small people

Living a double life: being a parent at an early stage startup

As Noah Kagan recently put it so well: can I be real with you? Real real?

I’ve talked before about how I carve my day to squeeze every drip out of it. Shared my theories for theming, a noble attempt to avoid drift and push for maximum focus. Described how I try to be disciplined with my schedule, working in bursts across a 16 hour day.

What I talk much less about is why I hack my life in such ways. About my “other job”, as parent to two small people.

Surely I must be crazy to grip onto the rocket ship that is life at an early stage startup, while also trying to be equally successful in my role as parent, no?

Some days I think perhaps I am, that it can’t be done. Those thoughts creep in whenever I’m struggling to keep my two lives separate; determined not to let my small people affect my work, or my work affect my small people. All while looking to escape assumed judgement for being a parent in a young man’s world – a place where parenting feels rare.

Slowly I’m starting to swing around. Realising I might be able to have my cake and eat it; to pull off caring for my small people without compromising my commitment to the rocket ship.

Realising that rather than being about a fight for separation [and perhaps segregation] of my double life, perhaps it’s really about acceptance and blending them, openly and honestly, into one.

I’d like to talk here about the challenges I encounter as I try to pull it all off. I know how useful it will be to me, to work through the complexities of parenting while riding a rocket ship, and it would be amazing to receive comments from others in the same position. I hope by sharing, it’s also helpful to others too.

Life’s a balancing act, or is it?

There’s always a ton of talk about ‘work-life balance’. In its purest form, the name suggests each significant area of your life should be evenly balanced and equally weighted. Therefore, as soon as one aspect appears to be receiving more attention than another, you invariably begin to feel off balance and out of control. A recipe for two-way guilt and stress if ever I heard it!

More recently, the buzz words have shifted to ‘work-life merge’ and ‘integration’. As their names suggest, the focus is on acceptance of your whole self. Rather than living two separate lives, struggling to keep each under control without affecting the other, you act openly and deliver positively to both. The guilt that comes with living in ‘middle state’ is not good for anyone, least of all yourself. Trust me on that one.

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” Anonymous

1. Learning to let go

Not all that long ago my days were filled with plates to spin and balls to juggle. Quite simply, I was trying to have it all AND do it all. Perhaps being too stubborn to engage any help, I struggled with the feeling it was my responsibility to get it all done. To be Martha Stewart and Sheryl Sandberg wrapped into one, like some kind of superhero.

Finally letting go of my compulsion to always be in control, I’ve quietened my mother guilt a little and rallied troops to back me up. With childcare and domestic support drafted in, I can now happily hustle for the rocket ship, switch back to mama-bear, before hustling again after lights out.

All of my plates are still spinning – I’m coming to accept they always will be – but life is a little less stuck in the middle.

2. Escaping reality

I’m a lucky girl and I know it. As a working mother, I’m able to do my work without being tied to a desk or even to a particular country, a real digital nomad.

While delivering happiness to the Buffer community grants me the freedom to work wherever and whenever I choose, in reality, escaping my own four walls is still a little tricky; even with back up.

It requires a small military operation of pre-scheduling to hop into Central London for a full dawn to dusk session at a co-working space. It’s definitely something I would love to do more and I’m envious of those with greater freedom of movement than myself. I perhaps need to be stricter with my schedule to book days into my calendar to ensure their regularity.

3. The Internet never sleeps

Building a bridge between our community of awesome Buffer customers and our developers is a role you never really leave behind. Wherever I go, whatever I’m doing, a part of me is always conscious of how many people are waiting.

I’ve written before about my heavily customised schedule; about how I’ve tweaked my routine to fit around the global needs of Buffer while meeting the needs of my small people, and I’m grateful I have the freedom to do that.

I’m mindful of the inbound messages we’re receiving at all hours of the day and night, and I work hard to spread my input into the community across the widest spectrum of my day.

I also appreciate being the person who can take my little people to school each day, who can pick up from football practice and serve dinner every night. In that respect, you could say I get to have my cake and eat it, even if getting that cake out of the oven without it being burned takes a little bit of skill and negotiation!

Always learning

In my quest for improvement and seeking inspiration from those in a similar position, I find myself drawn to all sources of information about other women in business and how they get it done. I can’t help but wonder if they are really pulling it off or if it’s just a cosy charade in front of a crazy mess!

From watching the frivolous Hollywood movie ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It?‘, in which the lead character holds down her job as a fund manager while just about holding her family together. To being captivated by a Bloomberg Television moderated panel discussion ‘Women to Watch: Women  Take the Lead in Technology’ that featured four leading women in tech, who not only kick ass in their C-suite positions but do it with grace.

I’m the first to admit I have a heap more to learn and life is certainly always evolving [if you know of any inspiring articles or clips I might like to check out, be sure to let me know in the comments!].

While definitely tricky, and sometimes smothered in feelings of self-doubt, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I adore my small people and I want to empower them to kick asses of their own. I also love my rocket ship and the feeling each day that I’m contributing to the growth of something great. It may be a challenge but there’s only one thing to do when faced with one of those: rise.

Are you a parent at a startup? What are your challenges and learnings? How do you keep all your balls in the air? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/softmodeling Jordi Cabot

    All this is true but on the other hand a baby also forces you to improve your productivity http://storiesfailedentrepreneur.com/2012/04/04/wanna-improve-your-productivity-have-a-baby/

    My only proved strategy is not to bring home work that has to be ABSOLUTELY done that day. A baby is too unpredictable. I usually can work a lot at night but I don’t want the stress to know that I’ve to do it. This helps me enjoy more her.

    • http://alyssaaldersley.com/ Alyssa Aldersley

      Hey Jordi. Thanks for hopping over to comment. Love your own post that you shared on Twitter.

      You’re absolutely right, there’s nothing quite like the deadline of a sleeping baby to kick in the adrenalin and focus your efforts on getting things done before they wake!

      My own complexity is that I work from home all of the time and it can be tricky if my work isn’t always given the respect it deserves. In that sense, it sometimes can feel it might be easier to head out to an office and return home later to disengage! :)

  • Zeljko Dakic

    It is like only women have kids :) … I am a dad with wife and three kids. It is a challenge, but I don’t think it will stop me from pursuing my dreams. A lot can be done when you set your mind on it.

    • http://alyssaaldersley.com/ Alyssa Aldersley

      Hey Zeljko. Thanks so much for your comment:)… Absolutely, I’m definitely not alone in the challenges I face and they’re certainly not gender specific. I think any parent who works, whether that be at a startup or not, is faced with the same juggling act.

      There might also be a heap more logistics and people to consider when making any decision, but I find they’re a great driving force to succeed as well!

  • Sævar Öfjörð Magnússon

    I’m a father of two children, age 3 years and 4 months, and I quit my job in April to work on my own startup. It’s been quite a challenge to make things work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

    • http://alyssaaldersley.com/ Alyssa Aldersley

      Hey Sævar. Thanks for jumping over to comment. Startup life with a small family sure is a challenge but there’s a real buzz in being part of the ride. Congrats on quitting your job and going for it! Hope your 4 month old is letting you get a little sleep at night :)

  • http://twitter.com/yoditstanton Yodit Stanton

    I loved your post and as another tech mum in London found it comforting that I am not the only one. One thing missing from your post might be the acknowledgement that having a supportive partner is an advantage . If both parents equally make the sacrifices and the running around, it is more than possible but if the domestic, night time wakings, school run, etc, rests on one set of shoulders.

    Personally hate the term ‘having it all’ no one in history ever patronised a guy asking whether he was sure that he could run a company and have a happy family life. Rooting for you from the sidelines.

    • http://alyssaaldersley.com/ Alyssa Aldersley

      Hey Yodit, thanks for your awesome comment :) There sure is a supportive husband in the wings and he’s pretty good at jumping into the fray as soon as he gets home. However his own job keeps him out of the house for a huge chunk of the day so pretty much all of the domestics you mention are down to me – maybe that’s my next challenge? ;)

      The trickiest part has to be the fuzzy blend of my two worlds. It can be a challenge to step away from work when I’m effectively always at the office but it’s an ever evolving thing and I wrote this post with a heap of honesty in the hope I might learn some new tricks I could try!

  • http://twitter.com/fawceisfawce John Fawcett

    Hi,
    Thank you so much for this post, I think your honesty will inspire other working parents to share.
    I was inspired to share two practical, almost mundane lessons I’ve learned as a dad with three sons (5, 3, 4mos). My wife and I both work, and I started a new company last summer.

    Lesson1: leave the house, but don’t go far

    In the first six months I had no office. I tried working from home but it was a disaster – for work and for the boys. It is hard to explain to a two year old that you need to stop playing in order to stare silently at a computer.

    So, I started experimenting with nearby coffee shops, coworking spaces, and other nomad friendly office substitutes. I finally settled on the public library, and I loved it. First, they have good Internet. Secondly, they were walking distance from home so if I needed to quickly jump into family mode, I could. Thirdly, the atmosphere is priceless. A complete cross-section of my town uses the library daily, so it is brilliant people watching. And the quiet! Granted, a jackhammer is quiet compared to my sons, but the library is nearly silent. When I was stuck on a programming problem, I would wander the stacks and browse to settle my mind.
    Now that we’ve grown into needing an office, I actually miss the library a bit.

    Lesson2: do the most important things as soon as you wake up

    Like most parents, I wake up to my kids. During the first few weeks of my new company, I started spending the morning getting the boys ready for their day – breakfast, dressed, trains, wrestling, and sitting on the couch watching cartoons. It is a change that has stuck even as my job becomes more standard. I love the time, but I really love spending time with them before work consumes my attention. I do have a morning check-email-twitter-siteisup-usagestats ritual while the coffe brews, and I’ve had emergencies that cancel my morning with the kids. But those are rare, so that on most days I go to work knowing my kids had time with Dad. My wife loves it because she can get an extra bit of sleep in the morning, and I don’t mind because she lets me sleep through the night when the baby wakes (I know, much better deal for me).

    Thanks again for an inspiring post!

  • Pingback: Living a double life: being a parent at an early stage startup - Inbound.org

  • markevans99

    Great and inspiring article….

    As crazy as this sounds, I started my company when my wife got pregnant with triplets. The logic behind the decision was something like:

    - flexible schedule
    - be home to help

    and well, it’s been a number of years since then… so I don’t remember much from that period other than changing diapers in assembly line fashion and taking a lot of business calls in the parking lot….

    But it was the best business decision I’ve ever made, hands down, considering the alternative of a 9-5 (or longer) job… It’s not to say there aren’t worries and concerns…. being part of a startup is all consuming. And I often wonder If I would enjoy the walk in the park with my wife and kids a lot more if I wasn’t thinking about work 24/7.

    I guess the message to myself and others doing the parenting/startup thing, take deep breaths often and focus (really focus) on your beautiful family more and more.

  • http://www.grace-marshall.com/blog Grace Marshall

    Great to hear you share about this Alyssa. So many people think ‘is it just me?’ You’re one of the most naturally organised people I know, and to know that it’s a work in progress for you too just goes to show the tricky nature of the whole juggle (and hopefully remind us to give ourselves credit for what we do manage). I’ve learnt that the more you define what your specific ‘all’ is, the closer you get to having and enjoying it. Like you said, focusing more on what you are doing than feeling guilty about what you’re not is good for your productivity as well as your stress levels (I wrote about that here: http://grace-marshall.com/balance-and-sanity-is-it-possible/) As is giving yourself credit for what you get right, grace for your mistakes, and always learning, adapting and evolving as you go along.

  • http://twitter.com/sandman_va Dave Sandrowitz

    I like where you are going with this and think it is important for us all to be more open about working and parenting. But, how is being at a startup uniquely challenging for you as a parent in ways that other jobs might be? And, are you an employee or a founder? I ask not to judge or criticize, but to suggest that as hard as it is to juggle parenting and work…it is likely even more difficult to juggle parenting with the full scope of responsibilities and demands inherent in starting and running a business, startup or otherwise.

  • http://twitter.com/minibego Begoña Martínez

    Hi Alyssa,
    Thanks for your post, I will definitely try theming (I’m doing it in longer “cycles” so far, lean startup style) but there are other things escaping my radar and that system looks worth trying!

    Regarding keeping all balls in the air… I have now two kids (6 and 2) and I am now on my second startup (while still involved with the first). A few years ago I founded my first startup while my daughter was one. I thought that that way I would have more time for my daughter and for me (naive, maybe, but it took me where I am). So, I took of these balancing work-family courses. What surprised me the most is that it was about how to take work *home*. I remember thinking: I have a one year old! What I need is to get work _out_ of my family life. Turns out, I was already doing most of those things, and I wanted to _stop_ doing some of them.

    Learnings:
    * Leave the house
    One of the things that helped me the most was to get an office away from the house. Close, like John Fawcett said in his comment, but separate. In that way things that need doing in the house (as in: get food, reduce chaos) do not get in the way. Sure, they have to be solved, but in their own time. Also, I found that I needed to talk to adults about things unrelated to _my_ work. It will help you fight the cognitive dissonance between cash flow statements in one hand, and wet diapers in the other.

    * Manage priorities and energy, and time will follow
    One of the things I learned the hard way is NOT to do some things. Your time and energy are even less limited, so it’s crucial to choose what you will personally do, and what you won’t.
    Not everything that someone throws in your plate is your responsibility, or needs doing at all.
    Not everything that you did at the beginning needs to be done by you, always.
    So you do the most important things first (and last!) and leave the rest to others, or in the “someday, but I won’t kill myself over it” pile.
    One thing that parenting and entrepreneurship have in common is that you’re steering your babies/startups to independence. You need to be less and less critical everyday (in your children’s case, over 18 years —in your startup, hopefully way before that).

    * Train to be stronger
    Another thing that nobody tells you about entrepreneurship or parenthood is that it’s a long marathon, and that you need either to increase your strength and endurance. This is not a metaphor! You need to be stronger than you were before if you’re about to try harder things. You cannot run a marathon by trying harder, or by getting a one-time 3 hour block of spare time. You need to be able to do more in less time at work, and keep your mind work-free during play. Starting a business is draining (and sometimes, brings you unexpected, great bursts of joy). Parenthood is draining (and sometimes, brings you unexpected, truly spectacular and life altering bursts of joy). You need physical and mental strength to face the challenges they bring. In my case, I’ve now set aside half an hour a day for sports training, and it has helped me enormously (in my experience, it’s easier if it’s everyday at the same time). Contrary to intuition, this will give you more energy. In my case, it has improved my mood and and concentration. I was very tired in the afternoons, and now feel more energized for playing and can deal with the kids tantrums for a bit longer.

    Challenges:
    I still need to find the help I need to go out more with my spouse. He’s a great dad and I’d say our tasks at home are evened out. It helps that his job as a university professor has some built-in flexibility, and that we got some house-cleaning help. Still, sometimes it’s all too much and all we want to do when the kids fall asleep is to go and sleep too! I wrote about my timetable here (partially in Spanish): http://blog.bmartinez.com/index.php/2012/10/entrenar-vs-mejores-jugadas/ The main point of that blog post is that you cannot compare your training with other people’s highlight reels, that you should “never compare your inside with someone else’s outside”. I remember Sheryl Sandberg saying something about her daughter shouting “don’t get on that plane, mom” —and I can imagine that this is only what she feels secure by sharing. I think we all struggle, but we chose this because we couldn’t live any other way —now, in any case.

  • Pingback: Learning, Doing, Talking. Whats your balance? | Dirk's Page

  • Pingback: This girl is on fire | Alyssa Aldersley