Parent Stories

Tim Gray

Father to:
Pippa (2)
Current roles:
Strategic Account Executive & Manager of Sales at Zapproved | Previously at: Portland Timbers
Tim's story

How an unexpected diagnosis impacted one dad’s parental leave plans, creating space for more than father-daughter bonding

News no one is ever ready to receive: Half way through her pregnancy, Tim’s wife, Brittnie, received a serious cancer diagnosis that put her and their unborn child at risk.

This unexpected news made Tim’s parental leave experience more different than he ever could have imagined.

Before he could even think about his upcoming parental leave, Tim focused on Brittnie’s chemotherapy and recovery since her treatment couldn’t wait until after their daughter’s delivery.

Thanks to the compassion and support of his employer, Zapproved, Tim was able to work as much as he felt appropriate while continuing to put his family first.

Company leadership allowed him to structure his work day around his wife’s treatment and care, and trusted him to decide how and how much he wanted to engage after his daughter’s birth.

With so much going on in his personal life, work was a welcomed distraction during the long hours in the hospital when he wasn’t able to interact directly with his wife or daughter.

Tim continued working selectively until mom and baby were discharged, closing a huge deal (the third largest in his company’s history!) before taking a few months off to be with them full-time.

The key to making it all work, Tim says, was being transparent about what was happening at home.

He acknowledges that vulnerability isn’t always easy in professional environments, but he’s become an advocate for it after sharing his story publicly at a company-wide meeting and receiving unparalleled support.

The experience, he says, is his proudest moment and biggest accomplishment at Zapproved.

<p class="content-highlight">Read Tim’s full Q&A below to see how the support of his employer helped him get through a really difficult time, and how his family has used their experience to help other mothers.</p>

How did you prepare for parental leave?

My parental leave experience and preparation was far different than I could have imagined. When my wife was 20 weeks pregnant, she was diagnosed with a form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma…one that required immediate chemotherapy and aggressive treatment to try and contain her disease. Unfortunately there was no option to defer treatment until after delivery. We partnered closely with our Oncology and OB teams to identify a treatment plan that gave Pippa and my wife, Brittnie, the best chance at a healthy outcome.

In preparation for leave, I was spending my time focusing on each day,  each appointment and taking care of my wife, who was having challenges with basic daily tasks like eating, walking and sleeping. I did not have the time or energy to think about planning appropriately for my leave. Thankfully, I had an employer that displayed a remarkable amount of compassion, patience, love and empathy for me and my family.

How did your wife’s diagnosis impact the way you and your employer handled your parental leave?

Due to the suddenness of my wife's disease, it left us no time to prepare. The month my wife was diagnosed was July of 2020, and the pandemic was reaching a fever pitch. I was the only person allowed to visit my wife during treatment, childbirth and post NICU care, as hospitals needed to completely lock down visitor policies due to COVID. Since I was her only care provider during our roughly 100 nights in the hospital, we relied on our community to take care of nearly all of our other responsibilities, like caring for our dog, cooking or delivering meals, cleaning our house, transportation, etc.

During this period (pre-baby) I continued to work, where and when I could, usually from my phone, as it was a welcomed distraction from constantly thinking about cancer and the reality of our situation. Looking back, I have given myself a ton of grace, and don’t think there is any particular way one should handle a situation like this. I actually appreciated my employer allowing me to continue to work through a couple key deals while not setting any particular expectation on the amount of time I should spend. I was given the option to go on medical leave, but chose to continue working on a limited basis, and passed the rest of my opportunities off to my amazing colleagues. My employer trusted me completely and ultimately allowed me the autonomy to make my own decisions.

The challenges you faced looked much different than the other parents we’ve profiled. What was the most challenging part of taking parental leave and how did you address or overcome it?

The biggest challenge for me was balancing how much work to take on while focusing my attention on my family. For me, work was a very needed distraction and challenge since so much of my time was occupied in hospital rooms thinking about cancer. While my family always came first, finding a balance of work and family was incredibly important and difficult.

Once the time came to deliver my daughter, my wife had been through three rounds of intensive chemotherapy. There is very little data available to know how an unborn child will react to chemo since each case is unique, so the actual delivery of our daughter was incredibly stressful, relieving and then very quickly, frightening. My wife ended up having a c-section and delivering Pippa at 32 weeks. At this point, we just learned her chemotherapy had failed and they needed to proceed with a much more aggressive form of treatment, thus, Pippa had to come out.

The delivery was an amazing moment for our family, getting to see our daughter for the first time, hear her voice after so many months of anticipation, and getting to rest her on our chest. We thought we were in the clear, but 12 hours after she was born our doctor identified an issue in her lower abdomen and needed to perform an emergency 4-hour procedure. We were incredibly fortunate to have the very best team of surgeons, OBs, nurses and NICU staff to care for Pippa and our family during this time. Pippa was in the NICU for 42 days recovering, but just like her mama, she was a fighter and has made a complete recovery and is the happiest two year old you have ever met.

My paternity leave began ‘officially’ when Pippa was born, but since I was spending almost all day at the NICU, where I could provide very little physical support, I asked my employer if I could continue working one deal to a close. In the midst of our NICU stay, I closed on the third largest deal in company history. I knew at some point I would need to completely check out, but I truly needed the distraction of work to allow my brain to be used in other ways – and my wife, and company, were fully supportive of this.

Once the time came for Pippa to come home and my wife had recovered from delivery, we needed to ratchet up her treatment significantly, and this is when I finally put my work aside completely. I was so grateful Zapproved provided maximum flexibility to me and trusted I was making the right decisions on how much (or little) to take on.

How long was your paid parental leave and how did you handle your re-onboarding experience?

I took all of December and part of January off to be with my family and care for Pippa & Brittnie. I only occasionally checked Slack, emails and my company calendar, and set the expectation that I was going to be out. My re-onboarding was very selective, as my attention needed to shift to Brittnie defeating cancer (which she has), and continuing to care for Pippa.

When I started working again, I was only taking on new opportunities that were worth investing time in, and I was able to hand others off temporarily. I had no requirement to be on team or company meetings. I was given full autonomy to work on the things I could while acknowledging work was a secondary focus. While I was only handling a couple of opportunities, I was able to give adequate time and attention to them and was proud of the work I was doing, which I felt was important. Had I not been able to do that, I wouldn’t have chosen to work at all, and Zapproved would have been fully supportive of that.

What did your manager or company do that was really helpful to your success transitioning back to work?

Right at the beginning of my wife's diagnosis, Zapproved contacted our insurance provider and got me set up with a Cigna ‘My Champion.’ – a dedicated person I could work with for any and all questions, claims, reimbursements etc. This was a game changer for me, as it allowed me to never worry about our medical claims and benefits. This person proactively managed all of our bills, troubleshooted any issues, contacted all of our providers and made sure all of these details were off my plate. I am so incredibly grateful for this both during my parental leave, and for many months after I returned to work.”

What is one professional achievement that you’re most proud of since becoming a parent and why?

I was recently promoted to strategic account executive and manager of sales. I am in a player coach role, both responsible for managing a territory and mentoring one of our newest mid market reps. I was looking for a way to dip my hand in management while still working large opportunities, and I was provided the opportunity to do both. I have been able to watch this rep grow and succeed, which has been incredibly rewarding. I have also taken on more strategic responsibility with our executive and senior leadership teams, providing advice on the direction of our product, company and industry, as they have valued the insight from my time in the field.

If you had to name one thing (something you do, something you buy, something you have) that has had the greatest impact on your ability to manage working parenthood, what would it be?

We have adopted family walks – almost every single evening – rain or shine. This allows my wife and I to have really strong communication, plan out our weeks of childcare, vent about work, dream, laugh and enjoy each other. We also get to watch our daughter grow up – we take her to the park, run around with our dog, and appreciate our time away from a screen, outside as a family. I cherish this time together every day.

If you could give another parent one piece of advice leading up to their parental leave, what would it be?

Learn to be vulnerable and transparent about your situation. It will knock down barriers amongst your colleagues and deepen relationships. I was given the opportunity to share my story at one of our all hands meetings. I have conducted hundreds of meetings on-site with key executives and senior leaders at the largest companies in the world, but I have never been more nervous to speak in front of a group of people.

This past May, my wife organized a half marathon to help raise money for a single mother who was battling cancer and unable to work. She set her sights on raising $15,000 for this mom and daughter to help with their living costs. When my CEO, Monica, who I consider a great friend and mentor, found out about our fundraiser, she graciously volunteered to match all Zapproved donations herself, and provided me the opportunity to share my story in front of the whole company.

After that meeting, we raised more than $15,000 amongst my Zapproved colleagues alone. We ended up raising $40,000 in total and were able to support a second mother, and we are working to support a 3rd family right now. Telling our story to my peers was both the hardest thing I have done, but also my proudest moment, and biggest accomplishment during my time at Zapproved.