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Intro to the Art of Balancing Professional and Personal

Intro to the Art of Balancing Professional and Personal is a guest post by Máirín “Mo” Duffy, the principal interaction designer at Red Hat. Mo explains what career considerations to keep in mind if you make a name change or decide to add on to your family. This article is the fourth installment in our new USENIX Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) series:

Part 1: How to Write a Talk Proposal
Part 2: Imposter Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community
Part 3: Handling Community Conflict (Like a Boss)

Intro to the Art of Balancing Professional and Personal

Are you considering marriage or starting a family and wondering how you will manage your changing personal life and your career? Managing work and your personal life is possible, and there are plenty of men and women who successfully juggle the two. You will find your own way to navigate through the intersection of your professional life with what will be extremely joyous milestones in your personal life — marriage or welcoming a child into your home. Having an idea of to what to expect ahead of time will give you an edge, and that's what I'll focus on in this article.

I am a heterosexual American woman in the technology field who, in the past two years, has experienced a marriage, a name change, the birth of a beautiful new baby, a maternity leave, a few months back at work, and a promotion. All of these changes are still fresh in my mind, and although my specific experiences may not apply to your situation, they can provide an overview of available options.

Name Change After Marriage

During your career, you've built a name for yourself, a personal brand. If you change your last name, it will take time for your professional network to recognize who you are, and this may be even worse if you have a common first name. A name change can mean missed opportunities, for example, if you apply for a new job under your new last name. The body of work you've done under your maiden name — source code, articles, presentations, papers, patent filings — isn't going to come up in a search engine anymore.

Changing your last name also can be a huge hassle, and you might not ever make a complete transition to your new name. For example, depending on your organization's policies, you may only be given an alias for your new name, and your kerberos username and home directory will still reflect your maiden name. You'll have to apply for a new social security card, passport, and driver's license. You'll need to notify your organization's human resources department, 401k administrator, bank, post office, doctor's office, utility companies, credit card companies, and the voter registration office. And don't forget all of your online services accounts. This isn't how you planned to spend your time when the honeymoon was over, was it? On the other hand, if you intend on having children with your spouse, for example, taking a new family name might be a priority for you.

Between keeping your own last name and adopting your spouse's, there are many other options. For example, you can change your middle name to your maiden name and adopt your spouse's last name. You can change your last name to both of your names, hyphenated. Your spouse could adopt your maiden name. You can, together, come up with a new last name that represents parts of each of your names. You could stack your maiden name and your spouse's last names to allow time for your associates to adapt to the new name (e.g., 'Susan Smith Walker'), and later drop your maiden name (e.g., 'Susan Walker').

You could also decide to go halfway, keeping your maiden name professionally and using your spouse's last name legally and socially. This isn't without challenge, either. Although the employment databases of some organizations have the notion of a preferred first name, they don't all have this option for last names. If you change your last name to your spouse's legally, your organization might need to add it to their database. Then when co-workers browse through the company roster, they won't find you by your professional name. Remedying this situation might require calling in help from HR.

The good news is that you have options. Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind that in many states, changing your name is easiest when you file for your marriage license. You simply fill out a form along with your marriage license and the deed is done — no lawyer, no court dates, no questions, no hassle. Changing your name later might mean jumping over more hurdles.

Expecting While Professional

If you're pregnant or adopting: Congratulations! Adding to your family is an exciting and happy time, but it also can be scary. You have news you might not be ready to share yet. You're likely wondering how you should handle your pregnancy or adoption plans at work. My personal pregnancy experience also will give you ideas if you are planning to adopt a new family member.

Physical Considerations

Consider when to inform your manager of your pregnancy. My midwife offered me guidance on who and when to share my pregnancy news: Before 18-20 weeks, don't inform people of your pregnancy unless you'd also feel comfortable letting them know about a lost pregnancy. The rationale for this is that by 20 weeks, many abnormalities and complications can be detected and the risk of miscarriage is much lower. You don't want to wait until you're already visibly pregnant, however. By 20 weeks, you'll probably have a growing belly, but you might still pass it off as a little weight gain. Your specific physical situation might help you determine when to share the news.

You'll get to know the health care provider managing your pregnancy quite well, as you'll have many check-up appointments, which will get more frequent as things progress. Depending on how flexible your work hours are, you may need to negotiate a plan with your manager for how to handle these appointments. Medical office schedules open up at regular intervals to allow for advance appointments, so learn when your provider's office schedules open up and book that day to get your preferred appointment times.

If you have to lift heavy items as part of your routine job (for example, lifting rack-mount servers) and your health care provider has cautioned you against doing so, ignoring this advice so you can keep your pregnancy under wraps is a bad idea. In this situation, telling your manager about your pregnancy early on and requesting to be excused from risky physical work is a better option. Make it clear to your manager that your private medical information should not be shared with other colleagues until you are ready to make your pregnancy public.

During your pregnancy, you will have days in which you don't feel like working and all you want to do is sleep. In the first trimester, you might even feel sick and nauseous. (Tip: ginger tea and lemon tea can help with the nausea and are concealable in a travel mug.) Later in your pregnancy, you might face physical discomfort and fatigue. If you get sick during the pregnancy, your health care provider might recommend that you avoid common cold medications or other remedies that might otherwise improve your condition. In short, expect that you won't always perform at your “normal best” during your pregnancy, and ask for help when you need it.

Documenting Workload

While waiting for the arrival of your new family member, you have time to take inventory of your responsibilities and ongoing projects, and to document your daily routine. After your news is out, make your documentation “public” and share it with your team (on a wiki page, for example). If you send regular status reports to your team, adding extra detail as you approach your due date is a good idea. Your thorough documentation will help colleagues fill in for you during maternity leave and, most importantly, minimize their need to contact you during your time off.

Because an early delivery is possible, remember to give your team the documentation to cover for you and any contact information you're comfortable providing in case they need to reach you while you're on leave.

** Managing Expecting Parents

If you are a manager and learn that an employee is expecting an addition to her family, the previous section should provide an overview of what she will be going through physically, and how she can prepare to hand off her duties during her maternity leave. Keep in mind that discussing pregnancy and maternity leave is not the same thing as discriminating against expectant employees. In fact, working with your employees to arrange maternity leave and the workload hand-off that goes with it will help make the transition easier on expectant employees, your team, and your company.

In 2013, The Anita Borg Institute released a report called Women Technologists Count: Recommendations and Best Practices to Retain Women in Computing. The report offers compelling reasons to retain employees, including:

Research indicates that direct replacement costs can reach 50% to 60% of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs associated with turnover ranging from 90% to 200% of annual salary. For technology companies, turnover jeopardizes innovation, productivity, and competitiveness. When technical teams are disrupted, there can be a cascading effect, with several key contributors leaving the company. Talent-driven organizations recognize that their ability to succeed as a business in the knowledge economy is grounded in their human capital, and that turnover is a main source of disruption in this capital.

The report also explains that work-life integration (time with family, for example) is the second leading reason women leave technical jobs. Working conditions (low salary, no path for advancement, etc.) ranks only slightly higher. Making it clear to your employees from the beginning that you plan to work with them to plan for maternity leave will help keep the lines of communication open and prevent major road blocks in productivity during the maternity leave, or when reintegrating the employee back into the team when she returns.

Parental Leave

As early as possible, you'll want to get the full lowdown on the policies around parental leave for both your employer and your partner's employer. Unfortunately, the U.S. Government is one of the few in the world that does not mandate paid parental leave. The law you will learn most about when researching your options in the U.S. is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). This law mandates that, excepting special exempt circumstances I'll walk through below, you and your spouse are each entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period, and your job will be protected or an equivalent position provided to you upon your return. You cannot be fired or otherwise punished for taking the leave. Unfortunately, many Americans do not qualify for protection under this law because they do not meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • You must be located within a 75 mile radius of at least 50 co-workers (your state law may lower this threshold.)
  • You must have worked for your current place of employment for the past 12 months.
  • You must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months.

(There are other exemptions and nuances, but these are the most relevant to women in technology.)

If you qualify for FMLA, then know that you'll have at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave to heal after giving birth (if applicable) and to bond with your new child. There are other policies that may apply to your situation:

  • FMLA options: For eligible employees, the FMLA only requires one single 12-week leave period per family, not per employee. So if you and your spouse both work for the same organization, you may have to share the time. Generous employers grant FMLA per employee. Also consider that some employers require that FMLA for a new child is taken in a single block, whereas others allow for it to be taken in small chunks or even a few hours at a time throughout the year.
  • Short-term disability: If your organization provides you with (and/or you have elected to have) short-term disability coverage, you might qualify to take it as a result of child birth. OB/GYNs and midwifes will generally support a six-week short-term disability period for new mothers, except in the case of a C-section, when they will support an eight-week short-term disability period. Depending on your short-term disability plan, you'll be provided part or all of your salary during the short-term disability period, not the full FMLA period.
  • Paid parental leave: Generous organizations provide paid leave time to mothers and in some cases their partners. Facebook and Google, for example, are known for having “awesome” parental leave benefits. And in May 2013, Yahoo made headlines when it a revised paid leave policy for new parents. Maternity leave for mothers doubled, going from eight weeks up to 16, and fathers were granted eight weeks of leave.
  • State law: Depending on your state's laws, you may be entitled to better job protection and/or compensation than the FMLA provides. For example, in Massachusetts, the Maternity Leave Act provides up to eight weeks of unpaid leave and protected job status per child; if you have twins or triplets, you'll be entitled to 16 and 24 weeks unpaid leave, respectively. Your state government's website should have information relevant to your situation.
  • Holidays: Depending on your organization, if you have a winter baby, don't be surprised if Thanksgiving and/or Christmas company holidays don't pad out your leave by a few days; you are likely ineligible for holidays during leave.
  • Paid Time Off: Depending on your organization's policies, you may be required to exhaust all of your PTO concurrent to your leave period. For example, if you have two weeks of PTO saved up, you may be required to spend that PTO for the first two weeks of your FMLA leave and have the latter 10 weeks unpaid. Generous companies do not require that you exhaust your PTO. If you can save your PTO, do so as you may need time to care for a sick child or to watch your baby if your childcare provider isn't available. You could also spend all of your PTO to extend your 12-week FMLA leave into, say, a 14-week maternity leave, but know that during the final two weeks your job would not under the FMLA protected status that it was under for the first 12 weeks. Make sure your manager is on-board with this plan.
  • Unpaid Personal Leave/Sabbatical: Your organization may offer unpaid personal leave time. This time could be longer than the 12 weeks available under FMLA, but your job may not be waiting for you when you're ready to come back. If you do well on your performance reviews and you have a good relationship with your manager and are able to keep up communication with your manager during such a leave, you likely have nothing to worry about. If the economy takes a hit, for example, your position might be eliminated, but that could happen despite whether or not you take leave. If you're a valued employee, your organization is going to want you back; you can't really control anything else.

Typically, all of these types of leave do not stack, so don't plan to add FMLA leave to short-term disability and parental leave and PTO. Organizations usually require that all or most of these types of leave run concurrently, so the maximum amount of time you can spend at home with your baby before returning to your job will be the longest single leave period for which you qualify.

Once you figure out how both your employer and your partner's employer handle parental leave, you'll want to have a discussion with your partner and put together a plan. What are your goals? What can you afford, given the amount of time you'll need to take unpaid?

  • Do you both want to take the maximum amount of leave possible following your child's birth to heal and bond and see every precious newborn moment? If your employer is flexible and you've used up all available time and then later in the year you need more time off, you may be able to go into negative PTO hours or make up the time outside of normal business hours.
  • Do you want to take half of your time up front, and bank the rest as needed throughout the first year? For example, maybe you'll want an extended holiday later in your child's first year to travel abroad in order to introduce international relatives to their new family member.
  • Consider your plan for child care. Can you use your time in order to minimize the amount of external child care you'll need to rely on? I'll review this option more in the next section.
  • Are you going to take your time starting with your due date, or on the birth date of the baby? Starting your leave on the baby's birth date will extend your time with the baby, but taking time starting with your due date will give you time to rest and de-stress in the most uncomfortable, final days of your pregnancy.

Additional considerations:

  • Employment status: Your employment status may be affected in ways other than just your time off. You will probably not accrue PTO hours, and any employer matching programs (such as stock options and 401k contributions) and employer matching may be suspended on your account and not start until you are back to work. If your leave occurs during a bonus pay period, you will probably not be eligible for a bonus. Your medical benefits, however, should continue. How these benefits are affected by your leave depends on your employer's policies.
  • Medical insurance premiums: If you are taking unpaid leave, the premiums for your medical insurance are not going to be able to be paid from your paycheck. You may need to write checks to cover the premium during your leave. This is an added stress when you are healing and bonding with your baby. Some employers can offer you the option of taking one day of PTO per pay period during your leave in order to pay for your medical insurance premium.
  • Stay flexible: As you make plans, try to stay flexible. If you've never had a child before, predicting how your feelings and your perspective may change post-baby is hard. Things that seemed important before may no longer be priorities, and vice-versa. For example, if you think you might leave the workforce post-baby, don't burn any bridges. You might discover that living on only one income is not as manageable as you'd hoped, especially if your baby ends up spending some unplanned time in the NICU post-birth. Or maybe you'll realize that you want to return to work part time after a few weeks off.

When you've decided on a plan to follow, you'll work with your manager or human resources representative to complete required paperwork and iron out details for your leave. You may need to apply for any FMLA and/or disability leave you are taking, which might mean getting your medical provider involved in the process. (Note that some providers charge a nominal fee for filling out disability/FMLA application forms.) If you are starting your leave with the birth date of your baby, you will need to stay in touch with your manager or HR representative so that they know when the baby is born and they can start the clock on your leave and adjust your paychecks accordingly. If the baby is born after your paycheck has been processed, but before the pay period is over, money will likely be taken out of your first paycheck afterwards (if you're going on unpaid leave) to make up for that overpayment.

Health Insurance and Benefits

What about your health insurance benefits post-baby? And how do you sign up your baby for health insurance?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) [] requires that your family is provided a special enrollment period of no less than 30 days following the birth of your child to switch up your benefits enrollments, including your insurance plan selection. You likely will be sleep-deprived and not interested in debating between different enrollment options during that 30-day period, so working with your partner to figure out how you'll enroll your family before the baby arrives is a great idea.

When trying to figure out the coverage you need, be aware that the many well-child visits your baby needs in the first year are completely covered by all insurance plans and without co-pay. Also consider that first-time parents do have a tendency to visit the emergency room when minor incidents happen after their pediatrician's office hours, so make sure you E.R. visit coverage is reasonable.

Besides health insurance, benefits you'll want to consider post-baby include:

  • Flexible Spending: Some plans include the ability to save pre-tax funds for child care expenses.
  • Legal benefits (for example, preparing a will and trust)
  • Life insurance
  • Long-term Disability
  • 529 Plan or other educational savings

These considerations vary drastically by individual and organization, so they won't be covered in this article.

Navigating Child Care

Depending on your maternity leave and post-baby plans, you may or may not need particular amounts of child care in the first year. When making your child care plan, consider the type of care you prefer, the cost of the care, and the balance of child care vs. family care you're aiming to achieve. Here are some of the options you'll have:

  • Onsite childcare: If your company provides on-site childcare, check with your manager or HR department for the details. Having your child nearby while you work might be convenient and affordable, but perhaps it isn't the best fit for your family.
  • Friends/family: Knowing your child is with a trusted friend or family member can make the transition back to work much easier, and could make sense financially.
  • Nanny: Hiring a nanny takes research, isn't cheap, and includes tax and legal considerations. Fortunately, there are companies that perform background checks and help place nannies with families. A nanny might be the right fit for your family if you want a child-care provider who will come to your home or travel with you and your child on business trips, for example. Another option is sharing a nanny with a family in your area.
  • Daycare co-op: Day care co-ops are informally organized arrangements or groups of parents that watch each other's children and are compensated by child care in trade. Although this is a more affordable option for the working parent, it isn't available in every area.
  • Daycare: Aside from family, friends, and the occasional babysitter, daycare is probably the most affordable option for regular childcare. Professional daycare centers tend to be more expensive than in-home daycares.

Regardless of which childcare option you pick, you'll need a backup plan for when missing work isn't an option for you. If your childcare provider gets sick, for example, who will watch your child on short notice?

Additional considerations:

  • Waiting lists: Depending on where you live, you may need to sign up on a childcare waiting list. In my city (Boston), I have heard of daycares with a year-long waiting list.
  • Touring and interviewing: In addition to waiting lists, factor in time to tour childcare facilities or interview childcare providers months before baby arrives.
  • Reduced hours: Can you or your partner negotiate working part-time for a while? If you cut your hours down to no less than 30 hours a week, you may still qualify for many of your company's benefits, and you will still qualify for health insurance. You might find that cutting back your hours is more cost-effective than paying for outside help during those same hours.
  • Flex time: Are you able to work from home or shift your hours so that you don't need full-time childcare? A flexible schedule could enable you to work in rotating shifts with your partner, for example, so you can continue working while also caring for your new addition.

Building a Support Network

By this point in your career, you probably have a solid professional network, but now you need a parenting network, too. Do any of your colleagues also have babies or young children? Does your neighborhood have a parents' group? Does your hospital, pediatrician, or local community have networking groups for new parents?

Having a new baby is one of those milestones in life that might inspire you to reach out and make new friends, and having other and more experienced parents as resources is invaluable. You can get the low-down on which local daycares are the best, nanny recommendations, pointers to helpful forums and playgroups, and advice. When you are on maternity leave and becoming more confident in caring for your baby, you will probably get cabin fever, so having a network of other parents could help keep you from going stir crazy. Plus, your network of parents could mean free baby swag. For example, a baby “tummy time” mat has been making the rounds through the offspring of one team at my office.

Nursing and Working

Even if you quickly return to full-time work after bringing your baby home, nursing is still an option. The new Affordable Care Act now requires that health insurers cover breast pumps. How you acquire the pump depends on your insurer. I've met moms who bought a pump at a baby store expecting to be reimbursed, only to find out that their insurer required that they purchase the pump from an authorized medical equipment supplier — with a prescription — to be eligible for reimbursement. Instead of purchasing a pump in advance, I waited until my child's birth, which was good because my hospital had a program (approved by my insurance) that delivered a pump to my hospital room. If you can get a double electric pump, you'll save time when expressing milk at work.

Another provision of the Affordable Care Act requires that employers (with 50 or more employees) allow you sufficient breaks throughout the day to express breast milk. Your employer must also provide you with a place to do so that is "shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public." With open plan office spaces so popular these days, that last part may be difficult, but work with your office manager to find a good solution. Your employer is not required to compensate you for any time taken out of work hours to pump. (That being said, if you are particularly coordinated and good at multi-tasking, you can express milk while also working.)

If you choose to breast feed, you'll want to introduce your baby to a bottle nipple as early as recommended by your pediatrician (typically at four weeks) so that your baby can eat when you are at work. Before returning to work, nursing moms need to stockpile breast milk, so you'll probably want to start pumping around three or four weeks postpartum. Don't panic: You only need to pump once every day or two to build up a supply in the freezer. When you return to work, you may start out pumping smaller quantities up to four or five times a day, but as your baby grows bigger and eats less frequently or is supplemented with solid foods, your pumping session frequency will decrease so you'll need less time to pump at work.

During a busy work day, forgetting to pump is easy, and the next thing you know, you have two wet trails down the front of your shirt in the middle of a meeting. Mobile apps can track your pumping and provide automatic reminders, or you can set an alarm to go off on your schedule. In any case, nursing moms will want to keep an extra shirt or two on hand for mishaps.

You'll need a way to freeze and store your breast milk to take home. If you use a communal freezer, don't forget to distinguish your breast milk (in a marked storage container, for example) so that a colleague doesn't grab it by mistake.

Business Travel Post-Baby

Depending how much travel your job requires, you may find yourself on a plane soon after returning to work. If you are breastfeeding, separation from your newborn can be difficult not only emotionally, but also logistically. According to Kelly Mom, babies between 0 and 6 months of age on average consume 25 ounces of milk a day. With this in mind, you have a few options if you don't want to add formula into your baby's diet:

  • If you can work in an extra pump each day and bank up enough milk for the length of your trip, you can have your care providers bottle feed your baby and you can bring a pump so you can “pump and dump” while traveling.
  • If you don't have enough stored milk available, you can pump while on your trip and then overnight milk packed in dry ice back home for your baby.
  • You can bring your baby and childcare provider with you on the trip.

In 2013, I brought my baby and husband to the Grace Hopper conference (GHC 2013), which was my first business trip post-baby. Not only did this arrangement work out, I ran into other moms who were attending the event in the same boat.


I hope this article gives you practical ideas for balancing your work and family lives. Adding to your family means you have a lot of big choices to make, but fortunately, you don't need to choose between having a family or a career. Planning ahead and knowing your options makes it much easier to have both.

Do you have feedback, questions, or additions for this article? Please let us know in the comments or email