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Company Culture

What Family Leave Really Looks Like at a Tech Startup

Around 8 weeks after giving birth, I began to panic.

It was a rough time for us — our little one wasn’t too keen on sleeping at night and endured colic that left him crying for hours at a time.

With my return-to-work date only two weeks away, I wondered how it would even be possible — especially because we hoped for me to continue as the baby’s primary caregiver while working full-time.

Doubts crept into my mind:

  • Would I even be capable in my new role?
  • The team had functioned so well without me; would I even be needed anymore?
  • Would I have the mental and physical strength to be both a mom and a leader at a growing startup?

As the first teammate at our growing startup 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 parenthood.

My hormones ran rampant. Sleep was nonexistent. I anticipated keeping up with the team and even doing some work after my baby was born, but motherhood quickly adjusted my expectations.

Today I’m the mother of a happy, healthy four-month-old baby boy, and I’ve found my new equilibrium at Buffer, jumping into new projects and passions.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, and it’s an honor to share some reflections and experiences of my family leave.


Crafting our initial family leave policy

The entire Buffer team is so supportive of family and wholeness — being a part of this environment spurred in me a personal interest in researching what a family leave policy might look like.

With the encouragement of many team members, I dove into gathering advice on establishing a loose policy with the thought in the back of my mind that I would one day (hopefully!) utilize it.

Most countries provide 3- to 6-months paid leave for families whereas the United States only a requires 3-month unpaid leave of employers (and only of employees who had been there for a year, in companies more than 50 employees.)

parental leave

Several high-profile companies (including, Netflix, SpotifyYahoo and Patagonia) and many others are pioneering a new view on family leave more in line with what the rest of the world provides: paid time off, help with childcare and more. Here’s a super awesome resource with a database of companies and their paid family leave policies.

As Buffer already pioneered so many employee benefits (vacation, perks, bringing family on retreats, etc.) I felt we could continue down this line to put on paper exactly how we might be supportive of new parents. We recommended around three months paid leave for parents – here’s a summary of that initial recommendation.

3 months? That’s forever!

Before having a child, the numbers were a bit hard to grasp. Three months of leave? That seems like forever!

  • Would I really need/want to be gone that long?
  • Would I even be considered “worth waiting for?”
  • Would I get left behind if I took that long of a leave?

When I finally knew I would have the opportunity to experience family leave at Buffer, a multitude of doubts and fears crept in, as well as a sense of guilt: Buffer is beyond generous with team members and their families. Would I be taking advantage of that generosity by taking three months away?

I knew deep down how irrational these thoughts were. Time and time again, I’ve seen the level of trust and respect shared throughout the team. I knew I could trust that if I was overstepping—or under-stepping—someone would share their concerns.

I was aware that as the first one to take it, I was setting the tone for family leave at Buffer. I still erred towards “under-stepping” when I chose how long to take: Two and a half months.

Looking back now, I wish I had taken a full three months and returned when I felt fully ready. Although it wouldn’t have changed the date I returned as I really felt ready at the 10 week mark, I do think it would have helped me with the panic that arose around 8 weeks.

Now that additional team members have utilized our family leave, we’ve seen a trend of veering towards the shorter side of leave at first. With some additional advice and encouragement, we’re working to lobby for a more extended the leave for those who might default to a shorter one.

With everything that I and my teammates know now, we’re working on an updated iteration of our family leave recommendation and will have an announcement of that soon!

Preparing for leave: dividing my tasks, dealing with guilt

I began most preparations about a month before my leave. Around that time, the community team was starting to take shape and we brought on our final member, Bonnie! Between all three rockstars – Alfred, Arielle and Bonnie, I was able to distribute all of my essential tasks.

We went through an exercise recommended by the director of community, Jennifer Sable Lopez at Moz that helped identify these roles and tasks. Mary stepped in to lead and mentor the team.

I wrestled with a lot of unease as well, feeling badly about piling my responsibilities onto other teammates, who already had a lot on their plate. As it turned out, everything settled well and things that weren’t essential were able to fall to the side without any recourse.

I dumped all the info I could possibly think of into documents, files and emails. I hoped this would help the team feel like they had everything they needed within reach.

One reflection from a fellow teammate was that making sure the team was as prepared as possible for my absence helped to ensure the smoothest transition. I also believe this helped me feel more at ease while I was away.

I resolved to stay off Slack and email as much as possible to focus on my family, but I did extend the offer to stay reachable via Facebook messenger and text.

My time away: Turning FOMO into JOMO

Once baby arrived, the days flew by as we figured out how to care for a brand new life.


I had anticipated being able to keep up with the team, but motherhood quickly adjusted my expectations to my new, wonderful reality.

Yet I continued to feel connected to the Buffer team through social media. I perused emails from time to time, though I didn’t log into Slack, knowing my brain and heart needed to focus on baby.

One element I had been the most concerned about pre-baby was the Buffer retreat in Hawaii I knew I would be missing.

At the last retreat I attended, July 2014 in Reykjavik, Iceland, I was 17 weeks pregnant and knew I most likely was not going to attend the next one. Filled with longing for what I would miss in the future, I shared my feelings with a wise teammate, Patrik. He recommended a switch of perspective – from FOMO, or fear of missing out; to JOMO — the joy of missing out.

This changed everything for me. Through this lens, I followed the updates in our Facebook group as the retreat took place and felt so much joy for the whole team. I was also finding joy in what I was experiencing instead.

A few months after the retreat, sporting a Hawaiian outfit sent from the Buffer team.
A few months after the retreat, sporting a Hawaiian outfit sent from the Buffer team.

The days and weeks of my leave passed quickly, a jubilant time with many memories made and so many lessons learned. When I was in the right frame of mind, I dipped my toes back into work and watched a few recordings of sessions from the retreat and caught up on the Open blog.

Easing back into work

With my return to work only a few weeks away, our baby endured colic while I endured new doubts. Would I be ready?

But sleep routines and daytime routines improved, my rampant hormones leveled out and I began to see my return as a fresh start. It was revitalizing, inspiring and exciting.

I worked a bit before my official return, watching the retreat videos, recordings from the weekly community team syncs (huge thanks to my team for doing this!) and catching up on emails. The ability to be able to work when I felt ready filled me with so much gratitude. So few are given such a choice.

Though there were tumultuous moments that are perhaps natural to all first-time parent’s journey, the entire leave felt perfectly timed and fully supported. I know the community team is such a vital part of this and I’m beyond grateful at how they encouraged me to disconnect.

Today: Both working and caring for baby

Coming back was like coming home. Though there were many new teammates and changes within the company, I felt caught up by the end of the first week with the help of almost daily catch-up chats with the team.

Many fellow teammates with children offered incredible advice about working and caring for young ones and I’m grateful to be able to care for my child while I work from home.

We recently brought on a part-time nanny to assist with our child’s care a few days a week and I anticipate we’ll adjust many things as the baby grows and passes into new phases of life (especially phases that involve less daytime napping!)

I’m continually grateful for the leave time in which I was able to wholly focus and dedicate myself to my newborn. Now, I’m feeling so much more empowered and supported to submerge back into this part of my life. I’ve also felt a renewed perspective on my role and as I settled back in, I was able to pick up the important pieces and add in several new passions.

All along, I’ve been indebted to my Buffer family their encouragement and the freedom to find the best way to be my whole self at work — which now includes a tiny little team member.

Image 2016-02-29 at 1.14.07 PM


Additional resources about parental leave:

Parental leave policies:

Supporting those coming back from leave:

More resources!

Over to you, now!

I’d love to hear your experience with parental leave or if you know of some great companies that support family leave!

  • Hi Nicole, thank you for sharing your story! And congratulations on being a new mom – what an exciting (though I bet, exhausting) time! I loved reading your post; I’m a bit far away from having kids, but it’s so comforting to know that some start-ups and other companies are starting to change how we view family leave in the United States. You’re doing an incredible thing, thank you!

    • Thank you so much, Gabi! It really is an amazing time and I’m so grateful for such a supportive company and family! :)

      Really grateful for you reading and commenting here too! It’s not something I really considered much before having kids became more of a reality and I feel like there is a lot more I could have done beforehand to advocate for working parents!

  • Sara Oberg

    Congratulations Nicole! How wonderful that Buffer is so supportive! It will certainly continue to evolve as you enter different phases. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to bring my first kiddo into my office with me after 6 weeks of leave, which lasted until he was about 5 months when I decided a part-time nanny was needed. Then I had to really complicate things by having a 2nd kiddo and changing jobs;P The juggle is real for working parents! We are certainly lucky to live in an age where remote work, and flex schedules are becoming more common.

    • Thank you so much, Sara!

      That’s so amazing that you were able to bring the little one into the office (I’m nearing the 5 month mark and he’s getting so much more active!) :) Hehe I can only imagine adding a second one into the mix! So many memories and possibilities! :D

  • Dzifa Tetteh

    Interestingly enough, I was having this conversation with my husband just yesterday. I work in a relatively small startup and would most likely have to get all the ladies together so we think a policy up and share it with our boss. Luckily, he is pretty open to our input provided it can be justified. :) The experience you have shared will definitely be insightful.

    • Oh that’s so awesome, Dzifa!

      Definitely sounds like a great time to think though a policy at your company — and I highly recommend checking out Fairy Godboss – – to see other company’s policies for comparison.

      If you have any questions that I can help with, feel free to shout out as well! :)

      • Dzifa Tetteh

        Thanks! Would definitely check it out. Congratulations!

  • Julia

    Congratulations on being a Mum!
    I’m privileged to have worked in Australia as a bureaucrat where maternity leave it more generous (although still not as generous has countries like Sweden) and so I took about 10 months off with each child and returned to part-time work. By law employees are entitled to three months paid maternity leave and in the public service we can take up to 2 years off (only three months full time paid). We are also entitle to work part time if we have children. I was able to take my pay at half time which meant pay was extended over six months. I really cherished this time with my babies and couldn’t imagine going back to work any earler. I felt that my kids thrived under my care for their first year and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I realise just how lucky I was to have had that opportunity.

    • Hi Julia!!

      Thank you so much!! Oh it’s so incredible to hear this and I’m so glad you were able to spend so much time with your babies!

      Really loving how the government allows part-time work to help keep that family balance!

      So grateful for you sharing this – I’m inspired and hoping the US can follow in these footsteps! :)

  • Angela Sylcott

    So sad to see how far behind the US is when it comes to this. I’m in a group for parents of “fussy” babies, and it’s heartbreaking reading almost weekly posts from moms panicking because their (ridiculously short) leave is almost over and they don’t know how their colicky, reflux-ridden, or high-needs baby who refuses to take a bottle and won’t nap is going to do, or how the caretaker is going to manage a baby who cries a lot and wants to be held constantly. Unfortunately, more than a few end up with quitting their job as their only option. Maybe if these moms had more time off, they could stand a better chance of reaching the end of colic or otherwise finding some sort of “rhythm” with their baby that would make things better, without having to rush back to work in the middle of it all.

    I’m a freelancer, so I’m out of the system altogether when it comes to any kind of “leave”—for me, maternity leave = leave money unearned and possibly have clients leave, haha! I took only a week off after having my daughter 3.5 years ago, and ended up switching to doing all my work at night just to avoid the frustration of trying to tend to her *and* clients during the day. Motherhood is such an incredibly tough job on its own, being a mother and an employee is even heavier lifting, and definitely has a learning curve. Nice to hear stories like yours where you and your employer were able to work together and create a system that understands that.

    I’m curious: Maybe some psychology would help parents take a longer leave. Like, if the standard offered leave were 5 months, maybe people will “guilt” themselves into “only” taking 3 months, which sounds like the amount Buffer would like them to take anyway? Ultimately, that this phenomenon of parents “shorting” their leave out of fear of judgment for taking liberties or being seen as falling out of step even exists points to the fact that parenting still has a ways to go in being fully accepted as part of employees’ lives when it comes to the workplace. Very interesting topic!

    • Hey there Angela!

      Wow – thank you so much for sharing all of this! I’m grateful for you and major kudos for balancing freelancing and mommyhood (especially with a fussy baby!)

      One idea that I found really special was a leave policy that allowed to spread out your parental leave time over the course of six or twelve months after the baby’s birth. This could be a really cool trend (especially for remote companies!) to allow for more flexibility for those kiddos who might be more needy.

      Love your idea also about encouraging parents to take a longer leave! I can vouch that I felt a little bit of fear that I might be looked at as not dedicated to my job (though I know this certainly isn’t the case! There are so many irrational fears that come up during such times!!)

      Thank you so much for your thoughts here! Really inspired by you balancing so much and working at night!

      • Angela Sylcott

        I like the idea of being able to spread leave out over that first year. I know I don’t have to tell you how much happens over that time, haha!

  • I don’t know one company that offers more than 8 weeks. I also don’t know one company that let’s the family leave play out free of guilt. How refreshing to read that you felt like it was coming home after your leave when you returned to work. I suspect it had as much to do with your attitude as with the culture at Buffer. The nanny is a great way to balance your time between work, baby, and other home responsibilities.

    • Thank you so much, Jane! Things have been working so well with the nanny and still being able to hug my little baby any time I want to! :) It’s such a gift! I hope companies like Buffer can help inspire change to family leave policies — and it’s been incredible to see New York mandate some paid family leave, too! One day, this can hopefully be common!! :D

  • Carey Casile

    Congrats on your little one Nicole and thanks for sharing your story! I’m a father of two and I know how precious those early moments are in a child’s life. I’m really glad that I work remotely, it would be really tough going back to the office a week later and having to leave my newborn babies at home.

    • Thank you so much, Carey!! It’s incredible that you were able to be there for your two little ones too! :)

  • wiedenu

    I want to thank you Nicole for sharing your story. I’m thankful that you shared your story, the ups and downs, the joys and fears, and also being transparent about the culture of parental leave in the US versus other countries (i.e. the world.)

    I feel the more we openly talk about the benefits of paid leave like you’ve done here, the more likely change for the better will happen.

    • Thank you so much for reading and I’m hopeful as well that the more we talk about these things, the more changes we can inspire! You’re such an important ally there! :) Thank you for your support! :)

  • Freya Lustie

    I’d love to know some of the tips, techniques etc you are using to work from home and care for your little one. I’ve found that to be a challenge. Any suggestions?

    • Hey there Freya!

      That is such a great one! I must confess right away I’m certainly no expert and I’m experimenting with so many things!

      The short answer is: baby dictates so much! Sometimes he feels more independent than other days — and some days he naps all the time! :)

      Right now, my mother helps look after him for a bulk of the day one day a week and we have an awesome sitter who watches him for three days (from 9 am to 3 ish). This is super helpful and when I get the majority of my meetings in. I realize not everyone can have childcare, but a dear coworker encouraged me to keep that as an option! :)

      For the times my little one and I are co-working, he’s got a bouncer, exersaucer, play mat (with hanging things) and chances are that one of those will suit his fancy for 10-20 minutes at a time.

      I’m super grateful for my coworkers being so understanding (and all loving to see him!) as he sometimes joins in the syncs if he doesn’t want to be left out.

      I’m tweaking a lot of this as we go and I’m so open to other tips and tricks! There are lots of moments where I feel like I’m getting nothing done (baby spits up in meeting, big poops that take a while to clean up, going through 3 diapers in the span of 10 minutes…. those sort of things.) :) I think it’s all going with the flow and optimizing the times where you have a few moments of focus.

      Again though — this has been working for us, but every kiddo is so different!

      Sorry for the novel here! I hope you and your little one find a good rhythm and I’d love to hear more about your routine and help in any way I can!

      PS – the mute button is so handy for online meetings! :)

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