-work responsibilities, my increasingly large belly stands out like sore thumb. I’ve been pregnant both times while working at Medium. Here are some thoughts I jotted down about how this whole pregnancy and startup thing has worked for me.
Elephant in the room
It wasn’t until after my first pregnancy that I realized how unusual it is to meet other pregnant women or women with small children working at startups. My hypothesis is that many women opt-out of startups because they assume the benefits will be terrible — I’ve heard people say things like “Oh yeah so-and-so will be at Google for awhile, because she wants to have kids pretty soon.” It’s an awkward topic to bring up when interviewing, and most startups don’t advertise their leave policy (or even have an official one).
In both my pregnancies, I have had coworkers tell me that I am the first person they really knew who was pregnant. You sometimes see pregnant women on the bus or on the street, but it’s very likely that someone in their mid-20s has just never known anyone pregnant, much less someone they see almost everyday.
This time around, I’m grateful to have the company of two other women at Medium who are pregnant at the same time. Our private slack channel is a caricature of pregnant women’s food cravings, but also more seriously, a wonderful support resource. The many parents at Medium also have a #parents channel which is fantastic for swapping/borrowing kid gear or hand-me-downs and asking for advice.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, Medium (then Obvious) was a wee recently-launched startup of about twenty employees. There was no parental leave policy in place yet. Fortunately (though I wasn’t too worried) Medium adopted a very generous maternity policy very similar to Google’s, which was unheard of for a startup of its size. Currently, the maternity leave policy is 18 weeks fully paid (or 20 if you deliver via C-section).
The first trimester was the most difficult for me both times. I had horrible nausea with 2–4x a day vomiting for 6–8 weeks in both pregnancies. At work, I was mostly exhausted, and trying to keep up my productivity, while hoping that my grumpiness and lowered output weren’t too obvious. No one gives you their seat on Bart or Caltrain because you’re not visibly pregnant. As a software engineer, I’m fortunate that I can find a quiet spot in the office, elevate my legs, and code on my laptop for most of the day. The worst part during my first pregnancy was walking to and from the office from Caltrain. The fumes from the cars and buses made my nausea worse, and I had to dodge smokers.
My first pregnancy, I sometimes found it difficult to focus either due to sheer exhaustion or “pregnancy brain” from all the hormonal changes. Note-taking while coding and to-do lists helped out a lot so I could refocus quickly if I forgot something. In both pregnancies, after the first trimester, I was able to take on large projects and operate at normal levels throughout.
I was pregnant when we first launched Medium back in 2012, and I remember Ev giving a talk to the team where he said something to the effect of, Launching a product to the world is like having a baby — you thought that the pregnancy was the thing, but you don’t even know until the baby is out how much pregnancy is not the thing. We just needed to get this product out in front of people, and see it used in the real world. Similarly, people get caught up in the minutiae of wedding planning, and spend far less time than they should on preparing to be married for years to come.
Pregnant women always get the advice to enjoy your time and sleep before the baby comes. After the baby comes, it’s not just about you anymore. If you end up breastfeeding, you become the sole food source for an entire human. For a few weeks, that’s your sole responsibility. In a strange way, it’s relaxing (despite the sleep deprivation and exhaustion) to not feel pressure to be productive in other ways.
Random people also feel super enthusiastic about telling you how they feel about your decisions. When Alina was about a year old, a family friend I had never met asked me who was taking care of her while I was at work. “Oh she’s been in daycare for over 6 months now,” I replied. “But…she’s so young!” she replied with the most pitying look. Other parents (though let’s be honest, probably me too) can also be super judgmental, but my husband and I treated this whole experience pretty scientifically. We tried to communicate openly about what was working in splitting up work and childcare, and what wasn’t, and we made small incremental tweaks all the time (i.e. how to split up house chores, strategies for sleep training).
Coming back to work
After Alina was born, I chose to come back part-time (M-W) after ~7 weeks. We had gotten into a pretty good sleep routine, I had started watching Stanford iOS development courses, and was itching to get back to work. In all honesty, despite the generous leave policy and the good intentions of everyone I worked with, coming back to work after my first pregnancy was rough. In that short time, we had had a hiring spurt, and the engineering team had grown by about 50%. On my third day back at work, we also had 8 summer interns starting. It was chaos, and juggling a schedule where I could devote time to coding, reintegrate with the now-vastly-different team, and pump milk for my newborn was incredibly challenging.
When I returned to work, with our small team and open floor plan, there weren’t any private conference rooms to pump in, so we got a bit creative and I set up a permanent station in the spacious handicap bathroom stall with a comfy chair and side table. This was far from ideal, but not as horrific as what you think of when people talk about pumping in bathrooms, and it worked out. The current office, designed for our growing team, includes a very nice mother’s room complete with sink, mini fridge, and hospital-grade pump.
I’ve previously written about studies on the motherhood penalty, a phenomenon where people (women and men) view mothers as less competent and committed to their work. Ironically, being married and having a child have probably also worked in my favor in some ways. The tech industry, rampant with ageism, glorifies youth, but the advantages of looking young mostly benefit men. As a 28 year-old Asian woman who perpetually looks somewhere around 15–25, my youthful look isn’t as useful to me as the young-white-hacker-male-with-hoodie look that Paul Graham loves so much. Having had children on the earlier side makes people think I’m well into my thirties — old enough to be seasoned and experienced, but not too old.
I’ve also connected with several other moms or moms-to-be in the startup world. Although I don’t have a close group of neighborhood mom friends (I’m an introvert, ok?), I do feel a close connection to these other women who are making it work for them. We have many shared experiences of attending conferences while pumping for our babies, of going to work while horribly nauseous, and of losing clumps of hair post-partum. Baby showers, stroller walks, and playdates are the new Burning Man, skydiving, and scotch tastings, or something.
Getting to 50/50 — I’ve recommended this book to countless couples about to have kids, or thinking about it, or not even thinking about it but wondering how it all works. I always considered having kids a years-in-the-future thing until I read this book.
Motherboard Podcast — “Conversations with mothers working in technology, sharing their stories, challenges, triumphs, and ideas for change.” A fantastic project by Kathryn Rotondo to see how other mothers make it work for their families and also to feel not-so-alone. [tune into episode 2 for my interview]
My other pregnancy/parenthood posts
Numero dos — in which I announce that we’re expecting the second.
Thoughts on pregnancy — a healthy dose of pregnancy reality.
Pregnancy with a toddler — how things are different the second time around.
About Alina — a little bit about the motherhood penalty, and wanting to share more about my child.
Can we have it all? — how my husband and I juggled our work and childcare after having a baby.
Impending Parenthood — waiting for baby number one.