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What Family Leave Really Looks Like at a Tech Startup

May 2, 2016 8 min readOpen
Photo of Nicole Miller
Nicole Miller

Director of People @ Buffer

Around 8 weeks after giving birth, I began to panic.

It was a rough time for us — our little one wasn’t too keen on sleeping at night and endured colic that left him crying for hours at a time.

With my return-to-work date only two weeks away, I wondered how it would even be possible — especially because we hoped for me to continue as the baby’s primary caregiver while working full-time.

Doubts crept into my mind:

  • Would I even be capable in my new role?
  • The team had functioned so well without me; would I even be needed anymore?
  • Would I have the mental and physical strength to be both a mom and a leader at a growing startup?

As the first teammate at our growing startup 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 parenthood.

My hormones ran rampant. Sleep was nonexistent. I anticipated keeping up with the team and even doing some work after my baby was born, but motherhood quickly adjusted my expectations.

Today I’m the mother of a happy, healthy four-month-old baby boy, and I’ve found my new equilibrium at Buffer, jumping into new projects and passions.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, and it’s an honor to share some reflections and experiences of my family leave.

Crafting our initial family leave policy

The entire Buffer team is so supportive of family and wholeness — being a part of this environment spurred in me a personal interest in researching what a family leave policy might look like.

With the encouragement of many team members, I dove into gathering advice on establishing a loose policy with the thought in the back of my mind that I would one day (hopefully!) utilize it.

Most countries provide 3- to 6-months paid leave for families whereas the United States only a requires 3-month unpaid leave of employers (and only of employees who had been there for a year, in companies more than 50 employees.)

parental leave

Several high-profile companies (including, Netflix, Spotify, Yahoo and Patagonia) and many others are pioneering a new view on family leave more in line with what the rest of the world provides: paid time off, help with childcare and more. Here’s a super awesome resource with a database of companies and their paid family leave policies.

As Buffer already pioneered so many employee benefits (vacation, perks, bringing family on retreats, etc.) I felt we could continue down this line to put on paper exactly how we might be supportive of new parents. We recommended around three months paid leave for parents – here’s a summary of that initial recommendation.

3 months? That’s forever!

Before having a child, the numbers were a bit hard to grasp. Three months of leave? That seems like forever!

  • Would I really need/want to be gone that long?
  • Would I even be considered “worth waiting for?”
  • Would I get left behind if I took that long of a leave?

When I finally knew I would have the opportunity to experience family leave at Buffer, a multitude of doubts and fears crept in, as well as a sense of guilt: Buffer is beyond generous with team members and their families. Would I be taking advantage of that generosity by taking three months away?

I knew deep down how irrational these thoughts were. Time and time again, I’ve seen the level of trust and respect shared throughout the team. I knew I could trust that if I was overstepping—or under-stepping—someone would share their concerns.

I was aware that as the first one to take it, I was setting the tone for family leave at Buffer. I still erred towards “under-stepping” when I chose how long to take: Two and a half months.

Looking back now, I wish I had taken a full three months and returned when I felt fully ready. Although it wouldn’t have changed the date I returned as I really felt ready at the 10 week mark, I do think it would have helped me with the panic that arose around 8 weeks.

Now that additional team members have utilized our family leave, we’ve seen a trend of veering towards the shorter side of leave at first. With some additional advice and encouragement, we’re working to lobby for a more extended the leave for those who might default to a shorter one.

With everything that I and my teammates know now, we’re working on an updated iteration of our family leave recommendation and will have an announcement of that soon!

Preparing for leave: dividing my tasks, dealing with guilt

I began most preparations about a month before my leave. Around that time, the community team was starting to take shape and we brought on our final member, Bonnie! Between all three rockstars – Alfred, Arielle and Bonnie, I was able to distribute all of my essential tasks.

We went through an exercise recommended by the director of community, Jennifer Sable Lopez at Moz that helped identify these roles and tasks. Mary stepped in to lead and mentor the team.

I wrestled with a lot of unease as well, feeling badly about piling my responsibilities onto other teammates, who already had a lot on their plate. As it turned out, everything settled well and things that weren’t essential were able to fall to the side without any recourse.

I dumped all the info I could possibly think of into documents, files and emails. I hoped this would help the team feel like they had everything they needed within reach.

One reflection from a fellow teammate was that making sure the team was as prepared as possible for my absence helped to ensure the smoothest transition. I also believe this helped me feel more at ease while I was away.

I resolved to stay off Slack and email as much as possible to focus on my family, but I did extend the offer to stay reachable via Facebook messenger and text.

My time away: Turning FOMO into JOMO

Once baby arrived, the days flew by as we figured out how to care for a brand new life.


I had anticipated being able to keep up with the team, but motherhood quickly adjusted my expectations to my new, wonderful reality.

Yet I continued to feel connected to the Buffer team through social media. I perused emails from time to time, though I didn’t log into Slack, knowing my brain and heart needed to focus on baby.

One element I had been the most concerned about pre-baby was the Buffer retreat in Hawaii I knew I would be missing.

At the last retreat I attended, July 2014 in Reykjavik, Iceland, I was 17 weeks pregnant and knew I most likely was not going to attend the next one. Filled with longing for what I would miss in the future, I shared my feelings with a wise teammate, Patrik. He recommended a switch of perspective – from FOMO, or fear of missing out; to JOMO — the joy of missing out.

This changed everything for me. Through this lens, I followed the updates in our Facebook group as the retreat took place and felt so much joy for the whole team. I was also finding joy in what I was experiencing instead.

A few months after the retreat, sporting a Hawaiian outfit sent from the Buffer team.
A few months after the retreat, sporting a Hawaiian outfit sent from the Buffer team.

The days and weeks of my leave passed quickly, a jubilant time with many memories made and so many lessons learned. When I was in the right frame of mind, I dipped my toes back into work and watched a few recordings of sessions from the retreat and caught up on the Open blog.

Easing back into work

With my return to work only a few weeks away, our baby endured colic while I endured new doubts. Would I be ready?

But sleep routines and daytime routines improved, my rampant hormones leveled out and I began to see my return as a fresh start. It was revitalizing, inspiring and exciting.

I worked a bit before my official return, watching the retreat videos, recordings from the weekly community team syncs (huge thanks to my team for doing this!) and catching up on emails. The ability to be able to work when I felt ready filled me with so much gratitude. So few are given such a choice.

Though there were tumultuous moments that are perhaps natural to all first-time parent’s journey, the entire leave felt perfectly timed and fully supported. I know the community team is such a vital part of this and I’m beyond grateful at how they encouraged me to disconnect.

Today: Both working and caring for baby

Coming back was like coming home. Though there were many new teammates and changes within the company, I felt caught up by the end of the first week with the help of almost daily catch-up chats with the team.

Many fellow teammates with children offered incredible advice about working and caring for young ones and I’m grateful to be able to care for my child while I work from home.

We recently brought on a part-time nanny to assist with our child’s care a few days a week and I anticipate we’ll adjust many things as the baby grows and passes into new phases of life (especially phases that involve less daytime napping!)

I’m continually grateful for the leave time in which I was able to wholly focus and dedicate myself to my newborn. Now, I’m feeling so much more empowered and supported to submerge back into this part of my life. I’ve also felt a renewed perspective on my role and as I settled back in, I was able to pick up the important pieces and add in several new passions.

All along, I’ve been indebted to my Buffer family their encouragement and the freedom to find the best way to be my whole self at work — which now includes a tiny little team member.

Image 2016-02-29 at 1.14.07 PM

Additional resources about parental leave:

Parental leave policies:

Supporting those coming back from leave:

More resources!

Over to you, now!

I’d love to hear your experience with parental leave or if you know of some great companies that support family leave!

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