Leaving the Bardo

And back into the real world

Art: Open Door in a Garden, Konstantin Somov, 1934

Over maternity leave, late at night, I purchased a best-selling book called “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, on sale on iBooks. It was a bestseller in 2017, and the basic premise is that it’s told from the perspective of several ghosts who are in limbo in the same cemetery where , Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died of typhoid when he was young, is waiting his ascent to heaven. 

This was a really bleak and weird novel and, especially since I had a new baby. I was super sensitive to the themes and had to put it down. (And promptly started reading books where women find themselves on beaches with handsome men and then they get married and buy coffee shops in small towns and live happily ever after.)

I put it out of my mind, but the concept of the bardo stuck with me. The bardo is the iea in Buddhism that where you’ve died, you become decoupled from your body and you wait, suspended, for your next life to start. The bardo is a liminal state: a place of uncertainty, change and possibility, of fragility.

Maternity leave and the early days of a baby’s life are the bardo. Not only do you lose most agency of your body as long as you’re recovering from birth and are tied to your baby, you become completely unmoored from your life.

Your time and sleep schedule are now owned by someone else.

There is no day and night, only three-hour stretches between feedings. For a long time, the baby slept in our room, and in order to keep it in a state so that he could fall asleep, there was always a white noise machine running, and the curtains were always completely closed. Walking around in semi-dark, white-noise-filled state, rocking a baby, is what I will always remember about my bardo.

Being in the baby bardo sucks. It just does, and there is no way around it, unless you have a night nurse (and if you can afford a night nurse, please let me be your best friend.) There are small moments of pure joy and love, but mostly severe sleep deprivation, physical pain, mental anguish, loneliness, and, sometimes, fear. 

Slowly, the baby adjusts to a 12-hour schedule, you start to come back into yourself, and then, at some point, you’re back In The World.

Remember, it takes a LONG time to cash a baby’s check.

As I’ve written before,

No one talks about parental leave as being extremely boring, hard, and testing the limits of your physical and mental sanity. It’s not a vacation, it’s a marathon. And yet, it is of utmost importance to have as an experience for new parents in establishing a bond with their kids.

Having gotten the hang of the baby thing with my daughter, I was actually happy with my time in the bardo this time around, and it is with great reluctance that I left to go back to work last week while our wonderful nanny took over. Both because I’m not entirely ready this time around, and also because I know what going back to the real world means: I’m now working three jobs: the night shift with the baby, the evening shift at home with the preschooler and the baby, and the day shift, in my job. In between, there is grocery shopping, making sure the baby has the right size onesies, and all the myriad of tasks that real life requires, still on much less than a full night’s sleep.

What makes adjusting back to civilian life hard is not only all of the emotional and physical stuff that happens from leaving your baby. It’s that most people, unless they’ve done time in the baby trenches, are unaware of what happens in the bardo.  

The main difference is that the real world moves much faster. It’s brighter, louder, brasher, crueler. 

In the bardo, patience, gentleness, physical contact, and endless repetition are key. Whenever I come back home, I find myself having to slow down, close the door more softly, lower my voice, wash my hands, and easing back, away from the world, into interacting with my baby. 

There are also other, more nuanced things that happen in the bardo that are completely orthogonal to everyday life,  that I’d never think to tell someone when they ask, “How was your leave? How are you doing,” because sometimes it just takes too long to explain the totality of the experience. But I’ve noticed they come up over and over again. 

Here are some notes I’ve made of the way the real world clashes with the bardo world:

  • People assuming that you’re coming back from a “nice, long break from work”, not knowing what caring for a baby entails: an exhausting physical recovery, months of broken or non-existent sleep. It’s hard to tell them this without sounding like you’re complaining. 

  • For women who are breastfeeding (I’m not, anymore), not realizing that they need to pump every three hours to keep up supply, and that there needs to be a safe, quiet, available, isolated place for them to pump. At my last job, the room where I pumped was double-booked by two other women back from maternity leave, and to get to the room, I had to pass by an open space of 30 developers, all of them dudes, carrying bottles of milk and dirty pump parts. At my current office, I have a really hard time imagining where I’d pump, and it would most likely be the women’s bathroom. Pumping in the bathroom is gross and weird, and it’s also so common across North America that there is even a scene about it in Workin’ Moms

  • People coming into the office sick are a curse. There are a lot of cultural norms in America around still coming in in if you’re sick, partially because American companies are terrible about giving you time off, both logistically and with the constant barrage of emails and meetings. Being around sick people when you have a small baby with a weak immune system is a huge calculation in risk, and I don’t want to get my 6-month-old sick, so I’m constantly washing my hands. 

  • People assuming you’re coming into work fresh and ready to go. I usually still get up about 2-3 times a night for 20 minutes at a time, so the most sleep I’ve ever gotten continuously is about 6 hours. My brain fog is clearing up, but it’s still there. 

  • Kid logistics: my nanny has to leave by a certain time every night, and I also have to pick up my daughter from daycare, and I also want to spend time with my baby, who I don’t get to see all day. Which late meetings can I skip, and how can I do so without sounding like I’m slacking off? 

Of course, there is no way that people without kids, or kids who are long grown could realize any of this, just like, there is no way I understand what caring for elderly parents entails. 

I’ve even already forgotten the discomfort and accommodations I would have appreciated while I was pregnant, and that was just 6 months ago! While taking a walk with my friend in the third trimester this weekend, I walked so fast that she reminded me she was carrying a baby, and could I please slow down. 

In the bigger picture, each of us brings some version of the bardo within us when we come into the office, whether it’s caring for babies or relatives, our own personal health and mental problems, fights with our partners, heartbreak, and well - just life. 

It’s hard to be cognizant that each person is fighting a hard battle, but the more we talk about it, the more we can remember that it’s true, the more humane and effective our workplaces will be.

(Oh, and if you want to offer me some coffee and Lysol wipes, I’m not complaining.)

What I’m reading lately:

  1. What even is no code?

  2. When were you left alone as a kid?

  3. Tradeoffs:

  4. What has work taught you?

About the Newsletter

This newsletter is about issues in tech that I’m not seeing covered in the media or blogs and want to read about. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends!

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About the Author:
I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.