The Adventures of a Newly Returning Coder Parent
Cue the fanfare. Coder Mummy is back! Following six months of bottles, nappies and home nursery rhyme karaoke, the time has come to return to work. It’s constantly been referred to as my transition. In a way that’s true. Frustratingly, my first week has definitely been more of a mental and emotional metamorphosis rather than the regimented algorithm I would expect as a software engineer.
Going into my first week back, I encountered a strange mixture of excitement and dread. Yet I found very few honest accounts of people’s experiences. Returning role models are happy to engage in discussion, but very few appear to have documented their experience. Furthermore search results captured using your favourite search engine focus on legal rights rather than personal experience. It’s almost as if talking parental return is a weakness. As a result I’ve been trying, and failing, to dust it under the carpet and separate parenthood from my work life.
One profound moment was a colleague attempting to convince me that being a parent is in fact something to be open about. That it can be used to built rapport with clients for example. For that to happen, someone needs to start talking. To close the maternity journey, and start the conversation, here I reflect on my first week returning to work as a software engineer. Check out a subset of the expected and unprecedented challenges here.
Knowledge Me Again
One strategy I employed to keep abreast of domain knowledge during my leave was monitoring emails while out of the office. This was only partially successful. Many on long term leave may wish to switch off entirely from work. However, I seemed to miss that desire completely. Despite telling myself the purpose of email checking was to ease my transition back, the reality is that I also feared my inbox being full of irrelevant errors and warnings. These frustrations still remain, and I still support my previously mentioned musings on system alerting considerations for development and support teams.
Irrespective of how much you try to keep up to date with emails, you will have to conquer email Mount Everest upon your first day. Especially if we continue to adopt emails as a poor alerting mechanism. I wasn’t able to send emails for around one hour as I frantically deleted pools of alerts from one of our noisier components. Regardless the only impact this had was delayed notification of treats to the team. It did have the expected result of people stopping by to say hello. So if you only take one piece of practical advice from this post, make sure it is to celebrate your return with cake.
Lack of Knowledge
An unexpected surprise I uncovered was how much information I had retained. Although one must question if this is an indication of the capacity of my mental hard drive or how often I was digging into emails and catching up with colleagues. Yes part of the justification was the alerts and keeping up to date. However, the unfortunate reality is more that I never switched off from work at all. Instead I succumbed to an overwhelming desire to keep plugged into the matrix. Not exactly the healthiest of strategies!
One must wonder how much of the information I gathered during my time out turned out to be fruitful. As stated in my piece on my maternity learning journey, changes such as organisational updates was helpful in assessing the new world order upon my return. Although I did note that product domain knowledge would help me hit the ground running, the reality is that it’s not helpful as I initially thought. Mainly because I’m no longer actively working on that product anymore. It simply satisfied my urge of curiosity for what’s happening. But now I am suffering information overload from this new project. I’m all for being thrown in the deep end, but this feels more like I have been pushed out of a helicopter into the pacific!
A rather unlucky trait to lose was what I like to call my role muscle memory. Essentially the instincts that you develop over time that govern your capability to form strategy and identify the next step on the product development journey. My current strategy to build this up is simply to ask what I perceive are obvious and ridiculous questions. I am extremely aware that I may be asking more than before. Yet the opinion of others is that I have always been that way.
Differing viewpoints on whether this constitutes as a strength or weakness are definitely fascinating. My perception of question overload as a bad trait is most likely down to an over-awareness upon returning to work. I need to consider this as a normal personal strength as opposed to a negative side effect of my return. Until then, it’s time to apply the poker face. Or quite simply, keep calm and carry on.
Buzz Buzz Buzz
Concentration on mentally involved tasks such as coding are proving to be exceptionally difficult right now. Originally, I attributed this difficulty to lack of use over the past six months. In a way my brain is much like a disused car abandoned in the garage for months on end. It’s going to take some time to get it started again.
The reality is I’ve become more susceptible to the buzz of the office. I’ve discussed office capacity and its effect on developers before. It also has an impact on other practices such as pair programming. While I acknowledge babies cry, it’s a different kind of noise to the haze of unintelligible murmurs that echo through the floor.
Focused tasks like coding are definitely more challenging now. Noise cancelling headphones are helping to reduce the distractions. Nevertheless coding tasks are definitely taking a lot longer since I’m out of practice. I pity the poor individuals reviewing my code!
Song for a Friend
My support network has definitely changed. A big concern for me was lack of support. I’ve effectively grown up in my organisation, so my friend network consists of colleagues and my graduate class. All of these individuals were at work when I was not. Therefore, a significant concern for me was having to adapt my coping mechanism and expand my support network to include others.
Much of the existing network did disappear the moment I waddled, yes waddled, out of the office six months ago. Some of it I have managed to maintain while out through catch ups. Others I’ve had to claw back. Coffee catch ups are great for this. I’m fortunate to work in an organisation where people are very giving of their time. Nevertheless, some contacts have been lost.
There are several reasons people have become disconnected. People do come and go, meaning more effort is required to keep the connection alive. However others just get busy. Reigniting those relationships will take a more flexible approach.
Time After Time
Most of the aforementioned challenges are specific to either office or IT working. One of the more normal struggles I’m currently experiencing is the “get up and leave on time” paradox. There is yet to be a day where I have left feeling productive. I am completing some work items, and managing to either delegate or negotiate deadlines for others. Just not always as many as I would like. Not leaving in the evening now will set an impossible precedent for when baby goes to childcare in a few months. So not getting a handle on this now will definitely bite hard later.
The complementary “leaving in the morning” conundrum is also proving to be exceptionally frustrating. While I am fortunate that I’m sharing parental leave, and it’s partner’s turn to have his moment, it doesn’t make saying bye every morning any easier. Thankfully he has first hand experience of the heart-string tug, making it easy to talk over.
Perhaps there is also an element of FOMO, or fear of missing out, at play. Of course it’s normal to regret the work opportunities missed on leave. Everyone undertaking long term leave will definitely lose out on some opportunity simply due to not being present.
Currently I’m hanging back too often to help others and be seen as a team player. No one wants to be seen as not performing. However right now my feeling is I’m both not performing at work and missing out on Baba’s latest achievements such as rolling over and trying food X for the first time. Cue the age old parental guilt!
Please Be Kind
I haven’t covered every niggling thought that occurred over the course of my first week. If I did, this blog post would rapidly evolve into a book. The key themes of disparate knowledge retention, a lack of control and the endless quest for work life balance are definitely covered. Nevertheless, the biggest surprise has been that there is a wealth of support out there if you just ask.
One of my next steps will definitely be to focus on establishing a better work home boundary. Otherwise in addition to parental guilt I’ll end up suffering burnout.
I’ve realised that I need to be kind to myself. The skills I thought were gone are still there. I can still design and code. Albeit the latter needs some coxing out. Right now I am my own worst enemy. Segregating my character is stopping me feeling comfortable bringing my authentic self to work, and that’s not going to help me develop. It’s time for Coder Mummy to embrace the dual identity of mother and software engineer.
Thanks for reading. Do share your own experiences of leave and returning to work!