The Working Mother Myth:
 Merging Parenting and Programming

by Kathryn Rotondo, krotondo@gmail.com

To Work or Not to Work?

That is NOT the question.

The term “working mother,” referring to women who work outside of the home, is a misnomer. It suggests that women who take care of kids are not working. While it is an unpaid job, and one for which we sacrifice long term earning power, retirement savings, professional status, and more… make no mistake: it is real work that involves an incredible amount of both mental and physical effort.

Beginning your family can rival the long hours and intensity of any start-up. But this work is not about algorithms or optimization or innovation, at least not in a sense that will be reflected on your next performance evaluation. So how do you merge it into your career as a computing professional?

Who Will Be My Role Model?

Can you name one woman leader in computer science who has talked about how hard being a parent is, or about their regrets about how they handled their maternity leave or their children’s early years.

Me neither.

Why the radio silence? Maybe traditionally successful women don’t find parenting difficult? Or maybe the ones who find it difficult drop out of the working world and aren’t around to be role models. My gut feeling is that most women worry that talking about these difficulties could impact their careers negatively, and so put on a brave face and a chipper persona instead.

I get it. Women work hard to reach positions of power. We want the story that is told about us to focus on our professional strengths, and not on our home life struggles. Besides, nobody wants to be a downer or scare expectant parents with ugly scenarios. But I can’t help but feel that as long as we sweep the real difficulties of being a working parent under the rug, we’ll never fix the workplace to make it a more suitable environment for new moms. And as long as we let startups build “culture” on the cornerstones of beer and foosball, we are squandering the opportunity to improve conditions for all those bright young girls we’re working so hard to entice into tech.

The norm seems to be for women to keep mum about mothering. But I am not standing on the edge of a glass cliff, and have no fear of falling. Let’s get this conversation started.

One Size Fits One

There is no single correct solution for every working mother. It would sure make things simpler if there were. We could just hand it to every HR department in Silicon Valley and be done. But it’s not that simple. There are a lot of variables.

First, you don’t know what kind of kid you’ll get. They run the gamut from “easy” to “colicky” to any number of curve balls thrown by disability. There are toddlers who plop down on the floor and quietly do puzzles (or so I’ve heard), while others have boundless physical energy that requires nearly constant supervision and interaction. Long story short, counting on being able to put the baby down to quietly ogle at a mobile so that you can get some work done isn’t a sure bet.

On top of the overall temperament of your child, from day to day you don’t know what disruptions will crop up. Illnesses, changes in your child’s routine, sleep training, growth spurts, teething… these things can all throw completely off-kilter your balance of quality working and sleeping hours. Before having kids, if you were tired from staying out too late, that was squarely your fault. But with kids, your best-laid plans to wake up well-rested are no longer entirely in your control.

As if that weren’t enough, you don’t know what you will be like. Will your physical healing be straightforward? Will breastfeeding go well? Will you have to contend with postpartum depression? These are questions no expectant parent can answer… because the answers only come after the birth.

Lastly, and perhaps the hardest part of all, is this: the way you organize your day becomes dependent on your child’s schedule. Your time is never again 100% in your hands. Feeding, waking and sleeping times, appointments, drop-offs and pick-ups, activities at which you have to wait, all regulate the amount of time you can spend on your own priorities. In short, time is broken up, and the intervals available for being in the zone are fewer and shorter. If you need a four hour span to really get into a state of flow, and you only have two hours between sitting down to work and an interruption to pump milk, you might find it hard to feel as productive as you’d like to be.

Breaking Out the Measuring Tape

It turned out that I had a very active child, whose energy I had to balance against my own postpartum-turned-chronic depression. Do these challenges make me less of a computer scientist at heart? Of course not. But they did mean that I needed to slow down my working pace for a while.

So I started trying different configurations, in search of one that would best balance my hunger to work on interesting problems, make new things and help people, with the reality of how much I could really get done in a day.

I’ve worked part-time and full-time, on site and remotely. Last year I went freelance. I can’t share every woman’s experience with these options, but I’m here to plot my data points for what I hope will become an ever-growing sample.

Working Full Time

In engineering, there is a dearth of jobs with “mother’s hours”. This may be simply because there hasn’t been demand, or possibly because it can be so difficult to time box engineering problems.

I returned to work full time when my son was three months old (i.e., when my United States federal allowance of family and medical leave was over). I sat despondently at my desk for eight hours a day, unable to focus on anything. I’m sure there are coworkers who thought I was just lazy, when in actuality I was suffering terribly.

In hindsight, it is clear that going back to work full-time was too much to ask of myself then. It turned out to be a terrible move for my career—I was let go a month later. But between the societal norm, and the fact that my husband was a graduate student, I just hadn’t thought that I had any choice. In fact, I quickly found another job, and continued to work full-time because I felt I had to.

But after a while it became apparent that this schedule wasn’t sustainable for me – the money I earned wasn’t helping me to be a happy and well person. So, in my son’s second year, I took a hard look at the feasibility of living on less, and approached my company about working part-time.

Working Part Time

Going part-time was interesting in that it was another thing that made me different from my coworkers. I had already been the lone woman engineer in the company, and now I was the lone part-timer as well.

As men on the team welcomed infants into the world, I noticed a trend—they would take two weeks off when the baby was born, then immediately return to working full-time. So none were used to working with part-time colleagues, and I realized I had to work a bit harder to ensure that they felt I was available and dependable, even when they couldn’t always instantly reach me.

I felt fortunate that my company was willing to work with me on finding a schedule that benefitted us both. We agreed that I’d work from noon-5pm, and my team rescheduled the daily standup meeting from the morning until noon so that I could attend.

In the mornings, I would drop my son off at his daycare, and run errands for my own wellness or that of my household. Then I’d sit down to work knowing that I’d gotten important personal to-dos out of the way. It really worked. For the first time in over a year, I could take deep breaths and feel like I was handling things well.

And then I moved abroad. That’s a whole other story, but it brings me to the next chapter in my quest for work-life balance: freelancing.

Freelancing

Since settling in Germany, I have chosen here to take my work-life balance completely into my own hands.

By being a freelancer, I work in my house in total quiet, without disruptions. I work while my son is at kindergarten, or in the evenings after he is in bed. I am in total control of the number of hours that I work and, coincidentally, am in greater control than I have ever been of the types of work that I take on.

I still work part-time. I drop my child off at work and go to the gym, just as I did when I worked for a company. Many days he stays there until 5pm, but I also have the freedom to pick him up early for play dates. Or to just go on a mom date with a friend during the day to recharge around someone who feels kindred, in a way that even my favorite men/dad programmers don’t always.

I do keep connected to the wider tech community by attending local hackathons and geek girl events, giving talks at and attending conferences around Europe, and writing and blogging about my experiences as a woman indie developer. I have weekly Skype dates with a couple of friends to talk about our businesses, and I treat Twitter as my virtual water cooler.

To be completely transparent, freelance is not a cure-all. It felt like a big scary risk to start down this road, with no idea of how I would find clients or whether I could make enough money. Six months in, I still wrangle with uncertainty and with sharpening my business prowess. Income-wise, I’m not saving for my retirement or home ownership at anywhere near the rate I did as an employee… not yet, anyway. But those things have to take a backseat for now, and I’ve made my peace with that. What’s important is not that I superwoman the heck out of being a mom in tech. What’s important for me is that I find a way to stay in the game at all. To want to stay in the game.

Are You In or Are You Out?

With all due respect to the Lean In movement, I have to question what it is we are asking women to lean in to. Is a forty-plus-hour-a-week job really the only way for women to productively contribute as computing professionals? When did we all agree to this?

Or could we acknowledge that it is in fact healthy to re-examine what’s being asked of us, and propose alternate solutions. The working world, as such, has been designed over centuries primarily by the workers in it, who were men. Let’s recognize that complacency with this existing system is a choice.

Engineers identify and solve problems for a living. We can leave legacy software to age and grow increasingly outdated, occasionally patching a line here or there. Or we can scrap it as unusable and rewrite it from scratch to fit changing needs and styles. We do this day and day out with our code. Why aren’t we doing this with our jobs?

Boldly Going Where No Mom Has Gone Before

You can choose-your-own-adventure about what it looks like to be a working mother in tech.

For those of you reading this who have yet to become parents, here is my best advice. Come up with a plan for how soon you’d optimally like to return to work, given how you feel now. And figure out a contingency plan that shows what options you have if you can’t return to work on the same timeline that you anticipated. Know what accommodations and flexibility your employer can provide. And be kind to yourself if and when your plans and needs change.

You need to lean into the right things. It’s not about leaning into motherhood, or leaning out of your career. For me it’s about taking my laptop and the Internet, and having the courage to invent a whole new way of working, that allows me to lean in as both a programmer and a parent.

Who wants to join me?

About the Author

Kathryn Rotondo is a seasoned interactive developer, budding type designer, and songbird. She currently splits her time between building HTML and WordPress sites for clients, and developing Monkey See Monkey Do, an iOS app to help children navigate their daily routines (http://monkeyapp.tumblr.com). A Huffington Post Girls in Stem mentor, she also curates Equalitism (http://equalitism.tumblr.com), a blog about gender in software development and beyond. Sign up for her “Let’s make the Internet Awesomer!” newsletter at http://kathrynrotondo.com, and follow her on twitter at @krotondo.

Editor Comments

The editors would like to add that this article represents the opinions of the author and may not necessarily reflect the environment of the international technical community, particularly with respect to parental leave policies.