A leave without going

How do you go on maternity leave when you don’t “go” anywhere? Here’s how I’m managing it.

Early this morning, as I nursed my son, I read this article about how Automattic is managing remote work. It’s good and accurately explains the tools we use at work. And as the article implies, these tools are available on our phones – which can make disconnecting difficult.

Some folks, like my lead, Andrew Spittle, don’t put Slack on their phones and work very defined times. Others, like our Happiness Hiring lead, Karen Arnold, blend work time and life time so that they are always available for the people they work with (applicants and trials, in Karen’s case), while also having plenty of quality family time. I’m sort of in between.

The way you work at a remote company also defines the way you take time away from work at that company – it is as active and deliberate as “going” to work is, and not simply the void of not-working-time.

When you work at a traditional, officed company, you have the advantage and disadvantage of physical boundaries to separate work and life. Sure, you may sometimes (or often) work from home, but you can “leave work at work” – this is harder when you carry your work in your pocket at all times. So, over time, you develop rituals around working, just like a commute is a ritual to going to work at an office.

Some people who work at Automattic do commute – to a coworking space, a coffee shop, or just to take the kids to school and come back home. For others, the commute ritual is something different – making coffee (whether with a Keurig or measuring to the ounce the beans and to the degree the water), uncapping pens and opening notebooks, reviewing the calendar, meditating, walking around the block. And at the end of the day, something else ends the work day and signals transition back to home life.

Before my maternity leave, I ended up working relatively rigid hours; this was because my team was of a size that in order to be as available as possible, I really needed to reduce my spontaneity. As our division – Happiness – has grown, it’s been very clear that spontaneity at work is not the same as flexibility, and you can absolutely have the latter without the former. Flexibility is something I value about my work (I can take an afternoon off last minute to spend time with my family if I need to), but a completely spontaneous schedule is just selfish (as in, no set hours, no notice to the team when or if I were working, would be selfish). So I worked a relatively traditional 9-5, and for the last several months, I also worked relatively frequently in the evenings or on weekends. I had set goals for myself that I thought very important to complete before the baby was born (I still am glad I finished the work I set myself, as I believe it was what was best for my team).

I had my own commute rituals, which were fairly mundane. Make breakfast, take the kids to school/camp, return, make coffee, go upstairs to my office and sit down at my desk. At the end of the day, wrap up work, maybe browse the internet or Facebook, put my computer to sleep, and walk downstairs.

When I first started at Automattic, we still used IRC and Skype, and it was very tempting to visit Skype and P2s on my phone or computer after I was “done” working. I eventually learned to stop, with help from my husband and 1-year-old twins. Now, I have Slack on my phone, the WordPress app on my phone (I write 90% of my posts from it), and I have had Zoom on my phone (but ditched it because it wasn’t a great experience). But I don’t have the same check-in problem. Part of this is that, before maternity leave, I had some specific alert words, which we call “mattchers” or “automattchers” – including my own name, my username, my team name, and the areas my team works in (Helpshift, live chat, etc). So I knew via an alert on my phone if something VERY necessary had popped up, and when nothing of importance had happened. I also have a firm network of other leads, who I knew wouldn’t let me miss out on something very important, or could catch me up quickly if I did miss something. Finally, there is something about having a couple of kids hanging on you that encourages you to put down the phone altogether.

So now I’m on maternity leave, and just about halfway through with my five months (which I cannot believe). It’s easy to disconnect from work when you have a gorgeous baby to stare at. Easier still when you and he are struggling to establish breastfeeding for several months, and all your Google searches are focused around breastfeeding positions and what exactly that pain is all about. But it’s also incredible tempting to check in – Slack is right there on my phone. I spend hours a day breastfeeding, often pretty bored while doing it. I use Slack for other groups that are not work, and I can relatively easily check P2s. So how do I keep from constantly being involved in lengthy backscrolls and conversations?

First, I have a commute ritual that I’m not completing: I don’t go into my office unless I have to. I rarely open my computer (I’m actually on it now – this is the second post I’ve written on it since being on maternity leave), thus limiting the ease with which I can pop into the office, so to speak (and since writing this post I have been on work Slack and been scolded for appearing during leave).

Second, I trust. I handed off my team about a month before I went on leave (June 2 was the official split date, and I had Grant on June 30), splitting it into 3 teams with three capable new leads. I spent the rest of that month working with those leads so when I was gone, I knew everything for my teammates would be assured. Not only am I confident that, somehow, things will continue without me, but I am confident that no one who was on my team will get lost.

Third, I worked extremely hard in order to trick myself. I worked really hard the first 6 months of the year, knowing I’d be away (AFK) the second half of the year. Whenever I feel a little guilty, I remember that I worked flat out for this time, and I don’t feel guilty again. I didn’t leave anything on the table, which is important to me, even though it’s not actually a legal requirement or anything. I know I could take this time even if I didn’t work twice as hard, but since I did work so much harder, I feel protective of this time with my babies.

Fourth, I am sleep deprived as hell still. I can’t follow a conversation to save my life. This helps tremendously with not getting caught up in backscroll.

Fifth and finally, I find it easy to compartmentalize. I have a compartment for work, I have a compartment for home, I have a compartment for groceries, and one for the book I’m reading, and one for the kids, and so on. This is super convenient for things like shutting the door to my office (both mentally and physically) and not thinking about work, but can also lead to frustration, like when I have tucked “feed the children” into the wrong compartment and don’t make them dinner. That is, it’s not a matter of forgetting habits. It’s a matter of having a thought or memory in such the wrong place I don’t even miss it.

So, I started to shut the door to work the day Grant was born (he was born at night), when the contractions were annoying enough in the morning that I decided I had better excuse myself. I returned the next day to share a photo of him, and since then, I have only visited a small handful of times. In the in-between times, I don’t miss work. It’s safe in another compartment, waiting for when I’m ready to return.

Photo credit: Brittany Blake Photography



14 responses to “A leave without going”

  1. It is great to hear how you are making this work Zandy, it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I prepare to take my Sabbatical. I already have a pretty good system to keep me out of falling into work at odd hours – keeping anything to do with work off of my phone except at meetups has been a real bonus here – but not I’m struggling with how to handle things during my Sabbatical.

    For example, I want to set myself a posting goal, and to try and use Calypso/the WordPress app to achieve this but how to I keep work from bleeding into my day when notifications and p2 subscriptions are just there. Do you have any tips on how to achieve this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I turned off all mattchers except for my username, and I’m signed out of WordPress.com on my phone’s browser. I get redirected to the browser from the app for P2 reading, so the burden of having to sign in is enough of a barrier for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been thinking about this too, Westi. I know if I see a notification I’ll be tempted to click on it. I’ve been pondering creating a second user account to use on my personal blogs when I do a sabbatical down the road, so I don’t see/get tempted by all my work-related notifications.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a goal to post every day during leave, so I am really focused on the notifications around that vs anything else that may come up. Within a few days of turning off mattchers, I’ve gotten very few work-related pings.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought about scolding you the other day but it was so great to chat I couldn’t bring myself to scold. Thank you for writing this, and as one of the lucky recipients of your forethought and hard work, I can 100% assure you that you earned this time off. No Guilt! You did an amazing job getting everyone and everything ready before your leave — enjoy your family. You deserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is my latest blog post. It focuses on the lack of support for paid maternity and paternity leave in America. I provide my own story with some useful resources and information on paid and unpaid maternity leave and would love your feedback! This is a topic that I am very passionate about and I hope this comes through in my writing.


    Your post is great! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: