Summary: It's really hard and I'm not sure. This is a work in progress.
It's important to me to feel centered in my identity and self-worth outside of being a parent, by making regular progress on my personal growth and career goals. Progress is slow, and some projects I might work on only a couple times a month, but that's enough for me to feel okay. Obviously it's totally fine for parents to NOT want to work at all so that they can focus on young kids, and it's also okay to outsource a lot of your parenting and focus on your impact full time. During my maternity leaves, I have been experimenting with something in between, and this post summarizes my learnings.
I hope that this post will:
- start a discussion that will generate more stories and tips from people with different arrangements
- help answer the question about how having kids affects your impact from people who don't have kids (e.g. example 1, example 2, example 3). I know that Elon Musk has six kids and still gets a lot done, but I don't see a lot of perspectives from people who are breastfeeding their child or otherwise responsible for the night time wake-ups, which makes a HUGE difference in quality of life due to prolonged suboptimal sleep. It's not uncommon for people in this role (usually the mom) to feel that the first year of their child's life is the most challenging, while other parents find toddlerhood more challenging.
- generate some advice for me! After my maternity leave is over, I go back to my day job, and feel totally underwater until my baby turns one and sleeps through the night consistently enough that I'M sleeping through the night. If you feel like you've figured out how to thrive – not just survive – at a "real job" (whatever that means to you) with a baby at home, please leave a comment. Maybe it's just not possible to do super well with the type or the amount of work I'm trying to do.
My kids are 8 months, and almost 3 years. I work in Silicon Valley as an software engineer, and have a 5 month maternity leave. I look forward to leave as a time when I can do projects without having to worry about my day job. "Working on projects while on maternity leave" is completely different from any other job situation I've had, with rather extreme requirements on scope, schedule, and flexibility (discussed in depth below). As mentioned above, I haven't yet figured out how to do well at my regular job until after baby turns one.
For my first maternity leave, I worked ~10 hours a week as a manufacturing engineer, toward my goal of eventually being the CTO of an organization that does good (most top rated charities on GiveWell have to do with a physical good, e.g. bednets). This job was 80% project management and 20% technical stuff like CAD drawings, prototyping, and testing. For my second maternity leave, I interned with the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, doing a research project where we asked homeless people about their experience applying for subsidized housing, so we could advocate for policy improvements. This job involved interviewing service providers, followed by facilitating group listening sessions (with baby in tow), and ended with data analysis and writing. I had parents staying with us to help for the first 1-2 months, while I was recovering from my c-sections. My husband and I both took the first month off work, and then he waited until I finished my maternity leave before taking the rest of his leave. He had 14-16 weeks in total, depending on the job. While I'm on leave, my husband often takes the kids to the park after work, to give me a chance to nap, shower, or get stuff done.
I'd like to have more kids, once we find our new balance since having the 2nd baby. I don't have all the answers, and honestly, I'm just coming out of a couple months of insomnia and burnout that happened after I started back at my day job. But I think it's still worth posting my thoughts so far.
what is the point of having kids
For me, the point of having kids is to enjoy the experience of being with my kids, especially while they are young. If your goal in having kids is to produce children that will be a certain way, your parenting style will probably be a lot more involved, and what I'm describing might not be a good fit for you. That kind of parenting sounds stressful and, in my opinion, has a higher chance of failure than trying to be the way you'd like to be, by yourself (and giving kids the freedom to figure out what they'd like to be). I've heard "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think" by Bryan Caplan is a good book on this.
It's hard to get anything thinky done while looking after a baby, due to sleep deprivation. In fact, it's hard to get anything done at all. Trying to think on low sleep means constantly losing your train of thought, unless you write it down. I use Todoist to keep track of what I'm trying to do. I had maybe 4 hours a day with my newborn where I could be productive (like, 3 naps worth) but that includes time spent on chores, not just work. And which hours of the day I ended up being free was pretty random. Some days were wholly unproductive.
I found that any work I tried to do while taking care of a baby took 3-4 times longer than normal due to baby interactions. With a newborn who's not so world-weary, sometimes I could get away with tapping their bouncy chair with my foot, while using my laptop. After the first month or two, I couldn't do work while I was actively taking care of my babies -- they would get bored and whine if I was on my laptop – but I could do more interactive things, like opening packages from the mail.
People say that at six months, baby can be trained to sleep the night, but it's not as easy as it sounds. We trained our babies, but the oldest only slept through the night consistently after he turned 1, and the younger one is 8 months and maybe sleeps through the night 1 out of 3 times (he usually wakes up for a 5am feeding).
Taking care of a baby involves a lot of cute, joyous moments, but also a lot of tedium. Time goes faster when I'm hanging with friends (over video or voice chat works just fine), or listening to a podcast or audiobook. I'm a big fan of Shokz bone conducting headphones because it's easy to hear the kids while listening to something. I liked it when I could time grocery shopping right in between baby naps, to keep us both occupied. Sometimes I took baby to the mall out of boredom. I got so bored once that I got my ears pierced.
Finally, you can tell by this post that I'm very lucky to have a supportive partner, a decent maternity leave, plus resources to pay for a nanny. While on my second maternity leave, our nanny took care of our toddler during work hours. I also had help from parents or in-laws for the first 2 months of both my kids' lives. After kids, I've had more emotional highs and lows, and the overall experience is less enjoyable the more resource-constrained I am.
what's worked for me
Yep, the first 3 are about sleep.
I track my sleep religiously. I've tried a Fitbit and a Pebble, and I find that the Pebble is more accurate, especially with wacky newborn sleep schedules. Sleep is the biggest predictor of how I'm going to feel and what I'm going to be able to get done. I find it really helps my mental health to know exactly how much I slept, so that I can plan my task list accordingly and not feel like I've failed my expectations. I estimate that each wake-up is minus 30 minutes of sleep, so if I slept 3 hours, fed the baby, and then slept 3 more, I will feel as if I got 5.5 hours of continuous sleep. I also find that most of the time I feel really sad about something, it's on a day that I'm really underslept. It's nice to know that I'll feel better again after sleeping, rather than feeling like I have to fix what I'm sad about before I will feel like myself again.
I get insomnia when I get too sleep deprived! 😭 I didn't know this about myself until after I had kids. Tracking my sleep helps me know if I'm about to accrue too much sleep debt, and making sure that I nap the day after I have insomnia helps. I've accidentally fallen into a multi-month insomnia spiral twice now, and I find that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) helps. Briefly, that means
- no electronic screens 1 hour before bed
- if I can't sleep after 20 minutes in bed, I have to get up and do something without electronic screens for 30 minutes before trying to sleep again
- bed should only be used for sleep or sex I have a BOOX Mira e-ink monitor -- no light comes out of it so I don't count it as a screen -- that I use with my computer in the evening. Trazodone is a medication that is OK to use while breastfeeding that I've been prescribed for insomnia. My OB Gyn doesn't like prescribing Trazodone for long term use, so I generally use it for just a week or two to catch up on sleep if I need to, before doing the CBT-I.
Make the baby sleep by himself
Most of my free time during maternity leave comes from baby naps! (In addition to my husband taking the kids to the park after work) My first baby slept like the dead; we once took him to a house party and just past his regular bedtime, he fell asleep in the middle of the party. Our second child sleeps lightly, and by his second month, he was only able to nap on me, and I felt like I was going crazy being attached to him all the time. With the help of a sleep consultant, I got a schedule appropriate for his age -- sleep after 45 mins of morning waking, sleep after 1.5 hours of waking afterwards -- and then nap trained him. The training was me putting him in the crib when it was time to sleep (before he was visibly tired – by then it was too late for this particular baby), and patting him and verbally encouraging him until he fell asleep. At first it took 15-20 minutes for him to sleep, and then by the end of 2 weeks I could just put him in bed without patting him at all, and he would sleep.
Other stuff we've had to do to help with our kids' sleep:
- black out curtains so they don't wake with the sun
- blasting white noise
- temperature control: I have a Vornado AVH10 that keeps the room above 70F
- routine: we carry them while walking and sing a song before putting them to bed, so they know it's time to sleep
- weatherstripping the door and window of the bedroom so less noise comes in
- I haven't been able to use the SNOO successfully, but multiple people in the Parents in Effective Altruism Facebook group swear by it.
- Parents not sleeping in the same room as baby
- Hiring a sleep consultant to help make a plan to improve baby's or toddler's sleep after 6 months old if the kid isn't sleeping well. My husband and I have used sleep consultants from the Cleo app. My research advisor, Dr. Tara Kirk Sell, told me, "If you are sleep deprived, you cannot think well enough to effectively sleep train. My spouse and I had 6 degrees from Stanford at the time (and a PhD from Hopkins coming) and we just could not do it. We hired someone when my son was two and it was done in 2 weeks."
- I know not every parent is down with sleep training, since it involves letting baby cry. I feel like all the parents I know who don't sleep train, co-sleep instead. It didn't work for me – my babies and I wake each other up a lot when we're in the same bed.
No matter what division of responsibility you planned before the baby was born, you might find that you and your partner are more well-suited to different things. In particular, it's common for women to be instantly awake every time the baby cries at night, while men sleep through. We had planned on splitting night time responsibilities for our first child, but it ended up working better for us for me to do the night time wakings and for my husband to take the baby in the morning before work, so I could sleep in. (For our second baby we mostly divided-and-conquered, where he did all the toddler stuff, and I did all the baby stuff.) Others split it so that the parent not responsible for night wakeups gets to change all the diapers.
Drop the ball
I feel like if you want to work while having kids, you get to pick one thing to be a real stickler about, and everything else in your life is mediocre. For me, it's important to talk to my kids in Cantonese. Other people like their house to be really clean, or maybe they care about their kids having really fresh food. Whatever it is, you only get one thing to be good at. You could rotate, like maybe you could focus on different things for different months, or you could outsource if you have the resources. Here's a peek at how things that feel essential can be done without. If one of the topics below happens to be your number one priority, you'll probably find that section deeply offensive.
We don't fold our laundry. We just sort out whose items are whose and shove them in the drawers. Luckily we don't work jobs where we have to wear collared shirts. We don't sort out darks and lights. Yup, some of our white clothes are a little pink now because of our red bedsheets. Any delicate clothes we've owned are long destroyed.
Frozen and other prepared food
I started associating good things with frozen food when a senior engineer with 3 kids mentioned to me that she never cooked, and that there were so many delicious frozen food options at Costco these days. We eat frozen microwave meals, frozen snacks (our favorite since childhood is Tostino's Pizza Stuffers, or Pillsbury Pizza Pops if you're in Canada). We bought an extra chest freezer for frozen food. Similarly, we eat a lot of PB&J sandwiches, toast with cheese, boxed mac n cheese, and use pasta sauce that comes in a jar. Our baby eats Gerber baby food that comes in the plastic pouches (he can suck it out of the pouch himself if we hold it up for him) and Gerber oatmeal powder that's mixed with formula to make a cereal mush. Our toddler eats a lot of what we eat plus cheese strings, Danimals yogurt drinks, and Kozyshack rice puddings. If I do cook something, like an omelette or pasta, I'm using pre-chopped frozen veggies.
A study showed that moms' subjective well-being while spending time with their kids was worse than dads, due to doing more chores while being with their kids. This lines up with my personal experience. I can do dishes while with the kids, but I don't like it, because they whine and want to play. If you don't want to clean, you can either outsource your cleaning, or clean much less and be OK with a messy house. We do a lot of the latter.
When we do clean, we leverage as much gadgetry as we can. We would never live in a place without an in-unit laundry and dishwasher. We have a Roomba knock-off that we use to vacuum the floor (this is also great for distracting the kids). The kids room is a hurricane of toys. We tried to hide some of them away in boxes to control the mess, but our toddler figured out how to open them. We're lucky that our nanny mops the dining area for us every day when the baby is napping.
I only shower every other day. I'm pretty sure my husband showers even less, but I don't want to know. (He also subscribes to the no-poo philosophy.) I brush my teeth once a day, before bed – I'm never organized enough to do it in the morning since I wake up at the same time as the kids. I haven't gotten any cavities since switching to an electric toothbrush. We bathe our babies once or twice a week. Baths make their skin dry, and they don't get that dirty anyways.
I find breastfeeding very convenient, because I can go anywhere and not worry about food for baby, so long as I bring him with me (and don't forget to drink water). The learning curve for breastfeeding was WAY steeper than I thought it would be – it definitely takes skill at the beginning when baby is not good at it yet. And it hurts like heck from day 4 through 14 while my nipples are getting used to it (with all subsequent kids too, not just the first one). I was lucky to have a good supply of milk. I pumped a lot with my first, since he was born too early to breastfeed effectively at first, and found a hands-free pumping bra to be a necessity.
We find this more convenient than a stroller. I switch baby from being carried on my front to my back (like a backpack) when they get too heavy. We like:
- Moby wrap, great for getting a newborn to sleep when all else fails
- Solly wrap, lighter and good for a hot day
- Moby carrier for carrying baby on my back
- Tula toddler carrier
Energy and mood tweaking
I think it's a misconception that extremely productive people can get things done no matter what the circumstance is. The real superpower of productive people is the skill of taking inventory of themselves. They're able to get really granular answers to questions like: How do I feel? What can I get done based on how I'm feeling? How might I adjust my level of motivation or mood to get my goals done?
Here's a list of tools I use for improving my motivation level:
- Caffeine (my husband and I sometimes split a Pepsi in the morning)
- hot drinks (tea, broth, hot chocolate, etc)
- cold drinks (anything with ice)
- spicy food
- change of environment
I find that I'm able to improve my mood by treating myself, e.g.:
- putting on some music
- eat something delicious
- go somewhere special
- design something for myself to look forward to later (date with husband, meetup with friend, trying something I've been wanting to try) Sometimes the only thing that helps is arranging with my husband or nanny to get a break from childcare.
I want to note that postpartum depression is a very real thing that requires professional help, not tricks like the above. I can't find the reference anymore, but I think studies show that sleep training the baby, as well as dads taking paternity leave make it less likely for moms to have postpartum depression and anxiety.
Without earplugs, I wake up even if baby moves in his sleep. Earplugs increase the threshold of volume and duration of crying I can endure before I wake up, so that my wakefulness is more aligned with baby actually needing help. My favorite brand is Flents Quiet Please, which are made out of a special foam that is soft when it's in my warm ear, and don't hurt my ears no matter how many nights in a row I wear them.
Every time I figure out how to do anything, I either write it down, or I forget it. Even if it's a simple order of operations, e.g. I'm going to put the laundry in the machine now, and then I'm going to take baby outside, and then I'm putting baby down to nap, and then I have to remember to put the laundry in the dryer. I use Google Voice Keyboard on my phone to do most of my typing, since it's fast and easy to do with one hand.
I built up my documentation habit before having kids; my friend and I like documentation so much we bought ilovedocumentation.com. Writing stuff down is like adding memory to your brain computer.
more tips from the Parents in Effective Altruism group
Link (requires joining the private group to be able to access): https://www.facebook.com/groups/eaparents/posts/3250843781804451/ If you're interested enough in the topic to read all the way here, you should join the group!
what I'm going to try next time to make going back to my regular job easier
This is just my best guess as to how to feel better the next time I return to my day job after having a baby.
Some parents find that after introducing their babies to the bottle, baby won't take the breast. Other parents find that after a couple months, when the sucking reflex becomes voluntary, baby refuses anything EXCEPT the breast. I think it depends on how fast your milk comes out – babies prefer the easier option. I have the second problem. It's very annoying to have a baby that we can't effectively get fluids into unless I'm there to feed them. We tried bottle practice 2x a week with our 2nd baby, and he started refusing the bottle after he was two months old. With my next baby, I will do bottle practice every day. Maybe a bottle before bed every day will help them sleep longer, too.
Something I did for my second baby that felt like an improvement was not pumping during the work day. I pumped a little at the beginning so that my husband could mix the breast milk into solid food to get baby to eat it, but after that, baby just had formula during the day. He's still refusing a bottle right now so the formula is mixed into powdered oat mush. I breastfeed him before and after work, and I don't think there's any advantage to exclusive breastfeeding over breastfeeding supplemented with formula.
Solid food training
As Jason Crawford mentions in his 6 month baby reflection, eating from a spoon is a learned skill. My first baby took to it alright in a couple weeks (thanks to my husband for teaching him after I went back to work), but my second baby loved breastmilk and hated solid food. At first, we couldn't get more than a few spoonfuls in him at a time before he cried. He'd push food back out with tongue. I found it stressful to have to breastfeed the baby during work hours, especially if I was the one tracking when baby needed to be fed next. (It was easier if someone just told me when baby was hungry and I could do it when I was next free, so I didn't have to think about it.) Next time, I will take at least a few weeks to train my baby to eat solid food before going back to work, hopefully to the point where baby can nap without waking up from hunger.
Seeking professional help
I normally live in San Francisco, but I spent 7 weeks in Canada this year, where I was having awful insomnia. I wasn't sure how health insurance would work while in Canada, but I regret not seeking help anyways. I spent some time experimenting with over the counter medications like melatonin, Benadryl, and Gravol, with only limited success. My situation got a lot better when I returned home and was prescribed Trazodone to be able to catch up on my sleep. Next time I feel so terrible, I resolve to seek professional help sooner.
ideal qualities in a job
Babies are so cute and so sweet, and oxytocin courses through me when I breastfeed mine. Obviously the source of my problems isn't the baby… It must be capitalism. ;)
Here are qualities in a job that allow me to work them with less stress so that I can be productive while enjoying my baby.
Extreme schedule flexibility
I need to be able to do work whenever I have time to do work, no matter what time of day it is. Both the jobs I'd taken during my maternity leaves were like this, for the most part. For the Coalition on Homelessness internship, I could even bring baby to the office, and had the flexibility to show up, leave, or breastfeed him whenever it was convenient for me.
I'm happiest when I reduce or eliminate meetings. Meetings are always stressful. If I have one meeting while I'm with baby, I can try to shift the baby feeding schedule so that baby isn't hungry in the middle of the meeting. It doesn't always work, though. If I have 2 meetings back to back, well, hopefully it's meetings where I can just talk or listen, and turn my camera off to feed baby if necessary. During my internship with the Coalition, when baby was 2 months old, I told everyone that I could no longer go to meetings because I needed to nap-train my baby. Everyone was fine with it, and I would just call my intern supervisor on my own schedule if I needed to chat. After that, I felt much less stressed about the job. During my first maternity leave, I noticed that the two days where I had a weekly meeting (one with the team and one with the factory project manager) were much more likely to feel stressful.
When I went back to my day job, the days without meetings were the best because then I could nap when I needed to and still arrange to get my work done.
Another post from @rosehadshar about going back to work after baby mentioned working 50%. If you don't like struggling to focus for your job when you're tired, this is a great idea. Every day, from the afternoon onwards, it's much harder for me to focus. I have arranged to work at 90% of a full time job. I thought that I would want to take Wednesday mornings off for a mid-week sleep-in, but it's actually better to be able to take the morning off on whichever day I need it most (usually after a bad night's sleep).
Note specific to technical work
I find that I can do emails and meetings even if I'm a little tired, but I have an extremely hard time writing code. I learned from an episode of Parent Driven Development of a mom who was doing a coding bootcamp with young kids, and she always did her coding in the morning before her kids woke up, starting at 4 or 5am. Despite trying really hard, I haven't been able to trick myself into sleeping early enough to wake up that early, but I do also find that the morning is the best time to do work. It seems that with the level of sleep I have, I can only do technical work before 2pm, or else I'm too tired to write working code (let alone quality code). I try to clear meetings off my work calendar in the morning to avoid wasting the only deep thinking time I have.
Note for people who are reading this who don't have babies yet
I don't want to make it sound like all the stresses of having a baby will be fixed if you just optimize enough. Maybe that's true, but optimizing is a process, you will spend all your time on that process and you will never feel like you have it figured out for more than a week. It's a lot to be a baby – they get growth spurts and learn new things and change all the time. Their sleep schedule changes, and you have to figure out the new schedule. Or maybe they just learned how to roll around, and they're getting stuck in their crib in positions they can't fall asleep in. Or maybe the seasons changed and the temperature in the room is not quite right and baby keeps waking up (but it takes you a while to figure this out since they could have woken up from noise or being hungry, or any number of other things). I have been lucky not to have a baby that has colic, i.e cries a lot for reasons no one can figure out, but that's a thing that can happen. I've been prepared to cancel my working plans if it happens to me. If you are going to have your first baby, I recommend first, thinking about your goals. For me, my goal is to enjoy the experience of having a cute baby, and I hate wasting my cute baby time by spending it feeling negatively about work. Second, I recommend preparing to be flexible with your expectations. You might not be able to keep your house, cook, make progress on your career, or even distribute responsibilities with your partner the way you thought you would, but hopefully you can find some creative compromises. Good luck and enjoy :)
- Why do EAs have children?
- Parenting: Things I wish I could tell my past self by Michelle Hutchinson when her baby was 10 months old
- My experience of returning to work after having a baby by Rose Hadshar
- Baby Sleep II (about sleep training) by Jeff Kaufman
- Reflections on six months of fatherhood by Jason Crawford
the official maternity leave is 16 weeks, but I got 2 extra weeks to recover from my c-sections, and I took 2 extra weeks unpaid ↩︎
Multiple times with my first baby I would tell my friends that they should come visit to see him because he was so cute I was convinced he'd reached peak cuteness – only to find as the next month rolled around that he had gotten EVEN CUTER! How do they do it?? ↩︎
I have a Pebble Time Round. Earlier versions of the Pebble that don't have Pebble Health will not do the kind of sleep tracking that shows you when you woke up and for how long. Pebble the company is no longer, but the cloud services are being maintained by https://rebble.io/ so the watches still work. ↩︎
Someone I met at an EA Picnic did an experiment where they tested different sleep trackers along with camera feed of themself sleeping, and also found the Pebble to be the most accurate. ↩︎
I found the sleep consultant through the Cleo app. Access to the app is a benefit provided by my workplace. ↩︎
we tried the SNOO with our 2nd baby at 6 weeks old, and maybe that was too old for him to get used to it ↩︎
TMI: I like red bedsheets because then I don't have to stress about period stains ↩︎
My vegetarian husband and roommate like Amy's brand microwave meals, and there are also a lot of good options at Trader Joe's ↩︎
We have a portable dishwasher from General Electric, since the 100 year old house we rent doesn't have a built-in dishwasher ↩︎
our "nuclear option" for getting a baby to sleep was putting an overtired baby in the Moby wrap and taking an 8-block walk around the neighborhood ↩︎
I started eating things doused in hot sauce in grad school to wake myself up, so my spice tolerance is out of whack. I've accidentally given my kids spicy food many times because it didn't taste spicy to me. My favorite spicy food is Samyang Buldak Ramen, in Carbonara flavor ↩︎
Music definitely decreases my cognitive ability, but it's helpful for motivating me and making the work experience more enjoyable. I like chillhop for when I'm reading or writing, so there aren't any lyrics inserting themselves into my head. ↩︎