Your first maternity or paternity leave: 4 thoughts before you go

A man holding a baby while using a laptop.

Planning maternity or paternity leave is, in a way, one of the most unplannable events you could think of. Although your responsibilities when you return to work may be written down, as a new parent coming back to the office, you are, from a personal development perspective, no longer the same person.

Parenthood comes with many blessings but it is also a huge task, the magnitude of which will reveal itself only over time. In the uncertainty that is to come, there are some things worth thinking about as you aim eventually to attain some sort of equilibrium. This post offers some of these thoughts.

1. You won’t know what will happen next. But it’s good to talk through possibilities.

Transition-out and transition-back meetings with your boss are meaningful ways to go through some of the possible scenarios and options available. The first baby is an exciting time for any new parent but may also give rise to some difficult conversations. Some maternity and paternity leave policies are quite rigid, whereas others offer more flexibility and options. If choices are available, what do you need to do to progressively narrow them down? Even though planning ‘what exactly comes next’ may be premature before you go on leave, from your transition-out meeting you can start jotting down your very first sketchy ideas of what going back to the office as a working parent may look like.

Needless to say, it is hard for any new parent to anticipate both the immediate and the longer-term changes to your life that a child will bring. These include dealing with the day-to-day tasks of running a family in real life – not as it is seen in glossy magazines. On a deeper level, finding your most authentic voice as a parent also takes time. No one is a great and instinctive parent from the beginning who enjoys every step of the journey. The journey is bumpy and comes with self-doubt.  

Daily life with a new baby can be repetitive and feel quite limiting for many accomplished and busy professionals. We learn as we go along, about our children, their developmental stages and our responses to these. Accepting uncertainty upfront, therefore, does not mean giving up a plan and living entirely from one day to the next – even though there will be days when that may look like the highest achievement you can hope for! It means suspending judgement when facing the unknown and staying open to learning who you are becoming. It means preparing for your transition-out, the best possible handover and changes you may need to put in place (e.g. delegating or temporarily reallocating work), and then revising your thoughts again when transition-back is on the horizon.

2. Trying to be in two places (work and home) at the same time: clarity of purpose?

Depending on the duration of parental leave, for the first few days, weeks or even months, keeping in touch with work may soon prove too difficult a balancing act. Leaving aside circumstances when doing both is close to being superhuman (say, following a difficult birth or when there isn’t much support at home), in normal circumstances, the key question remains not how you will do it but why you will do it.

If the planning and transition-out was managed successfully, the initial time with a newborn is very precious and special for a new family. Disconnecting from work may be hard for some, easy for others. Nailing down why you may wish to keep the work connection strong is an important self-reflection moment, especially if you’re one of those people who find it hard to step out for a while.

There is naturally a healthy middle ground between disappearing completely and keeping in touch with meaningful connections in the workplace. And it’s no secret that work may at times feel a comfortable area to go to compared with days of sameness at home.

3. Give yourself time to process it.

One of the greatest changes you will encounter as a new parent is your new perception of time. This will involve both having a new idea of quality time and suddenly finding that you never have enough time.

It’s hard to make choices when you have little time to think and when many factors shift frequently. A new baby is, in this sense, a daily exercise in humility. What you thought you had mastered yesterday may no longer be any good today. What you thought you had finally learned is soon challenged. You’ll find yourself playing catch-up regularly. And then, when you think you are finally ‘experienced parents’, you may go back to square one with your second or third child – and find that your little one is already a few steps ahead of you. In this scenario, which is more dynamic than you can possibly anticipate, many conclusions you had come to will, in retrospect, prove to have been premature.

Getting to the end of the first year may feel like an important milestone but, on several levels, it is still very early days for processing significant changes. And because your attention is (rightly) so much on the baby, you’re unlikely to devote much time to reflecting on the deepest changes. If you need huge doses of patience with your children, it’s helpful to remind yourself you need the same amount of patience with yourself. You will learn the hard way. Equally, you will treasure moments of bliss.

You may change your mind more than once about what you want next in your career, what work–life balance means for you and how you wish to measure your success. You may wish to explore choices you never considered before (say, relocating). And you may need to run the same conversations with yourself again and again – and that’s all right.

4. Will I have the support I need?

Recovering both physically and emotionally from birth can be a long journey and much help is needed along the way. For many, full recovery takes months. Self-care also requires raising your awareness. But at some point, priorities will emerge. Is it parenting advice that you’ll need the most? If so, will family and friends be able to offer this? Is it flexible childcare arrangements that you will mostly need to return to work? A nanny or a good nursery will likely provide this. Do you really want to have more time with your child? Then engaging in the right conversations in the workplace and carefully considering how and when you return to the office may give you that extra time.

Sometimes you may think you need all of the above and it may be easy to feel overwhelmed. So you need to think about priorities. What is the greatest challenge I’ll be facing on my return to work? Who will be able to support me? What do I need to change first? The answers to these questions may evolve over time as your child grows up and your career progresses. This means, on the one hand, being flexible, and, on the other, lining up the resources you will need to feel supported.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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