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I Didn’t Mean to Lean Back: The Unexpected Story of Being a Working Mom at a Startup

5 min read
Nicole Miller
Nicole Miller Team Engagement Manager @ Buffer
I Didn’t Mean to Lean Back: The Unexpected Story of Being a Working Mom at a Startup

I’ve “leaned back.” And I’m okay with it. Sort of.

As the first teammate to have a baby while working at Buffer, I was able to create our initial family leave policy before I used it. Even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the reality of being a working mom.

Going into motherhood, I had a lot of grandiose ideas, preconceived notions and expectations. The biggest of which was that I’d be able to jump back into my role without skipping a beat.

After all, Sheryl Sandberg did it – she leaned in and kicked ass, right? Why couldn’t I?

All the tiny things that add up

It turns out there are so many things you just don’t anticipate. Things other parents don’t tell you (or, well, they do and you just don’t hear them.)

Things like juggling breastfeeding/physical recovery/pumping/cleaning/ working/laundry/eating/groceries/soothing a crying baby/ figuring out first-time mommyhood and so many other tiny things add up to a huge mental and physical load.

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Pumping alone takes more time than I ever expected: Put the parts together, pump (somehow balancing and maybe getting a few emails typed during), clean and store the milk. Easily 20–30 minutes. Then do it again in a few hours. Then again. (This phase can last for a few months to a year.)

My husband and I were lucky that we were able to have a grandparent babysit for one day a week, and then had a nanny for another three days.

We paid $1,000 a month for this arrangement, and with my fairly rigid meeting schedule (timezones can be a bit tricky on a global team) it was looking like I might need even more nanny time for my growing, busy little boy.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones

I would have had to pay double in childcare to cover the time responsibilities I had in my role. Honestly, the cost was more than the raise I received from becoming a manager at Buffer.

I was seeing less of my child, even though I’d been given the gift of working from home.

Still, this wasn’t a bad scenario. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for folks who work outside the home, don’t have the generous compensation standards of Buffer, or have multiple kids! ($$$ childcare!)

Only about a fifth of moms get fully paid maternity time off, and some employees can be legally denied their job back if they go on family or medical leave.

Maker or manager?

Even so. I was at a crossroads.

The stress was getting to me. Even with all my work flexibility, Anthony’s trouble sleeping meant I was exhausted and unable to get additional rest in the morning when he finally did sleep because of early meetings. I was more sedentary and eating more unhealthy than ever because of my work/pump/work/pump routine — the pumping time cutting out the possibility of breaks as I had to stack meetings while the nanny was here.

At the same time, I was learning a lot about myself both as a manager and as a maker. I was torn between two ways to contribute, and I looked forward to one slightly more than the other: individual contributor. Writing blog posts, organizing things. Things that offered more flexibility.

I had never worked as a manager before; so many things were new when I moved into that role in early 2016. I dove head-first into all the leadership training and managing books I could consume.

I could have upped my game. But at heart, it was not my life’s ambition to be a great manager. I loved my team and wanted them to have the best manager, which is what drove me. I didn’t necessarily do it for myself.

Was it my fault?

Things came to a head this summer when our co-founders Leo and Joel felt the community team needed a bit of a reorganization.

The rest of the community team joined Buffer’s marketing area, and I joined the People team in a new role focused on the Open blog and internal communication and team-building.

Part of me wonders if my “distraction” as a mother led to some mistakes in leading the team that caused these changes.

I’m not sure that’s the case (there were a lot of reasons for the switch), but it’s still present in my heart.

I leaned back (and still wrestle with feelings of failure)

So I leaned into the individual contributor role instead. And in essence, I leaned back in my career.

I stepped back from a lead role. I even took a pay cut (though we saved more than the pay cut in childcare costs) which further emphasized the traditional perception of payment = what you’re worth/what you’re contributing = your success.

I wrestled with feeling like a failure, like I took the “easy” way out and I’m simply a coward. Like I’m just lazy. Traditional business wisdom says you must move up!

I’m happier in this new role, though I still wrestle with these feelings. I want to feel like I’m not a failure, like I’m still valued and valuable to the company.

The logical part of me knows: I’ve found a way that I can take care of my child and work full time, which has long been my dream. I’m striving to pour more of myself and more effort into this role than I have in anything else — perhaps to fight off those evil voices that tell me I’ve failed.

Is it possible to ‘have it all’?

I don’t know if it’s possible to lean in and be the very best at what I am doing without adding more hours to my workweek and taking away from my family time – even at a company that is keenly focused on bringing your whole self to work and evolving the culture of work.

Perhaps there is a difference I must come to grips with between “having it all” and “doing it all.” Right now, I just can’t “do it all.”

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I know my heart won’t allow me to settle and feel unchallenged. But working toward a lead role where I’m perhaps not best suited at the moment doesn’t feel like the right fit either.

For now, I’ll keep pushing the edges (of my limits, of the role, of motherhood) no matter what so I can be the very best I can be in these areas, and see what becomes of it.

I’d love to hear from other parents who are primary caregivers and working at the same time. What are your days like? Are you leaning in, leaning back or something else altogether? Are any of these feelings familiar to you?

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