Pregnant While Working in Tech: Part 1 – HCG and PHP

I’m overjoyed to share I’m expecting a baby girl this December! It was hard to keep the secret for so long 🙂

I went into pregnancy with some sense of what the journey would be like, but no guidance on how to manage it while working full-time. I had no role model of a Mom working in tech, so I have found myself transforming into someone unfamiliar.

In Part 1 of this blog post series, I share the first months of my experience, in the hopes of contributing to the effort of making motherhood journeys amidst careers (particularly, in tech) more transparent and providing stories others may relate to in the beginnings of pregnancy. I am humbled by how much still is left to learn, because I’ve already learned so much even before baby has arrived.

From HCG (the hormone a newly formed embryo releases, to signal to the body to prepare for pregnancy — this is the hormone pregnancy tests detect) to PHP (a programming language I’m not familiar with and don’t particularly like, which I needed to use during this time) these were some really challenging weeks.

Note: While this post mostly refers to experiences in my first trimester, it also follows the beginning of my second trimester. My pregnancy symptoms were fairly similar in weeks 9-16 (the end of the trimester and beginning of the second trimester).

Remote work was a huge help, especially in the beginning.

It is impossible to separate this experience from the COVID-19 pandemic. My pregnancy began during a time when vaccinations were scarce and just starting to open up beyond health care works and the elderly. By the end of my first trimester, states were fully reopened and entering people into cash lotteries to incentivize vaccination. What this timing meant for the vulnerable first phase of pregnancy was that my job continued to be almost 100% remote with only vague discussions about partial or full returns to the office. This was an enormous relief.

At the time of writing (27 weeks pregnant, about two thirds of the way through pregnancy), I am still working almost entirely remotely.

If I had never worked remotely, I imagine I wouldn’t have thought twice about being pregnant while working in an office vs. from home because I wouldn’t have known another option. But having experienced pregnancy in the comfort of my home, it is so hard to imagine doing this (particularly the first trimester) in person. I was fortunate to have not too many symptoms, but my fatigue was crushing even into my second trimester — I felt like I was on some kind of allergy medication that makes you drowsy. I was in a fog and did not feel like myself.

I managed to do my work, but it took everything I had to get through the day. I made the most of my good spurts of energy (usually in the morning), but afternoons in particular were tough (not being able to have a second coffee was rough!) It was helpful to have just brief interactions and to be able to, for example, take a moment to read an e-mail or article while lying on the couch rather than sitting upright at my desk.

Imposter syndrome and the early weeks of pregnancy are a brutal combination.

The inability to focus or do work that stretched myself (easy, tactical work was generally OK) was a particular problem working in tech because imposter syndrome for women in tech is already a huge challenge.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that — even when qualified — one feels they do not belong in a certain environment (mainly, referring to careers). It is particularly common for women and other underrepresented groups in industries like tech. There are many discussions of this issue out there, such as this TED-Ed video to start: What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? – Elizabeth Cox)

Starting as soon as I encountered programming and computer science in college, I’ve had many moments of feeling I don’t have what it takes to be in this career. With almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am now better able to evade those thoughts by reflecting on my accomplishments objectively and taking time to sharpen my skills when I’m feeling rusty; self-doubt still comes from time-to-time, but I have more practice squashing it.

However, during the first trimester, I lost my ability to manage self-doubt. From my perspective, I was doing everything poorly even if no one noticed I was slipping. Working remotely, I probably was able to hide how difficult working full-time was for me. On one hand, I was so frustrated with myself, on another hand I was too exhausted to care at all.

My tolerance for challenge was so limited, in a field where you are told an integral part of your job is to have the endurance to work systematically through problems. A stretch assignment at work that I continually got stuck on crushed my self-esteem.

Catastrophizing things further (naturally, since I had so many hormones running through my body!) I felt like the ultimate failure because I had made it so many years into a tech career as a woman. I had spent time mentoring others over the past years (encouraging them to stay when they felt overwhelmed or doubtful), and having done that felt like even more of a fraud for thinking of leaving (and contributing to the problem of few women in tech).

On one hand, I felt ready to quit. But the wiser part of me knew that was not what I wanted — and not just due to guilt about lack of women in the field. I thought: How awesome would it be to have a brilliant, confident coder Mom? That would be such an amazing example to my daughter and other children. I can only think of one kid I went to grade school with who had a programmer parent, and the parent was the father. To this day, I don’t even personally know a programmer Mom (I only know some online).

I also felt, more generally, that giving up on something I have worked so hard for and enjoyed would be a bad example to my daughter. So, sticking with things then became one of my first tasks as a parent: to follow through with finding fulfilment in my work.

This isn’t to say I am committing to never leaving the field. There may be a day when I decide — as others do all the time in various fields — it is no longer for me, and that is perfectly OK. But I didn’t want my exit from it to be due to these intense feelings of self-doubt working in a state where I physically wasn’t able to perform as well.

I would just need to wait it out until I could see myself more clearly, to believe in myself fully again and have the mental capacity to think about steps for how to boost my confidence and get back to the joy of creating things. And it did get better (more on that later).

I accepted that I would need to adjust my goals and lifestyle, and found some ways to pass the time.

Letting go of the need to make progress and have my usual mental clarity and energy was tough, but I was eventually able to do it. I needed low brain power activities to pass the time, which would make me feel good and could sometimes be productive.

One of the hardest parts of this time of pregnancy was that I spent so much of my limited energy on work, and then by the time work was over I was ready to crawl into bed. It felt like my life just alternated between work and sleep. There was no energy for the usual things I enjoy, so there were no activities to serve as gaps between work and sleep where I could have different experiences and regain a sense of self (I’m sure I will encounter this sensation again soon when we have a newborn in the house!)

There were a handful of activities I felt up to, which cheered me up and helped pass this time:

  • Audio books
  • Game Boy games (Pokemon)
  • Mobile games (Pokemon and Clash of Clans)
  • Texting friends and family
  • Watching pregnancy and Mom vlogs on YouTube
  • Going through pregnancy mobile apps (The Bump, Flo, PregnancyPlus, and WomanLog)
  • Yoga when I felt up to it

Communicating what I was going through was a huge help.

Lastly, connecting with other expectant parents has been a huge help. In the virtual yoga classes I have been taking, there is a check-in phase where everyone goes around and shares how far along they are, how they are feeling, and what they are hoping to get out of the class. Verbalizing what I am going through and hearing what others are going through has been extremely valuable. I am so grateful to have this opportunity.

As the “Part 1” in the post title suggests, there is more to this story. The sneak preview is, I was able to get back into my groove and — while not at peak productivity or confidence — make some small steps along my tech career path. There was also (and continues to be) increased importance in communicating my experience and setting clear boundaries. I also have encountered new professional challenges the closer I get to my due date. Stay tuned for Part 2!

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