Working From Home with a Newborn - The First Three Months

November 30, 2014

Last November my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant with our first child; the following February I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher to pursue my new passion of working as a software developer in the education field. Ideally this job would allow me to raise a child while working from the house. I accepted a “remote” position at the end of March that year and began working full-time from my home office in June as an engineer at Burke Software and Consulting. By this time we were 3 months away from meeting our son and I was quite nervous about working from home and filling the stay-at-home dad shoes. Since that time I’ve worked hard to construct and execute a plan that has been largely successful for me, though I’m sure it will be an indefinite experiment in parenting. Recently I began searching for stories of people who were, like me, stay-at-home parents and remote software engineers. Surprisingly, my search went largely unsatisfied. Thus, I decided that writing about my success and failure as a combo developer/dad could be useful to the next guy/gal who picks up this path.

Staying Healthy

I’ve haven’t been a particularly healthy person, in fact I’m squarely in the “overweight” camp with a lifelong commitment to asthma and a couple college-age injuries that have successfully (mentally) sidelined me for years. At some point during my wife’s pregnancy I just became very aware that my own health would be a model to my young son and that working from home I could quickly establish a particularly unhealthy routine that could start affecting my son’s health (or - that was the reasoning that finally pushed me to becoming better on this front).

In June (2 months before birth) I purchased a weight-lifting set: bench, weights, rack, and a bar. In early July my wife and I canceled our gym memberships at the local gym (we had gone maybe 5 times since New Years) and I started my home routine using the Stronglifts 5x5 workout. I am happy to say that since July, with the exception of a week of family vacation, I’ve lifted weights 3 times a week every week. This has been the most consistent routine I’ve been on since at least my college days, and is personally quite impressive since I’ve never seriously lifted weights before.

Stonglifts works particularly well for me because I don’t have to leave the house, it doesn’t take that much time to complete (about an hour each workout), and it’s easy to see results after only a few weeks which makes is convincing to keep using.

I am very glad to have started Stronglifts well before the baby arrived as I was able to establish several weeks of successful increase which somewhat addicted me to working out. When we got home from the hospital that first day, I was very conscious of needing to get my workout in for the day; I don’t think that pressure would have existed if I decided to start working out after the baby was born.

When my wife’s maternity leave expired, working out became a lot more complicated. Unexpectedly, squats were much more difficult because I had been carrying the baby in my wrap much of the day, and I had transitioned to a standing desk (more on that below). Also, the baby typically slept only for the first half of the workout and it’s been quite the mental task to focus on lifting heavy weights while the baby is making noises a few feet away.

Overall, it’s been very helpful to have an hour every 3 days to anchor the schedule of my week. Most things during the week are all over the place time-wise, but my workout has been a nice constant. Additionally, having several months of squats under my belt has almost certainly helped me to carry the baby for longer duration and to transition to a standing desk without much pain. My back, which before ached whenever I slept, has been pain-free during the night. I’ve read that lifting weights increases endurance, and while I still feel exhausted after raising this little munchkin (and there exists no control against which to compare my exhaustion), I do believe that having a consistent workout routine has helped me to stay up and be mentally sharp throughout the day.

I have also recently started a high-fat, low-carb diet which has worked for me in the past; I’ll write more on the success or failure of that in a follow-up piece.

Scheduling Sanity

In the first month of baby being home, we had literally no consistent schedule. Some nights the baby would wake up at 9pm, 12am, 2am, 3am, 6am, and so forth - that could continue for several consecutive days. Some nights he would sleep for 5 straight hours!!! Those nights were like heaven, but looking back I think there we probably 3 or 4 during the entire first month.

During this time of schedule insanity, my wife was at home on her maternity leave and I was generally not affected by baby’s sleeping inconsistencies. My work day started at 9am and I was finished at about 4pm. Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep so I jumped back online and pushed changes to our servers or completed some critical tasks that were due in the morning. Honestly, I have no idea how a single parent could work through this first month without leave and I certainly would not have been able to keep a remote job active without the tremendous help from my wife.

The second month was a bit less crazy, but since my wife was still at home I didn’t think about preparing the baby to be on a more consistent schedule. As the third month of his life began, and my wife’s maternity leave was coming to an abrupt end, we started frenetically planning for a more rigid schedule.

In the end, this is what we came up with for the baby’s schedule during the third month:

For my part, I needed to create a schedule that would be compatible with the above, so this is what we came up with:

You’ll notice that my schedule is a lot less rigid than baby’s schedule which makes sense to me: it’s hard to reconcile two very rigid routines. The concept of working 12hrs to get 6hrs complete sounds feasible to me, and for the most part I’ve been successful at that. It’s important to note that this is only compatible with my current job because my employer is OK with flexible work hours. I believe that raising a child on a strict 9-to-5 schedule would be likely impossible for me.

The idea of not doing any work between 5 and 8 I stole from the blog post Y-Combinator, A Two Year Old, and a Pregnant Wife by Tad Milburn. On days where I have many hours left to complete at 5pm, this is particularly important because I need a break to refresh my brain and more importantly my wife doesn’t need to experience the “my husband values work more than me” feeling. I also want to avoid the situation where when my wife comes home after a long day of work (she’s also a high school teacher) I hand off the baby with a hey I need to get stuff done so it’s your turn to take care of him attitude. By scheduling play time I’ve avoided these bad things so far.

I’m sure this schedule will have to be tweaked as baby grows older, but for the third month it was worked surprisingly well.

Standing, Lots of Standing

As it turns out, your baby has some quirks that are virtually impossible for the first time parent to predict or preempt. One of those quirks for our baby is the simple fact that he refuses to be held while you are sitting. I’d love to know if other parents experience this as well - basically if we are holding him and he is not feeding, he will just go crazy if we are sitting down.

Before I discovered this I had an awesome plan of putting him in my Moby Wrap, sitting down at my desk while he peacefully slept the hours away, and working on my engineering projects from the comfort of my chair. Obviously, a baby who doesn’t want you to sit will destroy this plan!

I’m actually quite fortunate that this behavior of his comes after several months of doing squats and deadlifts; my back was in much better shape that it otherwise would have been, and I think the transition from sitting most of the day to standing would have been very difficult for me without a recent history of working out.

Essentially I don’t sit at all during the day except for the 45 minutes or so of accumulated feeding time. Of course, my desk had to be transformed into a sort of standing compatible desk. I recently read on Hacker News about IKEA’s affordable adjustable standing desk, but at nearly $500 this desk is definitely not affordable for me. Instead, I conscripted an old set of Encyclopedia Britannica that I picked up at Half Price books many years ago: I’ve got a stack of encyclopedias under my monitor and a stack under my Macbook Air. A small foot-tall box under a cheap keyboard completes the setup, and I must say that is works well for me.

The first week of standing all day long was exhausting, even with several months of working out. Also, my workouts that week (particularly squats) were much more difficult. However, baby loves being held while I stand, which translates to more workable hours in the day, and a less frustrated me in the afternoon.

Optimizing/Combining Tasks

One of the lessons I’ve learned recently which has resulted in a huge boost in productivity is to optimize passive time I spend with baby. For example, I consider feeding the baby a passive task - I’m literally just standing there while he stares at our ceiling fan and slowly drifts into a food coma. This time consumes approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour each day and I’ve come to appreciate it as a perfect opportunity to listen to a podcast, read an article, or watch a tutorial video. (I’ve actually been able to digest a whole lot of Patrick McKenzie in this manner, a goal I’ve been reaching at for a while now).

It’s important to note here that I don’t actually subscribe to the concept of “multitasking”, that someone can perform two non-passive tasks with skill simultaneously. Thus, I’ve been careful to overlap only passive baby tasks. If I turned on a podcast while I was changing a diaper I’d either completely miss important points in the audio or something much worse will happen to my changing table!

Closing thoughts

More than anything it’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to look down at my baby boy any hour during the day. I was once nervous about his crying or noise-making being a distraction to me but I’ve found that these distractions help me from becoming bogged down in mind-numbing bugs. Though I haven’t been explicitly tracking my internet behavior, I am certain that I spend much less time surfing/reading useless stuff/generally wasting time on the internet, because those inefficient activities have been supplanted by the very rewarding task of raising a child.

Obviously, I would not have made it this far without an incredibly supporting and loving wife to whom I owe all my success. I must also thank David Burke who still sends me a paycheck every two weeks - it definitely takes a flexible employer to pull off some huge task like this one.