Gaming and Coding with a New Baby at Home

Illustration of the author playing video games with her infant daughter.

This month (April 2022), I’m returning to work from maternity leave and — while I have some nervousness about the transition — have some new curiosity and motivation around this next chapter working in the tech field.

In this post, I share how I found inspiration and made a bit of progress building a game while caring for and getting to know my new daughter.

A couple notes to preface this post:

  • This post builds off my earlier posts Pregnant While Working in Tech: Part 1 – HCG and PHP and Part 2 – What You Are Able to Give Is Enough. Writing these posts (the second of which I wrote after my daughter was born) cleared up a lot of mental fog. I was only able to get in the mindset to approach coding again once I had a chance to process where I had come from, and where I am now, to get a clean slate — so take a look at those if you are interested in the backstory.
  • In the experience I am about to share, I am not advocating productivity during the postpartum time. Anything beyond just surviving in this season of life should be pursued with caution if at all (this is discussed further toward the end of the post). Also, any capacity for creative/technical work I have had owes itself to the long parental leaves my husband and I were fortunate to have, as well as the luck of baby who happens to sleep well. However, where I found messaging like “you won’t have time for anything after you have baby” to be discouraging and untrue, the goal of this post is to share my specific story and make the experience of re-engaging with coding with a new baby at home more tangible and (hopefully) helpful to others on the same path or just curious.

I have spent a surprisingly high amount of time gaming the weeks and months after welcoming my daughter. It has brought me a lot of comfort to engage with something familiar and fun in the midst of this seismic mental and physical shift.

At first, it was just my daily casual play in Pokémon GO and sometimes Clash of Clans on my phone (my husband is very into Pokémon GO, so it is hard to avoid talking about it or playing it).

Things got more interesting once I began to explore other games.

During the newborn weeks, I had quite a lot of semi-idle time during many, many hours nursing, often at odd hours around the clock when I was alone and looking for something low-key to do on my phone — this was a great entry point to finding more games.

The first game, I thought of fairly immediately. I remembered that something I had been wanting to practice for a while, but hadn’t found the time in the past years, was chess. I was a huge chess nerd in elementary school, definitely more skilled at it then than I am now. So, I was excited to spend some time playing chess (against a computer) on my phone.

Then, serendipitously, the Wordle craze began. According to Wikipedia, it was in December 2021 — the month my daughter was born — that Wordle added its emoji social media share feature. I was avoiding what all those squares on social media were about, but once I tried the game I understood the excitement of it all and got hooked myself. It turned out I wasn’t the only one excited for midnight to hit for a new Wordle to be released: discussions on social media showed that many other Moms were enjoying the game during the newborn days/nights that blur together.

Around the time, I signed up for MIT Mystery Hunt (a weekend-long puzzle competition with both current MIT students and alumni), which a friend of mine invited me to, but it was very hard for me to do this with my daughter (who was 6 weeks old at a time and in a very demanding phase). I logged in a few times, but couldn’t follow along or contribute anything. However, even being on the periphery of Mystery Hunt, I had a desire to do something puzzle-y. I asked the same friend if he had suggestions for games I could do that — like Chess and Wordle — are:

  • Self-paced
  • Do not require real-time interactions (e.g. dodging attacks in a battle); I should be able to put it down and pick it back up again as I am distracted by my baby
  • Something I could do on my phone

His suggestions were crossword puzzles and nonograms. I had forgotten all about crossword puzzles, and nonograms were completely new to me. So both of these — in addition to Wordle, Chess, Clash of Clans, Pokémon GO (the latter two of which do involve some 1-2 minute real-time interactions sometimes, which is OK at the right time) provided me with lots of entertainment during the newborn weeks.

A little further into my parenting journey — roughly after my daughter was sleeping through the night and I didn’t have quite the same urgent need for mobile games — I spent a lot of time playing the then newly released Pokemon Legends: Arceus with my husband. This game is a true gem, a refreshing spin on the 20+ year franchise that is very addictive. We would usually play together in the evenings after he was home from work, or on the weekend. I knew there was something very compelling about it because I would sneak in some game play (not the main storyline, of course!) when I was home alone with the baby.

The fun I had gaming during this time changed my perspective and inspired me to create something new.

It would bring me a lot of joy if something I were to create would be great entertainment for a new parent up late at night, or to bring meaning and comfort to anyone else going through anything challenging in any other way. I think that is a sign of a compelling work of art, and forms of art delivered through technology are ever so at peoples’ fingertips these days.

It was interesting to be woken up by the baby, but instead of feeling dread about getting up (OK, I will be honest, there was some dread/frustration with all the wake-ups), feeling excited to open that new Wordle or get the satisfaction of completing a nonogram I had put down a few hours ago. And building these memories with my new daughter made things all the more fun!

It was helpful to be on the player side and not the creator side for an extended period of time.

This, combined with the pure joy of getting to know my daughter (my first child), completely shifted my mindset and I finally felt like I could be creative again. Shifting to the player side is good strategy for counteracting burnout (which I was definitely experiencing in the prior year or so) — something helpful to keep in mind for the future. In this case, having a new baby at home forced me to slow down and become a consumer of content rather than creator, but in the future I might schedule times to try out a new video game or other interactive experience when I’m feeling burned out from producing.

With a fresh mindset ripe for creating, I started thinking about a game concept for a couple weeks, and then started it when my daughter about was 3 months old.

Once I knew I wanted to do something, it was fairly easy to come up with an idea (given that I was no longer burned out). I knew immediately that I wanted to do something simple like Wordle, but with art, design, and music integrated like my previous independent work Magic Puzzles. I wanted to experiment a little, but keep the project low in scope and within my current ability level.

Edited to add on August 1, 2023: play and learn more about the game I created (Haiku Tunes) here!

In the beginning, working on Haiku Tunes was just jotting down notes on my phone whenever I had a few minutes. I started with brainstorming, and then started mapping out the application architecture in a more organized document that I’d add to and edit every so often. From here, I broke down the technical aspects into smaller pieces that either a) I already knew how to do (and would be good practice for returning to work) or b) would require research that I could do on my phone by reading software development forums or watching tutorials on YouTube (again, in various free time or semi-idle times such as burping the baby).

I keep very low expectations while working on this game.

Like any technical project I’ve approached in my free time, the biggest step for me is getting set up. Once the project base and its Git repository (a means of tracking and managing changes to the project code) are established, it is less intimidating to chip away little by little. I have been working on the game using Unity — a game development engine — during my daughter’s naps over a few weeks. These naps are unpredictable, and while some days they are hard to come by, things usually even out and I can find at least a bit of time per week.

Creating a project with Unity has also been good practice for returning to work. Not using a technical skillset for an extended period of time has been a little anxiety-inducing, so it was a good opportunity to ease back into it on my own terms.

Working on a project while caring for my daughter full-time has the potential to be stressful, so I am keeping an eye on it. The main trap I have noticed I fall into is moving the goal posts: I set out to finish some feature in a given amount of time, and once I do, I usually keep the momentum and keep going — which sometimes is OK, but other times I bite off more than I can chew and then get frustrated I can’t finish something I wasn’t even planning on doing. So, whenever I see this happening, I am mindful of it and distance myself from the work. Caring for my daughter is the top priority right now, and I need to keep things in balance.

I also close the project on my computer over the weekend. This helps establish boundaries so that I don’t feel like I need to be productive over the weekend, when everyone is home and family is the priority. It has also good been practice for easing into the rhythm of the workweek.

Being on parental leave, I want to make sure I am soaking up as much family time as possible before I return to work. At the same time, I want to build the confidence to facilitate my return, which coding gives me. It is hard to know how much to time to spend on each thing, so there is an underlying worry that I’m getting it wrong. I think this is really just a preview of the prioritization decisions I’ll have to make in many years of parenting to come, so I am working on developing patience and grace around that, and also starting to become comfortable with the lack of clear “right” and “wrong” when it comes to balancing work and kids.

Coming back to building the game week after week has been a sign this is the kind of work I am meant to do — the meeting point of passion and skills — a great reassurance during such a big life transition where my identity has shifted so much and I’m not quite sure where I stand in my professional arc. Becoming a working Mom soon still has a lot of unknowns and areas of anxiety for me. I’m not sure what the next months and years hold, but the concreteness of a small technical project under my belt has been a big win for me.