May we suggest...


I Didn’t Mean to Lean Back: The Unexpected Story of Being a Working Mom at a Startup

I’ve “leaned back.” And I’m okay with it. Sort of.

As the first teammate to have a baby while working at Buffer, I was able to create our initial family leave policy before I used it. Even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the reality of being a working mom.

Going into motherhood, I had a lot of grandiose ideas, preconceived notions and expectations. The biggest of which was that I’d be able to jump back into my role without skipping a beat.

After all, Sheryl Sandberg did it – she leaned in and kicked ass, right? Why couldn’t I?

All the tiny things that add up

It turns out there are so many things you just don’t anticipate. Things other parents don’t tell you (or, well, they do and you just don’t hear them.)

Things like juggling breastfeeding/physical recovery/pumping/cleaning/ working/laundry/eating/groceries/soothing a crying baby/ figuring out first-time mommyhood and so many other tiny things add up to a huge mental and physical load.


Pumping alone takes more time than I ever expected: Put the parts together, pump (somehow balancing and maybe getting a few emails typed during), clean and store the milk. Easily 20–30 minutes. Then do it again in a few hours. Then again. (This phase can last for a few months to a year.)

My husband and I were lucky that we were able to have a grandparent babysit for one day a week, and then had a nanny for another three days.

We paid $1,000 a month for this arrangement, and with my fairly rigid meeting schedule (timezones can be a bit tricky on a global team) it was looking like I might need even more nanny time for my growing, busy little boy.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones

I would have had to pay double in childcare to cover the time responsibilities I had in my role. Honestly, the cost was more than the raise I received from becoming a manager at Buffer.

I was seeing less of my child, even though I’d been given the gift of working from home.

Still, this wasn’t a bad scenario. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for folks who work outside the home, don’t have the generous compensation standards of Buffer, or have multiple kids! ($$$ childcare!)

Only about a fifth of moms get fully paid maternity time off, and some employees can be legally denied their job back if they go on family or medical leave.

Maker or manager?

Even so. I was at a crossroads.

The stress was getting to me. Even with all my work flexibility, Anthony’s trouble sleeping meant I was exhausted and unable to get additional rest in the morning when he finally did sleep because of early meetings. I was more sedentary and eating more unhealthy than ever because of my work/pump/work/pump routine — the pumping time cutting out the possibility of breaks as I had to stack meetings while the nanny was here.

At the same time, I was learning a lot about myself both as a manager and as a maker. I was torn between two ways to contribute, and I looked forward to one slightly more than the other: individual contributor. Writing blog posts, organizing things. Things that offered more flexibility.

I had never worked as a manager before; so many things were new when I moved into that role in early 2016. I dove head-first into all the leadership training and managing books I could consume.

I could have upped my game. But at heart, it was not my life’s ambition to be a great manager. I loved my team and wanted them to have the best manager, which is what drove me. I didn’t necessarily do it for myself.

Was it my fault?

Things came to a head this summer when our co-founders Leo and Joel felt the community team needed a bit of a reorganization.

The rest of the community team joined Buffer’s marketing area, and I joined the People team in a new role focused on the Open blog and internal communication and team-building.

Part of me wonders if my “distraction” as a mother led to some mistakes in leading the team that caused these changes.

I’m not sure that’s the case (there were a lot of reasons for the switch), but it’s still present in my heart.

I leaned back (and still wrestle with feelings of failure)

So I leaned into the individual contributor role instead. And in essence, I leaned back in my career.

I stepped back from a lead role. I even took a pay cut (though we saved more than the pay cut in childcare costs) which further emphasized the traditional perception of payment = what you’re worth/what you’re contributing = your success.

I wrestled with feeling like a failure, like I took the “easy” way out and I’m simply a coward. Like I’m just lazy. Traditional business wisdom says you must move up!

I’m happier in this new role, though I still wrestle with these feelings. I want to feel like I’m not a failure, like I’m still valued and valuable to the company.

The logical part of me knows: I’ve found a way that I can take care of my child and work full time, which has long been my dream. I’m striving to pour more of myself and more effort into this role than I have in anything else — perhaps to fight off those evil voices that tell me I’ve failed.

Is it possible to ‘have it all’?

I don’t know if it’s possible to lean in and be the very best at what I am doing without adding more hours to my workweek and taking away from my family time – even at a company that is keenly focused on bringing your whole self to work and evolving the culture of work.

Perhaps there is a difference I must come to grips with between “having it all” and “doing it all.” Right now, I just can’t “do it all.”


I know my heart won’t allow me to settle and feel unchallenged. But working toward a lead role where I’m perhaps not best suited at the moment doesn’t feel like the right fit either.

For now, I’ll keep pushing the edges (of my limits, of the role, of motherhood) no matter what so I can be the very best I can be in these areas, and see what becomes of it.

I’d love to hear from other parents who are primary caregivers and working at the same time. What are your days like? Are you leaning in, leaning back or something else altogether? Are any of these feelings familiar to you?

  • Hi Nicole! First of all, congratulations on the addition to your family. I’ve been working as a freelancer from home since my daughter was born two years ago. It is not easy! There are times when I feel like I’m drowning and other times that I feel like I’m Superwoman. It’s incredibly hard, but it’s very rewarding. I am purposely taking on less clients and really focusing on building my business while my daughter is young and I plan on having more children. Once my daughter is in pre-school next year, I plan to accelerate my business.

    I wouldn’t frame this as “leaning back” or “leaning out” of your career, you’re “leaning in” to motherhood. That is truly the most rewarding and important job you will ever have. Loving your work is wonderful, but it will never compare to the love for a child. It sounds like you made the right decision to me. Everything has its season in life and time flies with a child. Enjoy it and be proud that you are making this all work!

    • Hey there Erin!

      Thank you so much for your congratulations! “There are times when I feel like I’m drowning and other times that I feel like I’m Superwoman.” <<<—– So perfectly worded!! :D

      Thank you so much for your perspective and you're absolutely correct — and thank you for framing it that way: leaning into motherhood. I guess the reality is that we can't "lean in" to all the things or we'd simply fall over. :)

      Thank you for your kind words and powerful reminders — I'm going to put your comment on a post-in on my desk! :)

      Hugs to you and your little one as you manage them both and think about growing your family more! :) You've got this! We've got this!

  • I definitely leaned back. After returning from a 12 week leave of absence at my job, I had to work two days from home just to afford daycare. This led to me being removed as the department lead, as well. I felt like a failure but I had to prioritize my son over anything else.

    • Hey there Laura!

      Oh I totally hear you on the daycare thing – it is so tough when it is really expensive here in the states.

      I hope you don’t feel like a failure anymore! I know those feelings feel so valid in the moment and I’m only now getting a clearer view of things! And you are and were not a failure! We definitely need to work to correct that societal view that not being a lead or staying home with kids in any way indicates “failure.” Because that is simply not true. I also have been reminded many times that so much of this is temporary.

      Also – the life experience you gain as a parent is so helpful for management later on — such great perspective. This helps me to think about often!

      Hugs to you and your family, Laura!

  • Lisa S

    Congratulations, and welcome to motherhood! When friends ask me about becoming a mom (I try to only give solicited advice), my response is always always “take time to heal, bond, and figure out life again.” It’s almost like the first time you move out on your own and have to figure out how to pay bills, but with a huge emotional charge. Anyways, what I wanted to say was that if your job fits you better and leaves you more fulfilled, it is definitely not a step down. I feel like we are led to believe the role of a manager is better than other roles because it is “over” other roles, but to me, a manager is a completely different job than those they manage. I am personally not meant to be a manager of people, and I know this. That does not motivate me nor does it fit my skill set. So in anything I do, my goal is never to move up to become a manager, it is to find the path to the job that best fits me, my needs, and my skills.

    It sounds like your position as a contributor fits your current needs and life much better, so I’d call that a life promotion! Life got better, right? And its a bonus that you are saving in childcare costs, which balances out the pay cut (which can definitely make it feel like less of a “promotion”). No matter what you choose to do, you are rocking at life. And your precious baby will definitely reap the benefits of this life promotion.

    Congrats again. You are a great mom and will be a great role model, I can tell. Enjoy the squishy baby cheeks as long as you can.. give them all the kisses and face-smooshes they can handle, because they disappear quickly!

    • Oh I love that advice, Lisa, “figure out life again.” So true! And you’re very right about a management job being different than others.

      Thank you for your encouragement on my life promotion. Your perspective is so valuable and re-affirming!

      I’m off to go smoosh some baby cheeks — you’re so very right! Cheers and many thanks, friend, for your kind words and support. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sat at my desk, trying not to cry!

    I am not a mum but I hope to be in the not too distant future. I also love my job and consider it a career for life. Since deciding to start trying for a family I’ve wrestled with whether I’m sacrificing my future career to have children. But I am reguarly reminded there is never a “perfect time” to have a baby!!

    Your experience made me realise that if I adjust in one area, doesn’t mean I will lose out, I’ll just be richer in other areas. Does that make sense?

    Thank you, wonderful lady

    Laura x

    • Aw, Laura. You’re going to make me cry! <3

      I love that you're thinking of all of this as you think about starting a family. It is such a big change and you're right – there's no perfect time, but when baby does come, it's so wonderful and things really do fall into place. Even in the short time since I wrote this article, so much has changed — baby is pretty independent now as a 10 month old and I love listening to his babbles as he plays while I work.

      There truly is a time and place for everything. The times I've "missed out" on things due to parenting duties, I don't regret a single moment. :)

      Hugs to you and I'd love to hear how things go for you as you venture forth! :)

  • Esther Hastings Miller

    May I offer an entirely different perspective? I came of age when the women’s movement was new. No longer were we to obsess over cleaning the kitchen floor but we were to fulfill ourselves with careers. Many of my peers were able to manage professional careers and raise children but I found that extremely challenging. I discovered I could “have it all”, just not all at the same time. I took several years off to raise my children. I budgeted closely to live on one income and eventually volunteered in an area close to my professional world. By the time the money I could bring in was more important to my family than the cookies I could bake (and a zillion other things I could do), I discovered motherhood had not rotted my brain. I had a lot of life experience that many of my professional colleagues had missed out on. I had organizational skills I hadn’t had when I was younger, I could “go with the flow” and relate to my clients much better than previously. The age at which I returned to my profession had looked hopelessly “old and out of it” when I was young but it wasn’t. Many peers were ready for a career change or were burned out and stuck where they were and I had a fresh enthusiasm for my work.
    Your mileage may vary, of course.

    • Hi there Esther!

      Wow thank you so much for this perspective — what an amazing time to see a new level of opportunity for women and it sounds to me like you worked a TON when you were “not working!” :) I love the idea to take the time and then jump back into the workforce with fresh energy and joy. There are even some great services now that help moms re-enter the workforce. It’s a very cool time and I’m so grateful that I’m able to have these very privileged “struggles” :)

      I’m very appreciative of your time and thoughts here – I look forward to thinking on this more!

  • Alison Baldyga

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for presenting an honest, open viewpoint on this. As a mom who works and takes care of a 3 year old, I feel stressed much of the time trying to balance work with spending time with my child – it is a constant push and pull to decide where my energy goes, and this doesn’t even include trying to find time with my very supportive husband. I think as moms we often get pulled into the idea that we must be a super woman and do it all with a smile and strength. While this is a great idea, I’m not sure it’s realistic. Of course we are amazing super women, but I think we need to be open to our vulnerability as moms – instead of trying to do everything and push on through, it’s also great to pause, see how we are really feeling and respond. I’m also trying to figure out the role that works best for me (and my family) and I think having a kiddo has changed the roles I am willing to take on. You are doing a great job – and the fact that you are honestly and openly reflecting on your needs, as well as your family’s needs shows that you are moving in the right direction. Kudos to you!

    • You’re so right, Alison! We already are Super Women! But that doesn’t mean everything looks or feels perfect all the time! :) At least, that’s what I tell myself. Huge kudos to you as well for working with your three year old! I bet that one keeps you busy! :D What a special time and memory for our babies. Thank you so much for your support and for your kind words! :)

  • Matt Quanstrom

    Hi Nicole! I absolutely loved reading this. No way on earth I could fully relate, but it’s amazing the challenges that come from a raising a newborn. If I remember correctly I think my little guy is very close in age to yours :).

    My wife took her leave right before he was born (December 13) and we were fortunate to pull off her staying home through April. To cut our childcare costs, we have intentionally misaligned our days off each week so that he (and his sister) go to daycare 3x a week. Admittedly, it’s super tiring but absolutely amazing when I get my two full days with them.

    As you mentioned, it’s incredible how fast time can slip throughout a day between feeding, interaction and cleaning. When they do go down for a nap, you can’t help but take a little breather yourself. Or tidy something else up.

    Outside of my “day job,” I found it difficult to get real estate work done that I do on the side. Many of my tasks require more than little chunks of time, when already exhausted. He sleeps in same room as wife and I, when he wakes up it’s a party!

    I’m rambling a bit, but I really appreciated this post. I could never fully relate, but it’s a joy to read the buffer open blog when it’s truly open. I feel like it takes guts to put those words down and hit publish. And I admire that greatly.

    Thanks again, and hope the little guy is doing well! Definitely a cutie!

    • Thank you so much, Matt – so glad to share this post and I imagine it must be so hard with so little overlap for you and your wife — the days alone with kiddos are such a treasure!

      Thank you so much for sharing all of this and I hope that little Teddy of yours allows you more sleep! Those side projects definitely suffer when energy goes to kiddos first! :)

  • Rob Mallery

    Congrats Nicole! On the baby and also for making the decision to design your life in a way that works for you and your family. It’s interesting how we so often, as a society, view these difficult personal decisions as successes or failures and define people by what they do in the workplace. In the end, success and failure in life almost always comes down to your relationships with your family/friends who you love and who love you in return. Everything else is external noise.

    Like Esther, I have a different perspective on the whole Lean In/Out question. I made the decision to Lean out as a male.

    Eight years ago, I was the head of a successful sales office while my wife was a dentist building her first two practices. We did the whole nanny/mother/mother-in-law juggling act for several years. While we both realized that the life we built was unsustainable and putting enormous pressure on our relationship and our family, it was me who decided to quit my job. I was making more money than my wife, but she was living her lifelong dream of being a doctor, so I knew she was going to continue trying to “have it all”. I was always the more natural caregiver, so that also helped us make the decision that it would be me.

    For the next 12 months, I was able to do all the things that neither of us were doing with our two sons in previous years, picking up/dropping off from school, attending all the kindergarten activities, coaching pee-wee flag football, fishing after school, preparing lunches in little brown bags and all the fun stuff that pre-school and first graders love to do! I helped my wife out at the dental offices while the boys were in school and by many counts, I had one of the best, most successful years of my life. I look back on this year with great fondness for the time I was able to spend with my boys at such an incredible age.

    Unfortunately, this Leaning back also degraded my wife’s perception of me and my value to the family. I was no longer the breadwinner, I was “less of a man”, I was “not the person she married”. She ended up divorcing me at the end of that year :-(

    I have since rebuilt my life in a much more balanced way and have Leaned back in at work and become an executive at a software company, gotten remarried to an amazing woman, but I’ve also built my life around time for the boys and always being the best dad possible.

    I have never really shared this story publicly, but I felt compelled when hearing that you have feelings of failure by putting the most important thing in your life first… your baby and your family. I made that same decision and while it certainly didn’t end the way I had intended with my first wife, it certainly helped me build a better, more balanced life in the long-run. Knowing what I know, I would make the same decision again.

    As a society, we have a long way to go when valuing men who make the decision to Lean back. Women certainly have a more difficult time re-entering the workforce and climbing those work ladders after having made the decision to focus on family. However, I think women are typically more supported at home with spouses who value the work sacrifices that their wives have made to focus on motherhood.

    The most important thing I learned over the past 10 years of Leaning back and Leaning in is that there is always time to do whatever you want to do at work, but there is precious little time with your children as they grow and become the most amazing little people you will ever know! They will value your decision exponentially more than even the best company… and Buffer is one of the best!

    • Hi there Rob —

      I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story with me. What a rollercoaster of a ride and yet to hear you’d still make the same choice is so incredible. I can only imagine the memories and fondness that your children had for this time with you. We have so much work to do to support families as a whole! It breaks my heart that things have to be so “either/or” when families are the true lifeblood of our work, economy and very species!

      ** takes a deep breath **

      Your experience has given me some things to really reflect on – and I’m so grateful for that! Your vulnerability and honesty here inspire me and I’m glad things have fallen back into place. You sound like the sort of parent I’m aiming to be — one that puts family above all. :)

      Cheers, dear friend! Thank you again!

  • Krista Wiltbank

    The lovely advice about “figuring out life again” will come into play again and again as your child grows, every new developmental stage, or if you grow your family with a new baby.

    My daughters are much older now, 13 and 10, and I spent a good chunk of their childhood years “leaned in” at a job that I wanted so desperately to succeed at but was ultimately set up for failure and trapped in a job in a toxic culture that I ended up hating. It was not worth it. I can never get that time with my daughters back.

    Even when you’re in a good job at a good company with a good culture, your job can never tell you it loves you. It doesn’t have a little face that will light up with a big, toothless grin when it sees you, or arms that will squeeze you tight. Your child will (and there’s nothing better in the world than that). No matter how much American society de-values caregiving, raising a child is, in the long run, much more important than any paid job you can have.

    You are not a failure because you “leaned back” or evolved your role at Buffer or anything else. If anything, you’re *more* successful because you found a way to do what you love and earn a paycheck, while still being able to take care of your baby at home. It’s all a matter of being very deliberate and mindful about how you define success for yourself.

    • Thank you for these amazing words, Krista. I hope you’re in a better company now and you’re definitely right about how important the role of caregiving is. And there is no greater reward than a toothless grin! (My now 10 month old just got his first two teeth! End of the toothless era for him. :) ) So grateful for your support and encouragement here!

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies