Family planning while working in a startup

the co-pour

I’ve been back at work post-mat leave for a few weeks now. I’m deep in ramp mode and trying to get back in the flow of things at the office. So much has shifted since I’ve been gone and while the surroundings and faces are familiar, the context has changed. I’m spending a lot of time learning and understanding the current state of the business.

While I love catching up with folks over coffee, I’ve been mindful to focus my time in the office and put social calls on the back burner.

So I was surprised when I looked at my calendar and found that a social call had somehow slipped through. I noticed it at 9 a.m. — the coffee was for 10 a.m. Something told me I should keep this meeting.

I find myself sitting across from a woman I’ve met a few times professionally but don’t know very well.

“How are you? I haven’t seen you in a few months. What’s new?” I ask.

“Well,” she says, holding onto the last L a bit too long. “I’m starting a family.”

“Congratulations! That’s wonderful news!”

“It is, but I don’t feel like everyone is reacting to it that way. People keep telling me I’m going to end my career.”

I feel the red flush creeping from my earlobes to my cheeks. I’m not mildly irked, I’m deeply bothered by this and my body is responding like I’m about to get into a fist fight.

She continues, “And it’s not men who are saying this. It’s senior women in tech.”


She already knows I don’t agree with whomever she’s been talking to so I’m cautious not to come out swinging.

Deep breath.

“I think you know this already but I don’t agree with the people who said that to you. There’s so much wrong with that sentence, I’m not even sure where to start.”

I take a sip of my tea and use the moment to gather my thoughts.

She doesn’t need a lecture right now. That’s unlikely to be helpful. But I want to beat this notion so far into the ground that whoever planted it in her head doesn’t get any more undue airtime.

And it occurs to me that if she’s sitting across from me, nearly in tears, struggling with how to talk about family planning in a startup context, she’s not alone.

It can be scary stuff but we need to talk about it. We need startup employees, who regularly negotiate everything about their package on the way in, to feel like they can ask questions. This isn’t limited to the interview process, this is about giving people a safe space across the board.

For anyone who has ever contemplated starting a family where one or both parents are working in a startup, this will be familiar.

Mentioning the unmentionable

The problem with family planning is that the moment you ask about mat leave or pat leave, people know you’re thinking about having a kid. They may not know if it’s imminent (i.e., that you or your partner are pregnant), but they definitely know it’s on your mind.

You are curious about family benefits before you take the new job, but don’t want them to think you aren’t serious. You worry that it might impact their willingness to give you an offer.

I found that having a plan made me feel better.

You haven’t been at the job for very long. You hesitate to ask about maternity benefits, lest they think you were pregnant when you applied and feel duped for hiring you.

You’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. You now have a bunch of medical appointments (not to mention costs) looming and you need to know what’s covered. Rather than ask someone, you scour the company intranet for details.

Given the many reasons to not bring family planning up at work, how is anyone ever supposed to get good, clear counsel on this important topic? Add to that the fact that startups are notoriously light on HR, process, and benefits that are actually written down somewhere, and it’s no wonder so many people are confused.

If you’re a startup wondering what you can do to help, start by writing down your family leave and benefits packages. Post it somewhere people can find it without having to ask. Better still, include the information in your offer package materials for all new hires, regardless of age or gender.

Ambition and procreation are not in conflict

If you’re ambitious in tech, the idea of your boss or your HR person knowing that you’re thinking about having a kid or about to have a kid can feel daunting.

You worry that once they know you’re pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, they will treat you differently. This worry isn’t unfounded.

You feel like being off will soften your skills, undercut your aspirations, and put the brakes on everything you’ve worked so hard to build.

You wear loose clothing and wait as long as possible to tell people at work that you are expecting. You don’t want to miss out on contributing to the big projects that hit after your due date.

The young woman at the intro to this post loves what she does and doesn’t want to slow down the trajectory of her career. Her concerns are real. The tension she feels between her hard-won career and her baby is not helped by the chorus of voices telling her it’s either-or.

Photo credit BonninStudio, Stocksy United

Like a boss

Everything that’s hard about family planning in a startup as an employee is at least doubly hard as a boss.

You worry that you won’t be taken seriously, that your team won’t respect you, and that they will all develop short-timer syndrome once they hear you are expecting.

You know that the moment you communicate change, the natural response is for folks to wonder “What does this mean for me?” If you’re still getting used to the idea of creating another life yourself, this is probably the last thing on your mind.

Juggling startup life and parenthood is an exercise in ruthless prioritization and focus.

You want to be able to walk into those conversations, communicate happy news, and have that be it. But that’s not what it means to be a boss or an exec in a startup context. It’s not that people won’t be happy for you. It just means you need to brace for the change response from your boss, your peers, your HR team, and particularly your direct reports.

One thing you can do to prepare for those discussions is to have thought about it in advance. Do you anticipate taking leave? Do you have a sense of what that might look like (knowing that every baby is different and those plans are highly subject to change)? Have you thought about how your team will run in your absence?

The most concerning part for many senior people is the idea that these decisions will be made without their input, that there won’t be space for them to come back after leave, or that major changes will happen while you’re gone.

I found that having a plan made me feel better. It meant that when I walked in to finally tell my team that I was expecting, I had answers for them about what to expect while I was expecting. There were major changes while I was out, but helping design my mat leave coverage put my mind at ease. It allowed me to shut off Slack and email and focus on my family.

Eight a.m. is the new 8 p.m.

Many parents credit their kids for helping cut through the noise. When I shared the news about my pregnancy, I had a fellow startup exec tell me, “You think you were efficient before. Just wait.”

Months later, I’m conducting a meeting via Skype with the baby asleep in a Moby wrap on me and I’m making a PB&J sandwich off camera. Her words come rushing back to me and I smile.

Juggling startup life and parenthood is an exercise in ruthless prioritization and focus. Somewhere between my first coffee and my daily sprint to the parking garage, a whole bunch of things have to get done. My hard stop at the end of the day is a hard stop.

If you can’t fathom startup life without the quiet of the late night grind, I’ve got news for you: eight a.m. is the new 8 p.m.

The kids get up so friggin early. They have no respect for weekends. They barely respect dawn. But it means I’m in the office for nearly two hours before the first scrum kicks off, drinking my coffee, triaging my day, and optimizing for a timely departure. I leave work and head into the post-work hustle that is kiddo pickup, dinner prep, and bedtime routines.

Starting a family will change your career. It will change how you engage with work. It will for sure change how you view after-hours networking events. But let’s be really clear here. Different is not the same as dead.

To the young woman at the start of this post (you know who you are):

You will be amazing. You will be more productive than you ever thought possible. You will bring a new energy to your work because you know that at the end of the day, you’re going home to spend time with a tiny person you helped create.

You think you were efficient before. Just wait…

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.

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