There are some personal things that are deemed ‘appropriate’ topics for discussions at the workplace - weekend plans, planning your next big holiday, getting married… but somehow, as natural and human as it is, pumping milk for your baby from the office is - more often than not, considered taboo. While we’ve arguably made significant progress in the last century when it comes to designing the workplace to be more inclusive for parents, according to Hannah Heffernan, there is still room for improvement. In this revealing blog post, Hannah recounts her own experience as the mum of a 2 year old, with another on the way, in the hopes that more workplaces can create a mindful work environment for mums and dads alike.
Working at a startup can be pretty fun. There’s usually plenty of laid-back parties and cold beers in the fridge. That said, while everyone is working hard - and playing hard, there’s a fine line between fostering a fun, social atmosphere and creating a working environment that isn’t all that sustainable once life throws you other responsibilities - like children.
First up, let me start with a little background.
Like many parents, I felt concerned about disclosing my status of ‘parent’ when interviewing for a job. Having recently returned to Sydney from Berlin with my husband and a 1 year old daughter, I was looking for a design role in tech when a job at Canva popped up. It was a dream role for me - a designer designing design software?! This was the stuff of fantasies.
That said, if my previous work experiences were anything to go by, sexy young tech startups were not typically known as places designed for parents - mums especially, or for anyone over 30. So, with this preconception of what startup life was like, I entered my Canva interview with a ‘professional’ mask and purposely avoided any mention of my daughter or my husband. I wanted to look young, unencumbered and ready to work hard and play hard, like I hoped I had appeared pre-babe on the other side of 30.
By way of background, when I did start working full-time, I was lucky enough to have a partner who genuinely parented equally, if not more than I did. This isn’t a dig at families where the working partner just takes a week off and then gets back to their 50-something hour job, I just knew it wasn’t typical. My husband took a remote contract that gave him a huge amount of flexibility at work and he switched to ‘primary’ carer, so I could focus on my flash new job.
That’s why at the Canva interview, I was determined to ‘make it work’. In hindsight, I realize it was a disservice to myself (and other parents) trying out this façade. It was just that I found it hard to believe that dream jobs and the momentous role of being a parent could coexist, without, you know, the wheels falling off with some sort of Bond-esque explosion.
My façade quickly crumbled when my husband started full-time work not long after I’d settled into the role. ‘Young and unencumbered’ began to feel a lot harder to maintain. Soon we had to share the sick days, doctor’s appointments and 4:30pm daycare pick-ups. While I was anxious about letting the ‘professional’ persona slide, it turns out I was fine. As far as I could tell (and believe me, I was anxiously watching) nobody’s perception of my dedication or competency changed.
Luckily for me, Canva’s spiel about inclusivity, diversity and balanced work life seemed legit. Yes, there are karaoke clubs, beer pong competitions and team members who choose to start and work late, but there are also other parents: staff who leave at 4pm for various reasons, social activities aimed at people who don’t drink, kids’ picnics and a parents room. The best thing about this is that I can feel proud of the work that I do and I now realize it doesn’t have to be ‘one or the other’ - a dedicated mother or working my dream job. With the right support, they can coexist.
I’m now expecting again. In fact, by the time you’re reading this I probably have - woah - two children. Preparing for a second baby is pretty daunting. While I may know a thing or two about how it all goes down this time, I will have a toddler to entertain in tandem, and a partner who, unlike our time in Germany, will be returning to work faster than I can say ‘Peppa Pig loves jumping in muddy puddles’. Even working at an awesome company and having an amazing partner, life is going to be hectic.
What gives me some comfort is knowing that Canva will support me financially while I focus on those first crazy, precious months. When I’m ready, I’ll return to a team where my opinion, unique perspective and 15 years of design experience will be valued as an asset, even if there’s puke on my shoulder.
Now, I know my situation at Canva is rare, and very privileged, but it’s also not my only work experience. In Berlin, I worked in a startup while pregnant, got made redundant while on leave, and had to start a new role in a new company while navigating new motherhood – which involved leaving my baby in childcare and the logistics of pumping milk in a new workplace.
It. Was. Hard.
So, I now have two experiences of being a working parent in a startup - and these two experiences are very different.
What I hope my ‘truths’ highlight is just how it challenging it can be, even if you have an amazing employer, as well as just how important it has been to me to work at an inclusive, supportive workplace, where I can bring my complete self; toddler-mama, bicycle commuter, houseplant murderer, ale drinker (well, not at the moment), most frequent office lost property box visitor and dinky ceramics hoarder. Morning sickness and all.
If you’re reading this with your workplace in mind, hopefully my experience will highlight some of the really hard bits, that could have been easier had I received a few extra resources and a little empathy. I’ve also included some practical tips for companies wanting to better support their working parents.
My 5 hard truths of being a working parent
Along with 5 hard truths about being a working parent, I would say this - don’t be too hard on yourself. Parenting is a huge job and excelling in your career can feel near impossible while navigating such big changes. It is possible though - it requires balance, transparency with your employer and acceptance that some days you WILL be a sleep deprived mess who weeps into their cup of tea.
So, here are the things I’ve learned:
1. Heading back to work is exciting and terrifying all at once
After I was made redundant, I started doing a little bit of freelance work when my baby was about five months old. Being made redundant wasn’t fun, but it actually felt like a blessing at the time as I wasn’t quite ready to return to full-time work. Taking ‘baby steps’, I was able to ease back into the office at my own pace which worked really well. I was so excited to be able to use my brain again.
However, once the day came to actually leave the house and go to a meeting with grown ups, I was nervous. I had been ruled by hormones, minimal sleep and piles of washing for months. My confidence was hiding somewhere in the laundry basket.
Of course, that first day went fine and I left my client meeting on a complete high. I returned home to a happy, gummy baby and an apartment that hadn’t crumbled due to my absentee mothering. It may take some getting used to but you can find balance without everything going up in smoke.
2. When you return to work, you’ll miss some things
When my daughter was almost 9 months I started a contract at another tech company. It was my first UX design role and I had a lot to learn. I dived right in and really enjoyed the challenge.
In that first month of work my daughter was really trying to master crawling. She was already doing a nice backwards shuffle, getting stuck under furniture and in corners, having to be picked up and rotated so she could continue her linear mission to the opposite corner of the lounge. I wasn’t quite prepared for when our babysitter sent me a video while I was at work showing that she’d finally figured out how to propel herself forward.
Overcome by emotion that I had missed something momentous, I spent the lunch hour in the bathroom convinced I was a horrible mother, my work face melting off. While difficult, the reality is that you will miss some things, and it stings, but it’s all part of the package of being a working parent.
3. I had no idea how hard pumping would be
Once I returned to work, I found myself needing to pump milk to leave for our daughter. This was achieved by setting an alarm for 3:30am and pumping, while trying to stay awake with a Six Feet Under marathon; and at the office, sterilizing all my gear in the staff kitchen (awkward) and finding a semi-private space with a power source somewhere, bonus if the door locked.
I pumped milk for my baby in stationery closets, toilet stalls, shower cubicles and server rooms. People would try and ask me questions through the door, not realizing what I was doing, tease me for, yet again, not joining my team for lunch and walking in on me at least once a week (because I couldn’t quite hold the pump, look at a photo of my baby on my phone and hold the door shut all at once).
If you haven’t done it before, you might not know, it’s not the easiest thing to do. It requires you to be relaxed, comfortable and you have to think fond thoughts of your baby to make it - you know, work. I would often end up pretty stressed out about even the prospect of having to pump.
What I would have given for the basic facilities to feed my baby. If pumping is looking to be a part of your return to work, talk to your employer, chances are they just don’t know what’s needed. See if they can make it easier by allocating some private space (a toilet does NOT count) and never, ever be apologetic about your need to pump for your babe.
4. For most of us, returning is not really a choice
Honestly, while I did want to work again, if money was no factor, I wouldn’t have started back quite so early, or I would have at least been choosier about the conditions I went back to.
In most two parent households, at least in the places I’ve lived, both parents will be required to go back to work. While my mum worked full-time pretty much my whole childhood, she was a rarity, for many women of her generation it was still an actual choice to work or not. To hear people talk of, or read articles about, the ‘choice’ to stay at home or return to work in these times can be a bit of a joke. While many educated professionals (usually women) of childbearing age end up feeling forced to choose between their demanding careers and finding some other way to contribute an income for the early years, this isn’t really a choice.
Most of my parent-friends will count themselves lucky if they can afford to take a whole year of parental leave - most can’t. Where I live in Australia, it still blows my mind how little the birthing parent and their partners are financially encouraged to spend the first few important months with their babies. It’s a sad reflection of how little we value care roles for our children and our society.
This has another impact on our families and workplaces: while mothers are the assumed taker of parental leave, we perpetuate the cultural rule that men don’t take leave. It’s well documented that even in companies that have gender neutral parental policies and countries that have parental leave share schemes, men still don’t take time out of their careers to care for their babies anywhere near the rate that mothers do. I really doubt it’s because fathers don’t want to.
My return to full time work was difficult, but it would have been so much more difficult if my husband hadn’t decided to take on a primary care role during that transition.
5. Round two… It’s NOT like riding a bike
My second pregnancy has been way more challenging than my first, which makes me all the more grateful to be in a workplace that genuinely looks after its staff. Canva has a daybed in the parents room for micro-naps when the first trimester exhaustion was at its worst, a restaurant that kept up the stock of mini pastries - the only thing I could stomach for a while - plus I’m part of an amazing team who are incredibly accommodating with all the days I do work remotely due to a pregnancy related condition that landed me on crutches from 4 months pregnant.
While the individuals I work with at Canva are some of the nicest people, the support and inclusivity I feel is no lucky accident. When I needed flexible remote work and reduced hours, my team had my back because the company culture was set up for it. Having a happy and diverse culture sounds lovely on paper, but it’s actually really hard to maintain in reality. Put 400+ people in a building with diversity of opinion, background, ethnicity, religion, personal needs… and you’ve got the potential for a stressful, high pressure workplace.
Knowing that there is a structure in place to meet the flexible working needs of employees has not only eased some of the pressures of my work life, it’s meant that my coworkers can have their expectations met and workloads can be balanced.
I’m sure with my second baby there will be days when it all feels too hard and I’ll melt my work face in the bathroom again, but that’s okay. It’s part of the rollercoaster ride of parenting and maintaining a career that I’m passionate about.
Balance is possible. It may not be how you imagined, it definitely won’t always go smoothly, some days you will have dribble on your cardigan, but you know what? With a supportive workplace, you’ll get there.
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