My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Choosing the “Right” Maternity Leave Plan

As I prepare to go on parental leave, I’ve been forced to contend with countless well-intended people telling me how to “do it right” (or tsk tsking me as though I’m already “doing it wrong”). I’m a lot better at keeping my Bad Attitude Bear self at bay these days, but I’m still stunned by the barrage of conflicting and condescending advice that my bulging tummy elicits. Even after decades of forging my own path and managing to make things work, I apparently cannot be entrusted to find a way to have a child and be a researcher. And yowsers does my “play it by ear” approach raise everyone’s hackles.

I am the first to admit that I have zero clue of how I will feel after I deliver my child. I don’t know how my body will react to childbirth. I don’t know how I will feel about spending all day with a newborn. I don’t know how easy or hard things like nursing or sleep will be. The one thing that I know for certain is that there is tremendous variation among parents and children and that nothing is predictable. Yet, this doesn’t stop people from projecting onto me how I should feel afterwards. As a researcher, I very much appreciate their diverse experiences, pleasures, and challenges and so I try not to bristle at the universalizing that unfolds from that.

Part of what makes hearing everyone’s commentary hard to stomach is that I feel super fortunate to have a level of flexibility that few people I know have. At Microsoft, I have phenomenal benefits that allow me to take many weeks – actually months – of leave. My boss at Microsoft Research is one of the most supportive people that I know. And I’ve worked hard to close out group projects and otherwise eliminate dependencies so that I could take leave without impacting others. I’ve planned for uncertainty and I feel like I have tremendous flexibility. So I feel safe and comfortable waiting to see how things unfold.

But my refusal to commit to exactly how I will do maternity leave doesn’t stop folks from being opinionated. I may be back on email within a week or two. I may not be. I may be back to working on research puzzles that tickle my brain in short order. I may not be. I happen to love my research and nothing gives me greater joy that having thought provoking conversations and thinking through ideas. But if I suggest that I may engage in any act that someone else calls “work,” I’m condemned for being a workaholic who will be a bad mother. Given my profession, I usually get some crass comment comparing me to Marissa Mayer. Or I get an eyeroll or a condescending chortle followed by a series of remarks about how childbirth will change my priorities, my values, and every aspect of my life. In other words, what I hear over and over again is that my identity as researcher will be wholly incompatible with my identity as mother and I should be prepared to give up the former because the latter is clearly better.

What’s with this incessant judgmentalness? Why does it make people feel better to project their values and anxieties onto others? And what happened to a feminism that was about “choice” rather than about “doing it right”?

I hate that the logic of assessment and evaluation has pervaded our society so extensively than people feel the need to proselytize a rubric for things like childrearing and maternity leave. There’s no single right path, no perfect decision. When we set mothers up for someone’s fantasy of an ideal, everyone loses, including the child.

I wish more new mothers out there had even a fraction of the choices that I have. I wish more companies would work with their employees to help them create a flexible schedule because so much is unknown. I wish more bosses would be so supportive and willing to juggle things to find a way to make things work regardless of what happens. In other words, I wish that we had a remotely sane work culture. I’m lucky enough to be a part of one but that’s so rare.

At the same time, I also wish that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to make choices wouldn’t have to face such oppressive condescension and critique from those who feel as though, because our system is fundamentally flawed and unjust, anyone with freedom and flexibility should be choosing to completely walk away from work in order to be a “good” mother. I hate that it’s all black-or-white, work or don’t work, mother or employee. This sets everyone up to fail and be miserable in the process. Few people live such a polarized binary life.

Rather than going to extremes around all things parenting, I really wish that we could truly enable people to have choices. Not faux choices where they’re pressured by bosses or colleagues to continue working even though they technically have leave. Nor the kind of situation where they’re pressured by friends or family or society to behave in a prescribed way. But true choice where they can work out what’s right for them and their families and balance what matters. I realize that we’re a long way from this pipe dream, but I can’t help but think that we collectively undermine choice whenever we condemn those who have choice for making choices that differ from our own.

More selfishly, I wish people would just be supportive of me playing things by ear because who knows what the upcoming weeks and months have to offer. I, for one, am looking forward to finding out.

Image from Flickr by Joe Green

Originally posted to LinkedIn. More comments reside there.

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14 comments to Choosing the “Right” Maternity Leave Plan

  • There are many paths to loving your child, and undoubtedly loving yourself is among them. The options your life affords should give provide you great flexibility to respond to the needs of your family in a way that makes most sense. Everything else will come in a distant second.

    It is certainly true that your story is not the norm, but from that position there are opportunities to shine a light on not just the inequalities that are present but how those inequalities inform our behavior. There is a reason that a segment of our population is disappointed, if not outraged, over the early parenting choices of Marissa Mayer: It reflects a privilege not everyone has, certainly, but that prominence of her choices also serves to invalidate choices other parents have made. Parenting is probably the activity with the most insecurity. While what Mayer does should not make different choices wrong, neither should it make similar choices right. It will be difficult for any parent to not see the world in those shades, however.

    I don’t know your plans for the future and how big you expect your family to get, but the same differences in context happen within the same people as they move from first child to siblings. The advice I would give myself as a single guy, newlywed, new dad and father of three are distinct. They are shaped by experience and through increased interactions with other parents in this new social circle that forms around our kids. Parenting is so insecure, you’ll fight with your former selves about what is the best way to act.

    My hope is that your research-y brain, long after this institutionalized transition into parenthood has ended, will continue to ask questions about both the nature and context of the input you are receiving. Your position of prominence and curious mind not only give you good tools to help your child, but also to help us reveal the societal hangups that keep us from being a better village for all our kids.

    Best to you on this journey.

  • FWIW I took for granted that I didn’t know what I was doing with respect to birth or maternity leave or parenting, never having done it before. So I felt like the only reasonable thing for me to do was try to have a general sense of the options, and embark on a plan with some flexibility — set some default parameters and then make it up as we went along. (I now have one six-year-old, who appears to be maintaining homeostasis and learning stuff and making friends more or less as one might hope.)

    And honestly, it works. I mean, it doesn’t work all the time, and everyone always screws something up, but that’s okay, because if there’s anything I learned from my five years as a teacher it’s that most kids are pretty resilient and all parents screw some stuff up and as long as you avoid the *really* huge screwups (which are obvious bright-line things you know already), kids who are more or less normal will turn out more or less okay.

    People will have opinions because people have this bizarre proprietary thing about other people’s kids, but screw ‘em. If they’re not offering to babysit or fund your childcare, they don’t get a say. And amazingly, they are never offering to do these things!

    Turns out some of the things worked out the way I’d intended, and some of them didn’t, and an awful lot more of them were completely orthogonal to the question because I had no idea the question even existed because, hey, never done this before. And that’s okay. We’re all just muddling through as best we can.

  • (However, if I may offer some totally unsolicited advice, do read The Story About The Baby. Because it’s hilarious.)

  • So first of all, hugs and commiseration for dealing with all the societal silliness around impending parenthood (my gender has protected me from some of it, but I’ve watched my partner go through the worst of it, and taken some collateral emotional damage in the process). And secondly, from two years out on the other side of new parenthood, I think the “play it by ear” plan is the only rational plan — perhaps the only possible plan — and I applaud you for being so clear eyed and sensible about it.

  • Heather Madrone

    I think that a lot of the personal remarks come from women’s experience that childbirth does change everything in our lives. It’s a huge mental, physical, emotional, and hormonal trip that moves us into a landscape we’ve never experienced before. Add to that the fact that most of our cultural narratives about this transition come from male fantasies of how women ought to handle this transition, and a lot of women are taken aback by what it’s really like.

    Also, for most of us, the available choices aren’t all that great. When I delivered my first child almost 25 years ago, I was in what felt was a uniquely privileged position. I was able to take an extended leave and then work part-time, mostly from home, as a programmer. My little nursling attended technical meetings and code reviews with me. (She’s just recently started her own programming career, so maybe those early code reviews were helpful).

    It felt pretty balanced with the first baby. It got harder when she was a toddler. By the time her little sister came along, I realized that I was no longer getting plum assignments, my co-workers were treating me in a condescending way that they never had before, and also that the intensity of programming wasn’t compatible with the intensity of parenting. I couldn’t give 100% to both areas. I love programming, and I’m exceptionally good at it, but the industry dictate that programmers put in 55-60 hours of focused work per week would have left me no energy for my children.

    I switched to tech writing, continued working part time, had two more kids, and managed to keep a foot in each camp. In general, though, I had to work to carve out a niche where I could both be a parent and participate in the tech industry. My niche was writing class library documentation for programmers, something that allowed me to read a lot of code, keep up with changes in the industry, and use my ability to derive documentation directly from the source code.

    I think it would be better if we lived in a paradigm where mothering was truly valued work and where part-time workers are not marginalized. It would also be helpful if having a baby didn’t suddenly make everyone you know act as if you’d lost 50 points off the top of your IQ. I would have preferred to be able to continue to be a valued part of a programming team while also committing myself to my family.

    In a lot of ways, I’m happy with the compromises I made. My kids are all doing well, and have excellent STEM backgrounds. I’m still keeping a hand in, wanting to finish this parenting job in top form, and knowing exactly how much full-time programming takes out of a person’s life.

  • If there’s one piece of advice I wish someone had given me (instead of the unending sea of judgment, biased advice, and fear-mongering I was subjected to) is that a mother should trust her gut and do what she thinks is best, and that there is no wrong way to do this so long as you are doing what’s best for you and your baby. If I had ignored the judgmental jackasses (including my pediatrician who finally diagnosed my son with being allergic to my breast milk four months after I mentioned it to her and was blown off), my son and I would have had a much more pleasant first few months together. Yes, you’re very lucky to have flexibility that many don’t, but you’re also totally right to say “hey, I have no idea what this is going to look like after I have my child and I’m not going to make firm plans.” Every baby is different, every birth is different and every mother is different. Ignore the advice and the judgment and just do what feels right to you. I love being a mom AND a faculty member; it’s totally doable to be passionate about research and family.

  • Margaret

    Amen. And welcome to the unwelcome-opinion-fest that will likely be your experience for at least the next few years. Becoming a parent changes everything, and yet you can’t really prepare for it. Your “play it by ear” approach is the 100% correct way to go. I was lucky to have similar flexibility when I had a baby a few years ago, as a grad student on fellowship. I had some plans that got completely wiped away; I had unexpected things happen that I never imagined would. I was able to explore the range of 100%-baby-minder (drove me crazy) to 100%-work-focused (made me sad) and found the right balance between the two extremes for me. I, too, wish all parents could have the flexibility to find the right whole solution for themselves and their families. Unfortunately we are far, far away from that ideal in this country.

  • Donna

    Ditto every word from Margaret, above. Our society is still figuring this stuff out. Blaze your own path, and write about it. You’ll help so many parents who have neither the flexibility to experiment nor the podium for influencing others.

  • Anj

    Congratulations on becoming a new mom! Very exciting times, and I know your little one will be in good hands. As meredith said, “go with your gut.” Whatever you decide to do will be the right thing for you and your baby, and if not, you’ll be able to adjust what you do until it works.

    Being a mother is the best gift in the world, and such an important job for the future of our world. Everybody has a choice, and there’s no wrong answers if you make your choices mindfully. As a mom, I can say that I haven’t lost my work identity (still publishing, staying current), but I have shifted to blazing my own way as an entrepreneur because its something I’ve always wanted to do and its the right time. I get to truly know my kid as he grows, and do something productive for humanity and my spirit. Be bold, be you, and know that the best thing we can all hope for is to be surrounded by love, family and passion in our lives! Congratulations again!!!!

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    Danah, The best thing to do is to convert this into a ‘language’, that your own natural interpreter is good at processing. Think of what you feel at the moment, as being like your area network having more ‘port snooping’ come at it than usual. But also bear in mind, that it has always happened. It just happened a sort of volume dial setting that your security systems were so well able to deal with it, that you weren’t even conscious of it.

    Two things are happening at the moment. A) Your senses have been heightened to this kind of thing, and even if it wasn’t happening, your awareness of it, in any measure would have been heightened anyway. Why would this be? Well, think of it again in a language that you parse. Its like installing virtual box, and setting up the ‘host’ part of the infrastructure. I don’t mean physically being pregnant or anything, but the realisation that your resources we be allocated in a different way, to create an ‘environment’ for what will exist on that ‘host’. So its a way of backward messaging to the OS level, that this middleware is going to be creating dependents very soon. I.e. The OS level has to accept signals for the new VM going forward, in addition to itself. As I said, resource re-allocation, . . check out Johan De Gelas’s ‘sizing servers dot be’ project in Belgium, if you want to think about it some more.

    The other thing is B) that if you are like this local area network that has recently experience increased amounts of snoop traffic at various points, then it is probably because someone out there senses opportunity an exploit. And we all know that exploits vary in their biology and species,… some may plant themselves in there and go long term in their strategy, others use brute force etc. Again, it goes back to the OS level, and what it has to do at the moment to check all doors. Because what we tend to do as individuals is leave our own little back doors, our own vulnerabilities on purpose, for various reasons to do with access, reach out etc.

    But again, given the new workload that the system is having to run, there is a whole re-assessment that goes on there again, to see which doors are open or shut, and to what degree. My guess, is that at the OS level here again, a lot of test bots are sent out on reconnaissance to see what the exterior environment is like, and how best to form a strategy for interacting with it, given the whole new profile of the workload – and need to host, going forward – and what kinds of doors that the host could allow for the dependents within the system, to best operate.

    It might be a bit daft to break it down into bit-speak,… but at the same time, this all gets back again to,… if one will want to do research, or not, in a while. One thing is for sure though, it is possible that one may not look at research ever again, in the same way, as one had looked at it before. And there is uncertainty again, I guess. It’s a pretty thorough upgrade – and like any of these large scale overhauls – its probably fair to say, it takes a while on re-boot to figure out what is different, what is the same about the new machine (and to even discover what kinds of new features one may discover).

    But parse it into your own conceptual framework, is the best thing to do. You probably already have very good algorithms adaptable or ready to deal with the things, and perhaps even better and more powerful than most – but never were put to this kind of task before. That is the only thing that is strange. But I reckon, the rackspace, the licensing contracts, the hardware, its all there ready to get used in a whole new way.

  • Vicky Austin

    Congratulations on beginning a new phase.

    No matter how well meaning the “advice” you get it, you will of necessity find your own path. Not only are you different, your child will be different too than others and the needs of that person you are birthing will vary from others’ experiences. Your human will sleep through the night sooner or later than those of your well meaning friends and colleagues, and gain weight faster or slower, and so on. And until you meet and know this person, you can’t make all those decisions. Have fun. Take pictures. Get sleep when it’s available. (And ignore all those suggestions if you wish.)

  • Congrats on your newborn. And good for you for doing things your own way. We would all be better off if people allowed others to do things their own way instead of trying to force their values and mores on them. Good Luck!!

  • Mona

    Dear dana
    Sounds too familiar. I was judged several ways and a half by everyone because I had a baby while writing my thesis, while in a start0up, there is always a judgment and that signals welcome to parenting. It seems that others feel threatened by choices you may make and that somehow differs from theirs. I am not sure why but I have observed it. Enjoy whatever type of leave you choose. It is natural not to know the kind of parent you become before you are one. A transformation that it not all predictable but amazing and beautiful.

  • Maria Rodrigues

    Very interesting to read your story… I think you are absolutely right to focus on how fortunate you are to have the freedom to ‘play it ear’. But then, maybe I’m biased, because I did exactly the same thing when I was pregnant with my first. I too had an incredibly supportive team at work that made me feel completely safe to make decisions as I went. Your story is especially interesting to me because I do not remember feeling judged at all when I told people that I didn’t know how much time I would take off. Aside from the occasional set of raised eyebrows (which I interpreted more as surprise than judgement) I don’t remember people telling me how it should be done. I’m wondering if it may be because most of my friends are in similar, flexible, work situations and have made (or would make) similar decisions? One of my favourite tips from Kaz Cooke’s book ‘Up the Duff’ is that when people make comments and offer unsolicited advice on pregnancy/parenting just to repeat the following words like a mantra: ‘it’s not about you, it’s about them’. Maybe the people telling you how to ‘do it right’ are simply recoiling based on their own past experiences and fears? Perhaps there is also a measure of jealousy there from people who did not feel at liberty to take a ‘wait and see’ approach? Now pregnant for the second time, I am reminded over and over again what a fantastic work situation that I have, and how well research and parenting careers can dovetail. ‘Playing it by ear’ has worked very well for me so far – I hope you find the same!

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