Saturday, August 22, 2015

Maternity leave and returning to work in tech [in Bay Area]

I started writing a post with this title many months ago, when the memories of hardships of returning to work with a 12 week old baby were fresher and long before Netflix announced the updates to parental leave.

The ultimate question of balancing (Image: Huffington Post)

draft from March, 2015

Disclaimer: Let me start with the statement, I love my job! This goal of this passage is not way to prove otherwise or advertise my employer in any way.

Some months ago I found out that I was pregnant, something we had been hoping and praying for for many years. From that moment on the life got much more beautiful and meaningful. I was very fortunate to have a job I really liked, profession of Software Engineer which wasn't physically demanding. And it wasn't until the last few months that I started feeling how pregnancy affected my work, or rather how working on fast-paced environment started affecting me. Naturally, during the last month sitting through a two hour meeting without using a bathroom break was next to impossible, I was also struggling to find a comfortable sitting position at my standing desk, since standing was no longer an option. Once, on my eight month I needed to re-wire some of automation machines in the lab, I squatted and set on the floor bent under one of the lab desks, and was unable to stand back up. I stayed sitting on the floor until a coworker eventually walked in to the lab and helped me get up, and finished connecting my machines. (He is a father of two toddlers so my situation didn't shock him too much).

I was looking forward to maternity leave as a time to relax, read and dream about the arrival of the little one. At the same time,  I was confident that I will end up calling work or even going in out of boredom, after all I hadn't been without a place to go to every morning since I started school at 6 years of age. The reality ended up being somewhat different: I did catch up on the baby literature that was considered as absolutely "have to read", cleaned and scrubbed the place when the "nesting syndrome" really kicked in - but I didn't miss work. I didn't miss being at work at all. I was so uncomfortable at the end, finding no good position to sleep, sit or stand and so sleep-deprived that I spent the last week on the sofa watching Netflix, and also eating chocolate croissants for breakfast, lunch and diner. The later I regretted pretty soon ;)

When the little one was born, as excepted of a new parent, I was overjoyed and ecstatic, feeling really tired at all time simultaneously. Breastfeeding my baby exclusively until her 6-month birthday became my number one goal in life, casting all the rest of life objectives to shadows. I can't quite recall the details of those days, everything seems like a dream that was happening to someone else.

I had committed to returning to work by Ella's 3 month birthday, and had my mind set to it. That's what I did and found the transition much harder than I expected. Naturally, I am forever grateful to my parents and in-laws for their support in that difficult time. Being away from the baby proved to be hard, not having a set schedule and at times having to leave the office past 7 pm was devastating. The most challenging part of the experience was pumping: several times a day between meetings, discussions, ad-hoc code reviews. One day I might write a memoir on pumping wars, since booking the designated pumping rooms at certain times was exceptionally hard, leaving new moms to struggle and fight for the "prime" slots.

I was quite fortunate that California requires employers providing designated pumping spaces for new moms, my coworkers in Michigan were only given access to using the shared bathroom!

For a while I wasn't able to give 100% because of time restrictions and certainly because of the pumping breaks. Once there was an  incident of debugging a problem with coworker for half an hour which needed to be interrupted because of the "pumping time" (since I couldn't possibly book the room again for any other time that day), and then I couldn't find him and was interrupted for the same reason the next day. I felt embarrassed trying to explain to my all male team reasons I needed to take break from an important discussion.

Looking back I would not have returned to work so soon if I was to do it again and had a choice not to.

August 2015 update

My employer (Netflix) recently announced a pioneered approach to paternal leave laws. According to the announcement new parents, both moms and dads, will have the option to take up one one year of paid time off. Alternatively parents can arrange working flexible hours, working from home, etc. This announcement is groundbreaking not only because it gives flexibility and paid time off to new moms, but also since it gives the absolutely same benefits to new dads. Both biological and adoptive parents are entitled to take advantage of it. This is already raising a new wave for companies offering better leave options to new parents: Microsoft announced extended parental leave later same week.

This is great new for new parents at Netflix and those employed by other tech companies in Bay Area and Seattle. At this time companies trying to recruit top talent, should start considering paid parental leave along with other perks; e.g. free haircuts, on-site gym and ping-pong tables.

I am hoping that this announcement will be first among many, to set the course for congress to rule providing paid parental leave and job security to all salaried employees.

In this post I focused on companies in tech sector, which is one of the most flexible and tolerant areas of employment. Many moms these days don't even have the luxury of job security, let alone paid leave that company would give for at least a few weeks. I am truly hopeful that positive change is on the way.