When I had my first baby, in April 2011, I took a year’s maternity leave — the longest I’ve ever been away from work/study since starting school about 30 years ago. I’ve now been back at work for a month and a half, and it feels like a good time to reflect on things like how my ‘year off’ affected me, how being a parent has changed my attitude to work, and how it feels coming back after such a long absence.
Let’s just clear one thing up: a year’s maternity leave is not a year’s holiday (and thankfully I didn’t get too many jokes along those lines from my co-workers!). This isn’t a parenting blog and I’m not going to go into details about looking after a new baby, but for the first two or three months my life revolved around feeding myself and my baby, changing her nappies, and trying to grab some sleep wherever possible: I felt like I was doing pretty well if I managed to get dressed in the morning (or indeed the afternoon…) and get some food for myself at some point during the day, let alone actually do anything else for myself. After the first few months, once the feeding and changing was basically under control, I ended up spending half my waking moments just walking around to keep baby comforted (and to keep myself from going stir-crazy).
Anyway, it was pretty lonely once my husband had gone back to work (i.e. after the first 3 weeks), and I don’t know how I’d have coped without a) my mum, and b) Twitter. Twitter? Yes: Twitter on my iPhone meant that I could keep in touch with the ‘outside world’, even when I only had one hand free, even in the middle of the night when baby was feeding for as long as 2 hours at a time; I could tweet my despair (and, eventually, elation and ‘proud parent’ boasts as well) and be sure that a friend or kindly stranger would hear and respond. Tweets from friends and strangers provided me with a digital social life; heaps of advice (solicited or otherwise…) on all aspects of baby-wrangling; much-needed laughs; easily-digestible updates on what was happening in my area, in my profession, and in the wider world; and interesting articles to read on the occasions when I had time/energy/awakeness to engage with something longer than 140 characters. Thanks to Twitter I felt as though I hadn’t completely lost touch with my friends, my pre-baby life, my professional life: I don’t like talk of “getting your life back” after a baby (newsflash: your children are actually part of your life), and I wanted and needed to spend time bonding with my baby as much as she wanted and needed me to, but there were plenty of good things about Life Before Baby that I didn’t want to lose completely — and it turns out I didn’t have to lose them completely. I know there are valid concerns that being on Twitter (or SMS, or whatever) all the time does mean running the risk of being only ‘partially present’, and making children feel they’re not getting enough attention … but while this is definitely a real worry with older babies and children, I’d happily bet you a box of doughnuts (within arm’s reach, please, so I can eat them without disturbing my sleeping/nursing baby) that a 4-month-old who’s asleep in the sling or half-asleep while nursing honestly doesn’t know or care if their mum is reading Twitter out of the corner of her eye.
The other good thing about Twitter is that it really only needs one hand: a lot of the time I was limited to one-handed internet use, which was an interesting exercise (perhaps more UI/UX/mobile/web designers and developers need to include breastfeeding mothers in their user-testing groups, though said mothers may be a bit too busy…). While the touchscreen interface doesn’t require two hands for shift-clicking or similar, I was surprised and dismayed to find how many things were massively more awkward with only one hand for holding the iPhone and operating the touchscreen.
Before baby arrived I’d been used to being able to go and do something on my laptop if it was impossible on a mobile, and I’d been willing to spend more time wrestling with bad usability if the goal was important to me. Confronted with enforced mobile-only web access and very limited time and attention span, I found that I was much more likely to give up if a site made it difficult for me to get where I was trying to go. I also found it much harder to write emails: limited to one-finger typing on an iPhone it was hard to avoid top-posting, tiresome to type more than a couple of sentences, and — if I did manage to type something longer — hard to keep in mind what I’d already written when it all disappeared off the tiny screen after a couple of sentences.
(As an aside, the sling I mentioned above — a Moby wrap — was far and away the best item of baby ‘equipment’ I bought. It’s a handsfree kit for a baby! The rare times when baby was soundly asleep in the sling while I was at home were basically the only times I got to use both hands to do anything online.)
Particularly enlightening (and depressing) was trying to fill in web surveys: YouGov, Mumsurvey, and Bounty’s ‘Word of Mum’ panel all produced surveys which were more or less uniformly ghastly on a mobile browser, though I often battled through them anyway for the dubious payoffs of a few more ‘points’ in my account (probably never to be cashed in for any real material gain) and the chance for my opinion to be counted. Page after page of text that didn’t wrap to the smaller screen and had to be scrolled from side to side; ‘text’ embedded in images which didn’t resize nicely; tables which had a choice of zoom between ‘whole table’ and ‘single out-of-context cell’ so I had to keep scrolling back and forth to check I was “agreeing strongly” or “disagreeing strongly” with the right thing; radio buttons so tiny that a baby’s finger would have been too big to click them reliably; and — most frustratingly of all — drag-and-drop ‘put these things in order’ questions which were actually impossible on a touchscreen (these usually made their appearance over halfway through a survey that I couldn’t save and go back to on a non-touchscreen device).
With all the things I was trying to do online, I noticed that the hard bit was contributing and creating. It was easy enough to read my email, read online articles, write short replies, tick boxes on surveys… but writing enough to start an email conversation (let alone make a blog post or write an article) was difficult. I felt constantly frustrated by how difficult it was to find time/hands/energy to write anything, to make anything, to do anything except consume other people’s creativity. This is another place where Twitter really came into its own: it’s easier to feel you’re contributing to a conversation — even being creative — despite only contributing 140 characters, in a medium where everybody’s contribution is limited to 140 characters. It also feels immediate without relying on actually synchronous conversation or realtime attention. I did make other attempts to participate in ‘conversations’ online — I tried to follow IWMW 2011 as a remote participant, with some success, but the chances were high that I’d miss something crucial in a live streaming talk: a tiny baby’s interruptions tend to be immediate and insistent, difficult to defer even for a few seconds. I also took part in some research on how people use Twitter, though I took baby with me to one of the two interviews (she slept through most of it in my sling) and the other interview took place over Skype early in the morning, before my husband went to work, so he could look after baby for the 20 minutes or so that it took. All in all, though, my Twitter timeline was my main outlet for any kind of urge to create, contribute, or even speak. That’s why I say I don’t know what I’d have done without it. A year is a long time to remain silent.