When my employer, Netflix, recently announced a pioneering approach to parental leave laws, I felt someone there must have been watching my struggle. I’d drafted a post about my difficulties with coming back to work after baby, but never published it. Why? Maybe I thought it would make no difference, women have had to buck up and deal with limited (or no) parental leave forever. Maybe I was too exhausted from work + baby. Maybe I didn’t want to admit anything could be possibly be wrong with my decision to commit to my profession and to being a parent. With all the debate about “women and tech”, I had to use my words carefully not to affirm anyone’s wrongly held prejudice that women cannot be equal players.
So here goes. In late 2013 I found out that I was pregnant, something we had been hoping and praying for for many years. From that moment on, life got much more beautiful and meaningful. I was very fortunate to have a job I really liked as a software engineer, something that 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 in a fast-paced environment started affecting me.
Naturally, during the last month sitting through a two-hour meeting without a bathroom break was next to impossible. Once, in my eight month, I needed to re-wire some of the automation machines in the lab. I squatted and sat 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).
When the little one was born, as expected of a new parent, I was simultaneously ecstatic and tired. Breastfeeding my baby exclusively until her 6-month birthday became my number one goal in life, casting all the rest of life objectives to the shadows.
I had committed to returning to work by Ella’s 3-month birthday. The transition was 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 was a battle, leaving new moms to struggle and fight for the “prime” slots. At least 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% to work because of time restrictions and certainly because of the pumping breaks. Once, I had to interrupt an urgent debugging session with a coworker because of “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 matter.
Looking back I would not have returned to work so soon if I had the choice not to.
According to the Netflix 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 because it gives the 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 the same week.
This is great news for new parents at Netflix and those employed by other tech companies in the Bay Area and Seattle. I am hoping that this announcement will be first among many, to set the course for Congress to rule in favor of paid parental leave and job security to all salaried employees. 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.