An interview with Sarah K. Peck
  • February 15th, 2019

Sarah K. Peck, Author of Pregnancy Affirmations: Words of Wisdom for Pregnancy, Birth, New Motherhood and the Postpartum Period

1 H 5 MIN
In this Episode

Sarah K. Peck is the author of the Leanpub book Pregnancy Affirmations: Words of Wisdom for Pregnancy, Birth, New Motherhood and the Postpartum Period. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Sarah about her background, her diverse career, her love of writing, the inspiration behind Startup Pregnant, some pretty serious politics, her book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about her experience as a self-published author.

This interview was recorded on February 6, 2019.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.


Pregnancy Affirmations: Words of Wisdom for Pregnancy, Birth, New Motherhood and the Postpartum Period by Sarah K. Peck

Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Frontmatter podcast episode, I'll be interviewing Sarah K. Peck.

Based in New York, Sarah is an author and startup adviser, and the founder of Startup Pregnant, a media firm focusing on telling the stories of women in positions of leadership, across work and family.

Sarah is also the host of the Startup Pregnant podcast, a weekly podcast delivering long-form interviews with female entrepreneurs and founders, including guests such as Pando Daily and Chairman Mom founder Sarah Lacy, and bestselling author Vanessa Van Edwards.

You can read more about Sarah on her website at, and about her work at, and you can follow her on Twitter @sarahkpeck.

Sarah is the author of the Leanpub book Pregnancy Affirmations: Words of Wisdom for Pregnancy, Birth, New Motherhood and the Postpartum Period. In the book, Sarah draws on her own experience of how pregnancy can be simultaneously - in her words, "overwhelming, disorienting, beautiful, and inspiring." In the book, you'll find dozens of affirmations - phrases you can repeat to help, and customize to help get through moments of anxiety and even fear.

In this interview, we're going to talk about Sarah's background and career, professional interests, her book, and at the end we'll talk a little bit about her experience as a self-published author.

So, thank you, Sarah, for being on the Frontmatter Podcast.

Sarah: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, so I was wondering if you could maybe start by telling us a little bit about where you grew up, and how you got started on your career path? Just researching for this interview, I was intrigued by the diversity of your education and experiences and interests from biology, to landscape architecture, to a Y Combinator startup, and being a startup founder yourself.

Sarah: I know, there's so much in there I sometimes never know where to begin. So I will try not to take the entire hour.

I was born in Germany, but I was raised in Palo Alto, California. So the startup scene was in our household the whole time. My dad went to Stanford and my mom worked at NASA Ames. So we've got rocket scientists for parents, and I went off and I did a Psychology degree. For such a strong science family, it was kind of like, "Uh, what's that? Psychology's not a real science."

But I studied Psychology in undergrad and I ended up studying how people work, and more specifically, I did a thesis on the environments that influence our behavior - why context is so important. From there, I wanted to influence even more - like, how can we set up really great environments for people to achieve their best selves, or their better selves - or even just affect their behavior in a beautiful way?

I went on to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. I got a degree in Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. I had on my mind, that I would go and be a designer, be a landscape architect and urban planner, and help shape cities and lives by doing design work.

I spent five years - lots of AutoCAD, RHINO, 3D-modeling software, drafting tables, big open offices - and I just felt progressively worse and worse about the career path that I had chosen, and more specifically, and somewhat ironically, about the context within which the work was done, because I hated showing up to the office at 9am every day, and I am such an introverted person. You and I know that I turned the video off on this interview, because I wanted to just do audio. And being in an open office just killed me. Not literally, I should say - it just really was too much for me.

And then there were structures and systems about the way that work was done that made it really hard for me to stay motivated and to stay connected to the work. Because everything kept being thrown at us, like, "Well, we just have to do it because we have to do it. We're going to do more, we're going to do it longer, and we're going to stay up really late and you're never going to get a break." I got burned out. I got tired of it and I got disillusioned with the world of work.

And so I started throwing a lot of my energy into side projects. I started a magazine on the side, and I started doing open water swimming - I did the Escape from Alcatraz. I ended up getting up early in the morning around 5am, going outdoors, swimming a big swim, getting to work feeling so energized and so alive - and then feeling so deflated by the time I got to work. Because it was monotonous and disconnected.

I do love the people, there are many people there who are really helpful and really wonderful, and mentors that taught me a lot. I so appreciate them - and they actually helped spur the next part of my career, which I will always be thankful for.

I think the problem, just to be clear, was with work, and the way that work looked - not with the people or the work that was being done. So it was a systems and a structural problem, an organizational, motivational problem. Which I think I'm still fascinated by.

In 2013, I left the company and decided to start my own consultancy. There's a big, good story in there about how the magazine that I started ended up attracting a lot of attention, because people were curious about social media, "How do we talk about what we do? How do we tell great stories?" I stumbled my way into communications design and communications consulting, and helping people tell stories for a living. And that's just part one. Tell me, how much do you want to know, and where should we go from here, Len?

Len: Thanks for sharing that. That's a lot information, and very well told in a short period of time - which I think actually helps me segue into the next part of your career, which is writing. I was watching a talk you gave, where you talk about how there was a moment when you accepted that you were actually a writer. I was wondering if maybe that might be the next step for you talk about, if you're up for it?

Sarah: Yes, and I mean - full disclosure, I talked to my therapist today about whether or not I believe I'm a writer. So I'm still engaging with this question. I am a writer. I am, I love writing. I have so much writing that I want to do. But it's always been the affair that I've had on the side of work, if you will. I write late into the evenings, and I write early in the mornings, and I write on my lunch breaks. I live in New York City now, so when I'm on the subway I type aggressively into my phone with my thumbs, and create more things.

I adore writing. I would be only a writer for the rest of my life - and have aims to do that, it's just the business model behind that is sometimes a little hard to make work.

I adore storytelling, and in particular, I strive to point my lens at things that I think need to be told. Things that are obvious to me, I guess. Things that are obvious, but where we haven't connected the dots yet. In particular, when it comes to culture, and when it comes to the way that we work - and the way that we show up as humans, I'm really interested in those kinds of stories.

Len: I've got a few questions that I'm really looking forward to asking you about that. But I guess before I can ask them, I should ask you about Startup Pregnant.

I think it was in 2015, you started working for a startup, I think it was called One Month, in New York?

Sarah: Yes.

Len: And while you were working for this rapidly growing startup, you discovered that you were pregnant. I guess I would like to ask you a little bit about that experience, and how it led you to found your current startup, Startup Pregnant?

Sarah: So I was working at a company that focused on teaching coding skills, actually. One Month was an online education company and they focused on teaching people skills in 30 days. Their flagship product was building a Ruby on Rails app within 30 days, getting people up and running really fast, and having that success of actually building a quick app. I believe it was a Pinterest-style app in the beginning. And building small, immediate projects so that, if you were a non-coder, you could get into the ideas of coding pretty quickly and then get hooked, if you will. And then we had more programs, more courses after that, where we taught intro to Python, and Django, and Java, and JavaScript, and more types of programming languages.

I know enough to be dangerous, but I am not a programmer by trade. I joined them as their marketing and communications lead, and came to help tell stories about why this was so important, and why coding was really such a pivotal and essential skill for the future of work.

And while I was there - surprise surprise, spoiler alert - I got pregnant.

The CEO was a friend of mine, and I saw in the world of tech, that there was so much fear around people starting families. And it was in particular hitting women. It was like, "Oh no, they're going to have a baby and they're just going to leave." And, "We shouldn't hire women because they might get pregnant."

As though humans aren't born all the time. It's so fascinating to me that this is a puzzle that we deal with. Because in an ideal world, babies are going to keep being made. Because if they are not, we live in The Handmaid's Tale - we are living in a dystopian world, if there are no babies in the world.

So, to me I was like - atartups are in the business of trying to find new ways of doing things, doing things differently, figuring out better ways of doing things. Why don't we figure out a great way to build a startup and be family makers, if that's our choice?

So I talked to the CEO right when we started, and we interviewed. And I said, "Hey, I'm 30. It's illegal for you to ask me this." If you're a CEO listening to this, you can't actually ask people about their pregnancy plans. Just going to give you that free piece of advice.

But I brought it up, and I said, "Hey, this is something I'm planning on doing. I think we're smart. I want to be on the same page as someone, and I want to figure out how to do this." I think at that point, many CEOs or people doing hiring could say, "Oh, that's too risky. I don't want to hire someone like this. I'm going to go with a different candidate." And I was so happy that we had such an honest and open conversation. The CEO was like, "Great. We're a startup. We're in the business of figuring things out. Let's figure this out."

So I joined, and nine months later I did get pregnant. I didn't know what the path would be like, because most people take six months to a year to get pregnant.

You can't actually get pregnant at any time, contrary to the myths out there. There's only a small window during your cycle that you can get pregnant. And it usually takes three to six tries, and you only get that six-day window every 30 days. So, for all the mathematicians out there who are calculating the probability of this, it takes a while.

So I thought it would take us a long time. I was giving us a runway of a year to a year and a half. We happened to get pregnant right away, which actually scares me to this day. Because I'm like, "I do not want to get pregnant anymore." So I'm like, "Ugh, we've got to be really careful." But we got pregnant and I talked to the CEO. I remember the day that I was walking through Manhattan and I said to myself, "Oh my God - working at a startup, being pregnant. This is insane." And that was kind of the instigation for Startup Pregnant.

Len: One of the really interesting things I found about your work is your interest in systems thinking, and how that's actually a big part of your approach to the Startup Pregnant project. You write for example that "Motherhood, fatherhood, parenting, startups, and entrepreneurship are similar in so many ways." I loved reading that, because it was one of those wonderful gems, where as soon as you read it, it seems so obvious. But it's something - at least for me, it was something that had not occurred to me before, that you can approach these things as similar types of systems.

For example, you faced a challenge. So you have your startup, and you recently had a second child - and so you had to come up with a system for arranging your own maternity leave from your own startup.

Sarah: Yes.

Len: I just love that, that challenge, because it mixes the two. It shows how the two things actually, in just the most straightforward way are connected. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you approached that challenge, of arranging your own absence?

Sarah: Absolutely. So, the quote that you shared - thank you for saying that. Because parenting is this constant puzzle and pickle of, "I don't know what I'm doing. Let me try something new." I think it is like one of the original Lean-iterative models. Where you're just like, "Huh, this isn't working with my child. Let me try something else tomorrow. Let me try something else tomorrow. What will get them to sleep?" Right? You're constantly doing this iterative process. And in many ways, I think that parenting is a really, really good training ground for MBA leadership management and communication skills.

I was shocked because I would read books like - I forget the title, but it's about how to talk to two year olds. It's like "How to Talk to Toddlers?" "How to talk so your toddler will listen?" I was reading the book and I was like, "This is exactly the advice I would give for a CEO for how to talk to their team. There is no difference. Clear, consistent, repetitive, confirmation - there's just so many parallels between the two.

And yet I've never heard anyone say that. And speaking of wanting to write a lot, this is an article I really want to write - is why I want to hire parents. Why the skills sets that they have that they bring to the workforce are a competitive advantage. Yet, the current work world, at least in American culture, looks at them with disdain. "Ugh, these people, they can't do the work as well as everyone else. They constantly have to do schedules and shifts."

I really do like to take a step back, look at it from a systems angle and say, "Okay, where is the system breaking?" Ah, it's childcare that's breaking. It's not the human. Right? If we can fix childcare, then we have humans that are actually really talented. Isn't that interesting?" I wandered away from your question.

Len: It was actually not all that specific, which might be why you feel like you've wandered away - although I don't think you have. I was generally asking about just the fascinating way that one can see similarities between - if one's doing systems thinking - between the challenge of being an entrepreneur and being a parent.

Sarah: And you asked me about leave, right? You asked me how I did my leave?

Len: Yes - how did you arrange your leave? I did ask that, that's right - that was a specific question.

Sarah: I knew it was there, and I knew the listeners would not forgive us if we didn't answer it!

So, how do you take maternity leave when you are your own entrepreneur? Or parental leave? Because the thing is is that dads, and co-parents, and adoptive parents - and everybody, almost - who is a parent, really wants to take time to bond with their kid. This is a thing we just point blank do a terrible job in America, of supporting this.

The US is the third worst in the world at their parental leave policies. Every other developed country has better, and sometimes far better, leave policies than the United States does. So the reason that I was in this problem, or in this puzzle in the first place, is because we do a terrible job of supporting new parents. But that actually doesn't necessarily address the fact of - what if you are running a business, and you want to have children - how do you do it?

This gets me to another draft article that I want to write. This is a theme. Which is - how taking maternity leave actually made me better at business. It was something I did not even anticipate as a result. But this year, when I found out I was pregnant, I reached out to somebody that does freelance operations support. Because I run a startup that I'm the founder, I'm the Executive Director, and I'm mostly the doer of a lot of things. I have four contractors that are helping me, and every time I add a new contractor, I build in a workflow process and systems manual - like an ops manual for my business. Because I'm trying to set up a process that is replicable, and that I can bring more humans into - and eventually get to my first full-time employee. But I'm still really young. We've been in business for two years and I'm one person with four contractors.

So how do you leave? Well, one of the contractors I hired, her name is Angela. She runs a company called All The Operations, and she acts as a COO for small companies. So she came in, and while I was pregnant, we created all of the operations manuals for the things I would have to leave. We set up a system, and we started to map out - what could I do in advance? What can I do afterwards? What can I delay? And what can I let go of?

And then I trained her in the entire business, and hired her at a consulting fee to take over my business for four months while I was gone. She had access to everything. She had access to all my email accounts, all of my calendars, all of my invoice cycling. I had conversations with each of my contractors and I said, "I think that I'll be able to get you paid 30 days after I give birth. But if I can't get to the email in time and you are okay delaying by 30 days, is it alright if I double your invoices and pay you 60 days out? Or can I pay you an advance retainer now, and then we'll reconcile the difference when I'm back from maternity leave?"

All of it was just a lot of logistics, a lot of puzzle. How do we figure out what we can do, what we can't do? And what was really cool, is now I'm getting back into my business, because my baby is four months old. I'm just getting back in. I do have a tremendous number of emails in inbox; I'm not caught up yet, which is fine. All of those systems that I put into place - operations manuals, systems, workflows, having somebody else that serves as a redundancy for me if I ever need to take a break - it has made my business that much better.

In fact, it's like taking maternity is a really good systems test for your business. Because if your business can't survive you taking three months of leave from leave from it, or even just one week or two weeks of leave - I don't know if you have a great business. Your business is really fragile. To me, I almost would make the argument that hiring people who take periods of leave is a great way of building in redundancy and resiliency into the system that is your business.

Len: One very specific thing you did that I was just very impressed by, was you actually planned out podcast episodes for that period of time in advance. And so you must have increased your sort of schedule for a couple of months, in order to have enough episodes to still release them while you were on leave?

Sarah: Yes. This was a strategic move. Some things I cut, and I wanted to be honest and honor the fact that taking time off shouldn't mean that you work double-time just to take time off. Because that's not actually taking time off. That's just working twice as hard and then not working, and it equals out to the same amount. But for the podcast, because our community is content-driven, and because the business that we're building is content-first - and the podcast is our flagship content product, if you will - I knew that if I took a lot of time away from the product, I would be, perhaps, ending or eroding the steam or the momentum - the momentum that comes from building something.

We were going to hit a year's worth of episodes right when I was due to have my second baby. And I didn't want to take a big leave, because I wanted to continue to build a relationship with my community. So starting in the end of my first trimester, beginning of my second trimester, I started doubling up, and sometimes tripling up the number of episodes that I recorded.

Structurally, we had tried publishing twice a week, and I couldn't maintain that ongoing, especially not if was going to go to four times. So we dropped back to once a week episodes - and then I did two or three per week, and got six months' worth of interviews ahead, by the time I left of maternity leave. Which, again, I want to do that even when I'm not pregnant. I'm looking at batching my interviews and going into the studio for several weeks at a time, and getting six months' worth of content. Because I want to free up months of time to focus on writing, and not constantly be in this cycle of publishing at the last minute on my podcast.

Len: You've mentioned American policy towards raising children, and American culture a couple of times in this episode - and that leads me to my next question, which is - I'm going to ask you about money and politics now, so -

Sarah: Great.

Len: So in August in 2018, Senator Marco Rubio introduced some called the, "Economic Security Act for New Parents," which you might remember from the news. It was apparently developed in part with adviser support from Ivanka Trump. And it, basically, let you draw three months of your own Social Security benefits while you were on maternity leave, but would then push back by three months the date when you could retire and draw from Social Security. The logic of it shocked me as simultaneously kind of perverse, and yet coherent from a certain really gross point of view - at least to me.

I guess my question is, given that - as you mentioned, what I'll go ahead and call proper paid maternity leave, is just accepted as a normal thing in the rest of the industrialized world. Why is it that maternity leave is so politically controversial in the United States? If there's something that you can say about that mindset of like, "Well, if I'm going to give you three months here, then I'm going to take it away from you there?"

Sarah: I think this is such an interesting conversation - and I am not as well-versed in policy yet, it's something I'm researching a lot. So I want to be careful how I share my thoughts, and really frame them and say, "This is something I'm thinking about a ton."

I think it's difficult and I think it's challenging. And I have some - I also do indulge in listening to conspiracy theories on some sides to think about, what is really happening here?

So in terms of the policy, it's interesting, I can see actually - well that's a really interesting idea. We already have a social safety net, what if people were able to draw this funding and were able to extend the amount of time they worked? Because a lot of people would trade working another three months at the end of their career, for being able to take three months off now, or six months here and there.

It actually kind of makes sense, in some regards. I'm little bit like, "Huh, that's interesting." I like to be in the arena where we're having conversations that are productive. So if somebody comes up with an idea or a possibility - especially one that seems like it's something I haven't thought of before, or seems like it's from out of the blue or out of left field - and it looks to solve a problem that needs to be solved. I don't think we should discount it, just because somebody has a particular political affiliation. I really think problem-solving is going to take creative brainstorming and maybe some new ideas. So in that sense, it's an interesting idea, right?

However, I don't think it solves the - I do understand that the budget problems of our government are real, and we can't just invent more money. We actually have to come up with real conversations about where do we cut funding from other programs if we decide that this is a priority. And so my point of view is that I'm confused why we haven't decided that newborns and mothers are a priority. I don't understand why that is a position we seem to take in our culture.

We tell a lot of stories that are very untrue about what new parenting looks like, and about what the role of women should be in our society. And so, from my perspective, I would like to see a world in which we really do prioritize that time period and the real needs of kids and children. In part because, and this is something that government is not necessarily great at - because if we pay attention to pregnant women and the early postpartum period, we actually have the potential for incredible amounts of savings, because we won't have as many people who are ill. Because we'll do better care of infants and fetuses, because then young children will grow healthier and they will - it won't be as much of a cost on our healthcare system. So the potential cost is huge.

Also, if we support women in going back to work when they are ready - whether that's three months, six months, or nine months. Oftentimes, most women are ready to go back to work around the five-month mark.

It's not a tremendous amount of time. It's actually pretty short in the lifetime of a business. If we support them going back into work, we create huge gains in our economy and our GDP, because we've activated the gender that is responsible for childbearing - and we have created so much more innovation and potential for dollars earned by opening up this part of the workforce. So that's kind of my broad, big picture point of view.

Len: One thing you mentioned, about the care of the children and fetuses - I had one thing that I wasn't sure I was going to ask you about or mention - I don't have children myself, and it's never been something I've really thought of doing, so I'm very naive. But it honestly had never occurred to me until I was researching for this podcast, that in the United States, you have to buy insurance for babies.

I mean, if you'd asked me two days ago, I would have intellectually had the right answer. But it wasn't until I started reading your work that it really -

Sarah: That you had to think about it.

Len: That I had to think about it. But it got into my heart, rather than just my head. I've lived my life in Canada and the United Kingdom, where there's no question that a baby can get healthcare. You can take them to the hospital, and if they're sick or you think they're sick, you're not going to go bankrupt because of that, if you weren't able to afford the right health insurance, or you just weren't resourceful enough.

I guess I bring this up because of what you're talking about, how there's this very important bigger picture. As you say, there's something interesting about the idea, "Well, if I'm going to take three months off now, why don't I work three months longer in the end?" But if there's a situation where like - let's say someone can't afford the right health insurance for their baby, and their baby gets sick - and then they get these huge medical bills. And now 18 years later, they can't afford college for their child, because they had to get that healthcare, because they had to pay for that hospital - maybe single hospital visit, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Sarah: Yes.

Len: So then that kid doesn't get the education they would have otherwise, and then can't afford healthcare for their children when they have them. I guess I'm just saying, from a naive outsider's perspective, it just seems wild to sort of - I don't know what the right analogy is - collapse the wait function down to, "Oh, well if you're going to get three months off, then I'm going to give it to you here, and I'm going to take it away from you there" - when there's so much more going on in the bigger picture, of how people's lives are actually being lived.

Sarah: Right. It ends up being a non-compute. Because you realize that it's not actually that way at all. It's like when you look at the economic system, and you talk to people who really look at how taxes work. To a naive outsider, which usually I'm in that camp, in this story - you think that if you increase taxes, you get more government dollars. However, that doesn't include human behavior. When you increase taxes, people's behavior changes. They don't spend as much money. And when they don't spend as much money, you don't actually get the return on taxes that you thought you were going to. Because the percentage that you're taking is now of a different pie.

So, this is one of those things, one of those systems-level conversations, where you actually have to look at all the intended consequences, and the way that relationships are, and the sum of the parts.

To me, it's a fascinating conversation, and one I'm willing to have for most of my life. Because, right now we are facing, in America - having a baby can bankrupt you. Having a baby and going to a hospital and giving birth without health insurance can cost you 40 or 50 thousand dollars. Because our health insurance system is so screwed up.

And so, women who are single moms, who get pregnant by accident - who get pregnant because it's not their choice, say, "I absolutely cannot have a baby because it will ruin my life, and I need to be able to have options and choices - and this is not a possibility for me right now." Because just the birth alone, never mind the actual cost of raising the child for the rest of their life, is not something that's feasible or attainable to them. And it has huge repercussions all over the place.

This conversation is so big and so important. And for some reason, it's become so politicized, with so many bad media sound bites. Qe need a place - and this is one of the things I really advocate for and believe in - we need a place for nuanced conversation, for respectful dialogue, for understanding that there aren't necessarily right answers. There are really complicated stories and a lot of answers, and it depends on the person. And something about our media landscape, and the internet, and this instantaneity of social culture, has really changed our ability to have smart, honest, thoughtful conversations.

Len: I wanted to ask you about that actually, specifically. You've interviewed Sarah Lacy about social media and ad-based businesses. And in particular - it's a great podcast episode, I'll link to it for sure in the show notes and in the transcription for this episode - but you talk about how, in particular, for discussions between women about parenting, social media has been particularly toxic.

Sarah: Yes. She started her company, Chairman Mom, on the premise that ad-based social media is toxic - as a concept, as a fundamental belief. I'm not actually the expert here in the room, so definitely listen to that episode.

Her company, it's a $5 a month subscription, so that you can enter into a chatroom. And this is a gender issue and another puzzle - I'm curious - both you and your listeners - women are subject to incredible amounts of harassment online, and really violent, vitriolic things.

I mean, there's not a day that goes by that there's not some lewd comment. If I could turn my video back on and show you my Facebook messages inbox - I don't like to communicate via Facebook messages, because the number of messages I get that are inappropriate are too high. Never mind the structural system, the fact that you can't mark as unread, or filter them, or search them - and all the ways that the ways that the tool doesn't serve me anyway.

But women in particular, and some men - this is definitely gendered, I do think this is definitely gendered - are subject to exceptional, extraordinary amounts of harassment online.

And so when you have ad-based social media, when you have to serve up more and more advertisements in front of people, what you have to do is make an addictive product. When you are forced to make an addictive product that people come back to time and time again, Sarah Lacy argues, it becomes toxic.

So she is creating a different kind of culture on the premise that, for $5 a month, women especially - although it is not a women only platform, I think it's about 80% to 90% women - there's also anybody else that believes in the importance of Chairman Moms and parenting, and being a parent, or a dad - people will pay for that, in lieu of advertising.

Len: Speaking of how people work, which has come up a couple of times in this interview, particularly I enjoyed your - I mean, it was an enjoyable description of a negative experience, but something I sort of sympathize with, about not wanting to go to work at nine in the morning after your wonderful swim, and then feeling deflated just because of the open office, and perhaps other things about that.

I wanted to ask you about remote work. It's becoming more and more common. And I imagine for parents, this can sometimes be simultaneously stressful and kind of comical. I'm thinking of the guy in that wonderful BBC interview whose kids hilariously ran into the room when he was doing an interview.

Sarah: Yes, yes. I think it was Korea correspondent?

Len: Yeah - the little girl runs in, and then you think, like that's enough for it being awesome. And then this little boy on some kind of contraption runs in too. It's just fantastic.

But remote work can be a controversial issue, like with Marissa Mayer banned at Yahoo, in 2013. I'm wondering - as a systems thinker and someone who thinks about, and writes about, raising children, what's your position generally on remote work? Both from the position of someone who advises people who run companies on business strategy, and as someone who is a working parent and startup founder?

Sarah: I love this question, and we could have a long episode on this as well. I think that remote work takes more discipline, and it takes more self-awareness. Those things are not often talked about when you set up a remote culture. Often, we give fewer guidelines and boundaries, or we give vague guidelines and boundaries, like the number of hours worked, or the number of meetings attended. Things that aren't actually useful metrics. So, I am really interested in experimenting and changing the culture of work when it comes to how we get work done, in as much as it influences and responds to and encourages great human behavior. Things that we agree on, things that we want.

But the thing about remote work is-- I wake up in the morning, I have all the willpower in the world, right? Like, I do all these great things, I get my exercise in, I do a lot of writing, it's great. Invariably, every day between 4 pm and 8 pm, I eat a cookie or a donut. I just do, right? These are not my strong willpower times. And there are ways to design your environment so that the incentives work in your favor. And there are ways that the environment is predictable and your behavior is predictable.

When you are not around other people, when you are separated - when they can't see what you're doing, when there isn't the social constraint of like, "This is what we do. We show up to work, and we work together, and we're all in the same office." You actually need more discipline to set up the constraints, and be very clear about what they are, and what remote work looks like.

I think that's the point that we haven't figured out yet, which is, how do we have this conversation about what work looks like when we're remote? There are companies that are doing a really good job at this. You can look at Automattic, the WordPress company, or Buffer. They do an incredible job at this. I don't know any more off the top of my head. I mean, they're in piles of notes over on the other side of my desk. But there are companies that are getting this right. WeWork, I think, does a good job, a pretty good job. And I know that ConvertKit is working hard on this. There are companies that are doing parts of this really well, and I think it's an interesting place to put our attention towards.

Len: Moving on to discuss your book, Pregnancy Affirmations. There's a wonderful line at the beginning where you write, "Pregnancy and new motherhood can be really fucking hard." One thing you mentioned is that motherhood is harder than it has to be, in part because of our community infrastructure. And given your background, I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. What is it about our infrastructure - I mean, let's say specifically New York City. What would be something you would improve there to help parents?

Sarah: I have two very specific and very concrete examples. The first is - for people who are not yet parents, think about your work day. You get up in the morning, you get yourself ready, and then you commute to your job - right? Most people do. They commute to an office. The commutes are, on average, 30 to 40 minutes. Some people have much longer commutes - 45 minutes to 60 minutes. When you have a child, they also have a commute. They have to go somewhere, unless you get a nanny. But usually, they're going somewhere: to a daycare, to school, to something or somewhere else.

So now, in addition to the 45 minutes that it takes you to get to work, you have to take a variable, a child - you have to get them dressed, make sure they use the potty, get them their lunch packed, get yourself packed, get yourself fed, go to the potty yourself - I call the potty "the bathroom". But in the morning, what you have to do is you also have to commute a child to a place. And the child needs to get somewhere.

So most parents are leaving around 7, 7:15 in the morning. Rushing their children to a daycare center, getting them there by 8, 8:15. Doing the drop off, the teacher communication. Leaving at 8:15, getting to work at 9-ish, right? Adjust those times for whatever your lifestyle is. When you have two commutes at the top of the day and two commutes at the bottom of the day - it is a lot of time that you're spending commuting. It can be almost four hours a day if you include all of the pieces where you have to communicate to the teachers etc.

The very simple solution to this is to put daycare centers at the same place that work is, so that you are going to the same place with your child. There are companies that do this really well. Clif Bar does this really well. Patagonia does this really well. I have friends who - they get up in the morning, and they get on their bike. A friend of mine works at Clif Bar - he gets on his bike, puts his daughter on the back of the bike - and they bike to work/school. They go to the same place.

That's the kind of community infrastructure and, let's just call it "bad design," that we've set up. Because I think that for some reason or another, we've let ourselves get into a world where we have hidden children from view, and we somehow think that they should just be gone. We don't encounter them on a day-to-day basis. And when we do, the environment is designed so poorly that we think the children are what's annoying.

We're like, "Oh those kids are so annoying." But really, what we haven't done is be thoughtful about the design. To say, "Well, how would kids fit in here? Wouldn't it be cool if at this restaurant there was also say two trained daycare providers on deck and a place to play with toys? So the kids who are not good at sitting still - because it's not the way that they're designed, they could go play while you had a great dinner. You'd get them free babysitting. You don't have to do all this hassle.

Stuff like that, I just think it's not very thoughtful. And I do want to bring something up, Len - not put you two on the spot. But earlier you said, "I haven't had to think about this before," or, "I haven't thought about having kids." Can I ask you - do you think that you haven't thought about it because - and this is a really personal question, so maybe take it and let me know whether or not you even want to answer it. Do you think it's because you don't think you want to have children ever, or do you think it's because you haven't thought about it yet and you're deferring the thinking about it till later?

Len: The way I think about it is, and I have only started thinking about whether - I'm only getting to the age where it's kind of like more or less, I kind of have to decide pretty soon, I suppose, unless I want to be a very old parent - but the idea of having children isn't really even there as an absence for me. It's not something I chose to defer or chose to not think about. It just wasn't there as a concept.

Sarah: Why do you think that is?

Len: I don't know. I never in my life sort of thought about, "Well I'll get married someday, and then my life will be like this and I'll have kids." Those just weren't thoughts that I ever had.

Sarah: When you think about your future, do you have a vague sense of like, "Maybe someday this will happen?" Do you have a picture of yourself when you're 80?

Len: If I do, it's of myself not having a family. Just being a bachelor, I suppose.

Sarah: Thanks for letting me ask you that, by the way.

Len: Oh no worries. I wish people asked personal questions more often, frankly.

Sarah: I mean we ask women this all this all the time, right? Like when they're six, we say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And usually its, "Do you want to be a mommy?" And then, "What kind of career do you want?" And, "When are you going to have kids? And once you have kids, are you going to have another kid?" I cannot tell you how many times - I am four month postpartum. I literally have a four-month-old, right? My belly is still soft, I am breastfeeding, I am the sole provider of the food source for this very, very small child - and when I go out, people will be like, "Oh, how many more kids are you having?" And I'm like, "Really? My uterus has not even shrunk back down to the size that it needs to be before it starts regrowing another child. I do not want to think about that right now." But I get asked it all the time.

Len: It's so interesting. It's something I kind of wanted to talk about, when you brought it up - but I wasn't sure. I wonder if there's a connection between the availability - and it is gendered - that I think that men feel to ask questions like that about women and have expectations like that about women - and to harass them online.

Sarah: If there's a connection?

Len: Yeah.

Sarah: We can go back in history and look at it. It was not that long ago that women were considered property. So to be a woman in the world, and I'm looking particularly at US history, but it has parallels around the whole world, and is still prevalent today in many cultures - it took a long time for us to get the right to vote. It took a long time for us to be able to have our own money. We take our partner's name. And so the way that women have historically been gendered and brought up is that our only point of power is who we marry. So our upbringing is - be very attractive, be desirable to the opposite sex.

Because your power relationship and your status is tied to the person that you marry, and you've got to marry well. This is a huge story that we're going to be unpacking, and there's a long way to go in terms of equality and understanding.

What does it mean to really unlock the power of an economy that really believes - and a society that really believes - that everyone has interesting things to add to the conversation, has worthwhile contributions to be made. That we value things like care taking, just as much as we value things like building an app.

Len: It's interesting, the value of care taking. You reminded me of something earlier when you were talking about how so much in our society, things are set up so that kids are annoyances. That reminded me of a particular hobbyhorse that I have, which is school start times.

Since I was about nine years old, I have just been programmed to get up around noon. And of course I can't. I've had jobs where I had to get up at five in the morning. I can do it. I have worked office jobs, where you've got to be there at nine kind of thing. But I absolutely hated every moment of it until night time, when it was like all of a sudden, I was firing on all cylinders. And the arbitrariness of school start times in the morning, is something that I've been sort of so interested in. It's all about the parents, and it's not about the kids.

Sarah: I would add some more nuance to this, or more particularity. So one thing - you asked earlier about, what are the community infrastructure changes? And the first thing that I mentioned was putting schools and workplaces in the same place.

The second thing that would be really useful, is having school schedules and work schedules be aligned. Because so often schools will get out two hours earlier, or it'll just be this mismatch, where we haven't really thoughtfully designed the system to work well. And there's so much potential for saving time and energy.

That said, you're making a really interesting point about alt schedules. I would say that there are actually a lot of examples of alt schedules. People who are Broadway performers, for example. They start their job around 5, or 1 o'clock if they have a matinee. And they run into the nights, and they stay up till two or four, and then they sleep the late night owl schedule. There are doctors and physician's assistants who work overnight shifts. They work like three 12 hour shifts.

So there's a lot of different ways that work shows up. What I would love to see - and for people who are listening, if you are a creative person and you have thought about this, I'm really interested in this conversation - I would love to see more interesting conversation about, how does childcare work in each of these different scenarios? What is a good system design, or structural design, for when work looks like these different things? I don't know if that answers your question? You said school start times, for you personally, right?

Len: Yes it does, thank you for adding nuance to it. I just feel so strongly about it, necause it was literally - I mean, I did it, but it was literally painful.

Sarah: I'll see if I can find this for you. There's an article out there that says, "One of the best things we can do for teenagers is start school later."

Len: Yes, there's a budding movement, thankfully.

Sarah: Yes.

Len: It's curious. There's so many sort of strands to pull on, right? Because I mean, one of the things, when you start talking about children and parenting, it's like everybody's got something at stake in that, more or less. And so there's so many things.

One of the reasons that's given for school start times being the way they are, is the importance that's placed on sports. People want to work in a couple of hours of time for practice. And it's easier for a lot of people to have the idea of school ending early, and then having sports afterwards, than the other way around. But that means that the whole school day is structured around the kids who play sports. And sports are very important, but anyway, I'm just acknowledging - yeah there's nuance, and there's all kinds of--

Sarah: That's so interesting.

Len: All kinds of competing interests at stake.

Sarah: We could have school last for just a little longer, and there was a two hour block, and it's like, "This is your area of focus, and you get to choose what you do with your area of focus. Maybe use it as study time, maybe you are chair of the organic gardening club? Maybe you just want to read books in the library?" But you - like from three to five, maybe it's sports, maybe it's something else?

Len: It's funny, just before moving onto the next part of the interview, you mentioned alt schedules. That just reminded me of a really funny story I heard - Bruce Springsteen was in Austin for South By Southwest, if I have the story correctly - but a couple of years ago, for some reason, whoever manages his time, booked him to give a speech at noon. And he showed up late, and the first thing he said was, "No serious musician is up at this time of day."

Sarah: Yeah, it depends. I have the opposite schedule, and I am up earlier than - I don't tell people what time I wake up, because I don't find that helpful. But I get up early.

Len: Moving onto the next part of the interview, I wanted to ask you, one specific thing about your book. Your book has all these wonderful affirmations in it. My favorite is, "Be the buffalo."

I was wondering if you could explain that? To everyone listening - please get the book, it's great.

Sarah: Do you have the whole phrase in front of you? Because I don't have it in front of me. It came from a friend of mine - but there's this old Cherokee quote.

Len: I've got it here if you want me to--

Sarah: Tell me what it is.

Len: "Cows run away from the storm while the buffalo charges toward it – and gets through it quicker. Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment, I become the buffalo."

Sarah: One of the women who contributed to this book, because I collected different people's affirmations, said she just remembered, "Be the buffalo." Which I loved. It was one of my favorite ones.

For context, Pregnancy Affirmations is - not everyone has to get it, I mean you can definitely take a look if you want to - but the idea of an affirmation is the mental tool, or the mental hook, that we use to get us through a situation or a scenario. I use them every single week. I currently have some for my writing practice. I'm actually looking at it, because it's on my desk right now. It says, "I trust that this has to be said, and I trust that I am one of the ones to say it."

So when I show up to the writing page and I worry, like, "Oh, somebody else had said this already." Or, "Why am I the one that's saying this? Am I the right person write this article?" I'm pitching big places, I'm trying to get published in the Atlantic and in The New York Times and in Harvard Business Review - and I can really doubt myself. And so I have a mantra just at the top of my desk that says, "I trust this has to be said, and I trust that I am one of the ones to say it."

These help me when I am feeling stressed out or scared or unsure. You can use them for anything. Anytime you have a sticky challenge or a puzzle or a hard thing that you're coming up against, and for pregnant women - I mean, there's birth, right? You have to give birth. And it is a beast. It is the hardest athletic event I've done. And I swam the Escape from Alcatraz naked. So it is a big, big thing.

So what I did for my - any pregnant lady or somebody that's supporting a pregnant person - I collected all the affirmations that I'd heard of, that friends shared with me, and I put them into a book. And you get to flip through it. It's this short little book, where you can flip through it and just pull apart these ideas and examples, and pick the ones that are useful for you. I love that "Be the buffalo," is the one that came out for you. And I'm so glad you looked inside the book. I am curious what you thought of the other affirmations.

Because I think some of them - "Cheerio, Oreo, Donut," is another one, which applies specifically to the opening of the cervix as you go into labor. It's first the size of a Cheerio, then an Oreo, then a donut. And using that as a visulization tool can actually help your body relax and open, and make childbirth a little less painful - if you can help your body with these mind tools.

Len: Yeah, that reminds me of my second favorite one, which was, "Open, sphincter!"

Sarah: That one's best done at a yell.

Len: I was just going to say, what I found sort of compelling about it was - partly, there was something about the connection between your systems. The way you're interested in systems thinking, and how we have various sphincters in our bodies, and the way they're connected. And somehow when I was thinking about the way you think about preparing for pregnancy, being pregnant, giving birth, raising a child, running a startup - these are all systems. And there's something in this very, very physical connection to sphincters that I just found really funny - and I actually wasn't going to bring it up, but -

Sarah: It's a great command. Because if you do it at a yell - you're actually doing the thing you're telling yourself to do, because you're opening your throat. And you're activating your diaphragm, and when you open these various sphincters - and you have sphincters all over your body, in between your esophagus and your stomach, and your stomach and your upper intestine - your duodenum, I believe it's called? Each of these places, there's a very tight thing that needs to close. It needs to open and close, and it's really important for the functioning of your body. But if you open your throat sphincters and your mouth, you can actually help open the ones in your pelvic floor. And so if you do it at a big old yell, you might actually help push that baby out.

Len: It's important, I think, for people to understand, that one of the things that's great about your work, is you're so straightforward about so many things that people are often, I think, not straightforward about.

Sarah: Yes.

Len: And it was sort of very refreshing to see things - and sometimes humorous and sometimes not humorous at all. It just struck me as all - I mean, being the buffalo, right? Facing into it, and going through it, rather than trying to get away from it.

Sarah: It's so fascinating. So I'll just add to this, because I think it's important and worth saying.

Everybody was born. Everybody was born. We all came from a vagina, or very close to one,. Some of us were born by C-section. I do not know anybody that was not born close to one. And yet we have hidden it away. If anybody's watched the television show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she's a standup comedian in the 1940s and 1950s. She gets on stage and she makes a joke about pregnancy. And she is escorted off stage, her set is shut down - and she gets put into jail for vulgar language.

We were not allowed to show pictures of pregnant women, or discuss pregnancy, or even use the word "pregnancy," about 60 to 75 years ago. Those were banned from the Motion Picture Association of America. It was uncouth. It was considered inappropriate to even talk about these things.

I find this fascinating, because we are all born, and it is one of the coolest biological processes and systems. In fact, if you are looking for inspiration and new ideas and innovation - why not go study one of the coolest processes in the world. It just baffles me.

So that's, almost in a nutshell, my point of view on this. I just think it's wildly cool. I think a lot of men would find it really cool if we looked at it with biological or scientific lenses. And then we started to unpack it. I get sad that it's not talked about more. That it's so hush-hush.

Len: Well fortunately, thanks to a lot of work and sacrifice by a lot of people, we now live in a world where you can just go ahead and talk about it as much as you want - and you've done that with your book.

I wanted to ask you - you're getting published in all sorts of places, and you decided to choose Leanpub to self-publish this book. Why did you choose us?

Sarah: Thanks for asking that. I looked at the platform. I actually found it through David Moldawer, because he was publishing a book. I am working on those one of those big, thick, meaty tomesm with a traditional publisher. I've been working on it for a number of years, and it's really challenging, and pushing me to no end. But I have so much content, and I have ideas that I know are the big ideas - I have things that I know need to be written, and I can write them fast.

And so when I saw Leanpub, I was like, "Oh thank God." I know that I have a mini-book to write. I define a mini book as under 40,000 words, somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 words. It's a concept. I know that I can write it. I know that people want it, because they've asked me for it. Oftentimes, it lives in my Google Docs folder, where I have several long Google Docs. And I said, "This is great. It can look like a book, it can feel like a book. I can publish it quickly, and I can publish it in-progress."

I've got two more that are coming out with Leanpub. One of them is called The Pregnancy Reading List, and one of them's called, *The Parenting Reading List. I happen to be the class of nerd, where I enjoy reading books in entirety, highlighting them, taking notes - and then writing book summaries about them. That's just my cup of tea, that's what I do for my leisure time.

I said to myself, "Since I'm already doing this, why don't I just put the summaries in a collection - so that somebody that doesn't like reading, can read this book called, The Pregnancy Reading List, and just read my summaries of the books." I thought, "Okay, I'll do that." So those are the next two books that I'm working on with Leanpub.

Len: And are you publishing Pregnancy Affirmations in-progress?

Sarah: Yes. I published it about 70% complete. There's definitely two sections in there that have just notes in there. I put a note in the very beginning of the book, where I said, "This is book in progress. I estimate that it's about 60% done right now, which means you'll come across things that will still be written, but you will always have access to the books along the way, as I publish updated versions."

Len: It's really interesting you mentioned Google Docs. You asked me before we started the interview proper, why so many Leanpub books are programming books, and why so many are tech books. One of the historical reasons is that Leanpub was created by programmers, and so it was just very programmer-friendly. But also, Leanpub books in the past could only be - I mean, this was a big feature - they could be written in plain text. But we actually now have other modes as well, one of which is Google Docs.

You can actually write a Leanpub book in Google Docs, and you don't need to learn any Markdown or anything like that. We also have a Visual Editor for genre fiction writing, where you just write in the browser, and it's more or less WYSIWYG.

Sarah: Yeah, I tried each of those. I actually went through all of your different modalities to see what I liked best.

Len: Oh wow.

Sarah: The in-browser editor only lets you do H1, H2, and italics, right? It's got limited styles. Which I really liked in the beginning, so I started writing it that way. And then I realised I wanted a few more pieces of functionality. And when I went to change the book and potentially do it in Markdown - which I don't love, because my brain is very visual, I like to see what I'm building, and that may actually just mean that I'm not literate enough with Markdown, it may not mean that I'm not visual - but then I saw that you had the beta version of Google Docs, and so I installed that and I tried it, and I loved it. It fit me really well. So I now have all my stuff in Google Docs. And then I use RescueTime as a tracking mechanism, to see how much time I'm writing every week, based on my Google Docs output.

Len: Oh that's fantastic, I hadn't heard of that. That's really interesting. And thanks very much for the feedback. That's really helpful to us, actually, but we don't always hear about people and their preferences for the different modes.

The last question I always ask people on this podcast is - if there were one thing we could build for you, or one thing we could fix for you as a writer - what would you ask us to do, if you can think of anything?

Sarah: That is a great question, and I had a specific thing for you. A couple of days ago, I actually did, I did remember thinking like, "Oh I really want this." But right now I'm drawing a blank.

I think that one tiny thing that maybe is not a tiny thing - is every time I type in "leanpub" in my URL - I get a home page that isn't easily accessible, to go straight to my books. It's still a sales page. So I have to click on the author thing, and then click on my profile name, "Sarah," and then click to "Author," and then once it's "Author," I'll draw up the books. But there's not a one button, "back into writing," or, "back into my books," from the very home page, that I've found. So I end up manually typing in, "Leanpub/pregnancyaffirmations," to get straight to the book.

Len: That's really interesting. Thank you very much for that. That kind of detail is really important for us, and it's something - we've actually been iterating on our navigation design lately - you've probably seen things shifting around a little bit. And that's really helpful, thanks a lot for that. We'll think about that, because it is important for us. People use Leanpub in various ways. Some as readers, some as authors. Some as people who are creating courses, some as people who are taking courses. And getting them to where they need to go as quickly as possible is a really important thing. So thanks very much for that.

Sarah: Happy to think about this at any time, if it's useful. Thanks for building it.

Len: Anytime you have any feedback, we're very open.

And thank you very much for taking the time to do this podcast, I really enjoyed the conversation. I think we probably could've gone on longer, because there's just so much to talk about in this area. But thanks very much.

Sarah: Oh thanks for having me, this has been great.

Len: Okay, thanks.

And thanks as always to everyone for listening. If you like what you heard, please rate and review the podcast and subscribe in iTunes. And if you're interested in writing a book of your own on Leanpub, or creating your own course, please just go to, and click on "Why Leanpub."

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on February 15th, 2019
  • Interview by Len Epp on February 6th, 2019
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough