Motherhood and the Data Scientist

Article by,  Cassie Borish

August 28, 2020

Defining Parental Leave

When I was interviewing for a position at Rho AI, I was also starting to plan for a family. I was fresh from grad school (with my degree in Biomedical Engineering), ready to find a data scientist job and start laying down my roots. There were a few things I was looking for in whatever company I worked with: cool people, engaging projects, ideally not a horrible commute (living in LA, that was no guarantee), where I could have a life outside of work. As I went through the interview process, Rho AI increasingly felt like a great match. Since Rho AI is a fully distributed company, I could work from home (the commute truly does not get better than that). They had (and still have) many interesting and challenging projects to work in all fields of artificial intelligence, their agile development creates space for flexibility, and the leadership team had excellent credentials. Importantly, I felt like I connected with everyone I spoke to. All the people (notably all men) I talked to discussed how they set boundaries between work and life, carving out time to spend with their families, signalling to me that we shared many values. So when Rho AI offered me a position, it was an easy decision to accept, even with the knowledge that at the time, there was no official parental leave policy. I figured we’d address that hurdle when the time came.

That time came a little less than a year later. I was to be the first woman at the company to take parental leave. For the most part, I felt like I had a good enough relationship with everyone that taking leave shouldn’t be a problem, plus California has its own state leave policies in place, but there was still an inkling of worry that negotiating leave would be emotionally trying and might hinder my career somehow. Plus there was the added weight that I was setting the precedent for future moms at the company. All of that worry was for naught. I met with my supervisor, who essentially said, “12 weeks paid is the industry standard. So you can take that, supplement with state leave benefits, and just let us know how many additional unpaid weeks you want to take so we can plan accordingly.” The company has since formalized their policy, so now ALL parents get 12 weeks paid.

I took off 4 months, starting Thanksgiving 2019 when I was 36 weeks pregnant, with a planned return to full-time work in early April 2020. The choice to take that amount of time off was not made lightly. I felt like a slacker compared to the women I knew who only took 6-8 weeks off and said that 12 weeks felt long. I considered working until the day I delivered, since it felt strange to not work while I was still capable. But ultimately, it seemed better to ask for the max amount of time I was comfortable with, and if I should so choose, I could cut back later. I feel so fortunate that I was able to take all of that time off. Having a set date to the start of my leave helped make transitioning out of work easier. Prior to delivery, I had time to nest. I had time to sufficiently recover from delivery. And by the time I returned, my son was starting to sleep longer stretches in the night and have some semblance of a routine, so I wasn’t a sleep-deprived zombie during the day. The advantage of remote work is having the flexibility I needed during the newborn stage to meet the daily requirements of my career.

Returning in a Time of COVID

I’ve been learning that in parenthood, hardly anything goes according to plan (it’s something I’m still adjusting to). That was true for my return to work. I had intended to go back full-time upon my return. My husband (a teacher) and I had arranged for our parents from out-of-state to take turns staying with us to help watch our son until my husband’s summer break. With everything closing due to COVID in March, that didn’t happen as planned. “That’s ok,” I told myself. My husband would be teaching from home, my hours were pretty flexible outside of meetings, and my son was taking three to four naps a day that totaled approximately 4 hours over the course of the day. I could work during naps, after bedtime, before he woke up in the morning, and my husband could maybe cover when meetings didn’t overlap with nap times. I calculated that I could get in somewhere around 4-6 hours of work while my baby slept, which meant I ONLY needed to squeeze in 2-4 more hours somewhere else in the day (or night) if I worked full time. It’s not like we had to also follow up with school work for him like parents of older children, which I knew at least some of my fellow co-workers were doing. Plus, he was still at the stage where he generally stayed in the same position that I placed him.

When Rho AI’s President, Kerri Faber, checked in to confirm that I was still planning to return by our predetermined date, I confirmed with the caveat that my husband and I would be tag-teaming childcare. She asked if part time might be a more suited option for us. That would certainly make our lives easier, but I also worried whether this was a gateway to sacrificing my career for my family. I wondered if I was a bad mom for having that thought. Ultimately, I took up her offer because it would be so much more manageable and there was a clear date when I could return to full-time - my husband’s summer break.

Working part-time, I didn’t need to stress about meeting some quota of hours or a deadline. I could work as time permitted, feel a little more like my old self, and take care of my baby. My co-workers were willing to meet around my son’s naps and nursing sessions. They were even happy to have him sit in on meetings. When working at a fully distributed company, everyone tends to be more relaxed about life’s interruptions and Rho AI is no exception to that! Working with a group of people empathetic to having young children at home helped reduce the stress of returning to work.

Becoming a Work-At-Home-Mom

Being a mother and working from home is hard (heck, just being a parent is hard). There is no physical separation to distinguish between my working life and my home life. I’ve created some separation by having a designated home office. I make sure to change my clothes for ‘the office’ - which often includes the stereotypical ‘mom bun’ and leggings. Being at home, I do carry the mental load of almost always being attuned to my son. He’s still nursing, so I essentially have a natural Pomodoro timer that goes off every 2-4 hours telling me he’s hungry. If I can’t nurse him due to meetings, I’m pumping during breaks (or at my computer while working so I can maximize my time with my son). I greatly appreciate being able to nurse during my work day, and not having to worry about lackluster pumping amenities. I keep track of my son’s nap schedule (I literally log his sleep, partly because I’m a data scientist and I like having the data). I hear his white noise machine from my office. His pack ‘n’ play is a permanent fixture in my office for the times that my husband has his own things to take care of. I even have the luxury of preparing his lunches and eating with him when I can.

Professionally, I’m catching up on the work and staying abreast of the latest artificial intelligence and data technology. I returned to work over four months ago and oftentimes I feel rusty (perhaps a bit sleep deprived?) I want to step up and keep my mind sharp and my skill set on the cutting edge of technology. At the same time, I have chosen to ease into projects to both protect my time with my family without sacrificing the quality of my work. I have self doubt that my performance is different than it was before my leave, but I think that is a common characteristic among all women balancing motherhood and their career. I wonder if I’m “leaning in” enough as Rho AI continues to educate and mentor all of the data scientists employed to ensure we stay on the front of all new technologies. I am fortunate to have exciting projects to work on and staying ahead of the curve is critical for myself professionally. Mentoring is a solid strength of the leadership at Rho AI and collaboration is key to their success so as a small team who supports me, I want to equally be able to give back.

Distance Learning

Despite all these challenges, and despite the current climate, I realize how lucky and privileged I am to be a career woman, focusing on technology. I have a job. I’m able to stay home. I have a partner to help. We have options. Many of the doubts I deal with are self-contrived, but also many of them are a result of expectations that society has placed on women. Based on my experience these past few months, these are a couple things I’ve learned about juggling work and parenthood (and really, just parenthood). They hold true even aside from a pandemic, but are perhaps even more important now.

You can’t pour from an empty cup

I’m often riddled with guilt that something is getting neglected. Even without a commute, it feels like there is hardly any time in the day to meet the daily demands of work, baby, husband, cooking, keeping the house clean - oh yea, and myself. I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to fill my own cup before I can fill others. For me, filling my cup means doing something intellectually stimulating (mostly at work), and taking some time for myself to squeeze in a workout or going for a run with my baby in tow. Having flexible hours makes it easier for me to find time for myself. In a time of sheltering in place, I’ve had to modify how I fill my cup, but I’m doing it nevertheless (mostly) guilt-free. When my cup is full, I’m a better mother and wife, and a more productive professional contributor.

It takes a village

I’m generally hesitant to ask for help, but in this phase of my life, I can’t help myself without the help of others. Flexible hours and a company that respects my time makes everything more manageable. Society is asking a lot from parents right now, and no one benefits when parents are stretched thin. Working at a place that is empathetic to the current situation does wonders for mental health as well as our physical health. Our children get the attention they need, parents get a little more room to breathe, and the company maintains a positive morale (which presumably results in higher productivity). In a time when we’re largely isolated physically, we can still provide support remotely. The workforce is going through a transformation right now, and as it evolves, this is a great opportunity to consider what changes would benefit our community. As a new working mother, finding a job in the field of data science which allows the balance I need seemed like an impossible task, however, with Rho AI, a supportive team of fellow co-workers and their fully-distributed model made it achievable! I achieved my goal - I work with really great people (even one of my best friends), I get to work on amazingly cool projects and my commute is about ten feet into the other room from my family.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash