Heading off on parental leave that first time, there was no doubt I was totally naïve to the potential impact on my career. I’d spent months researching the perfect pram, finding the most practical nappy bag and creating an Insta-worthy nursery. But what I hadn’t done was given a single thought to my career. Or how to maintain it. Sound familiar?
While on leave, I didn’t do a great job of staying connected to my workplace either. I didn’t realise that it was important and would greatly help with my return. Like most parents on leave, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know’. Fortunately, I had a great boss who looked out for me and made sure that I had a good role to come back to and could work flexibly while I worked out how to juggle a small child and a job.
But here’s the thing—within 11 months of being back at work, I was expecting my second baby and back on parental leave for another 12 months. This time things were different, and much harder returning to work. I’d really lost momentum and it felt like my career had taken a back seat. Having two children so close together and two consecutive parental leave periods in three years had unfortunately taken its toll. I’d lost my networks, my sponsors, and most people couldn’t remember or cared what I’d achieved at work before having kids. And I didn’t have a clear role to come back to, so I felt like my chances of being made redundant where even higher. Understandably, my confidence was at an all-time low.
So why did it feel so much harder to maintain my career after two children? And what should I have done differently to stop my career tanking like that?
Well, firstly the reason it’s more challenging is because you often don’t have time to rebuild and invest in those work relationships the way you did before you had children. When you return to work the first time, it’s such a big period of adaption on every level. You can feel like you aren’t doing anything particularly well and are literally just keeping your head above water. At the same time, you are super-efficient and have zero time for idle chit chat and socialising. It’s a case of get in, get your stuff done and then fly out the door for pickup. But often those work relationships with colleagues and the more senior people at work suffer as you no longer have the time to spend nurturing them. The other big issue if you have had very little time back at work between children, is that it’s also hard to get many runs on the board from a work perspective. It can often feel like you are in a bit of a ‘work holding pattern’ until you are back on parental leave again.
So what should I have done differently? In hindsight there are actually a lot of things I could have done. So let me share my top tips:
Take responsibility for your career—It’s your career and no one is going to look after it like you. While all the baby prep is exciting, spend some time also thinking about your career and how you want to maintain it while on leave. This is even more critical if you are planning to have more than one child. It’s much easier to bounce back and pick up where you left off after one round of parental leave, but it’s that much harder the more children you have. The best thing you can do is have a parental leave plan in place every time you go on leave to make sure what you need and want is well communicated with your manager.
Think about your sponsors—Sponsors are those influential people who will go in to bat for you and your career, even when you are on leave. It’s important to have several sponsors who understand your career aspirations and can look out for opportunities that will support your career when you are on leave and returning to work. Have a career plan that you share with your sponsors and keep up contact with them while you are on leave and back at work. It will be well worth the time investment.
Use your Keeping In Touch days when on leave—These are ten days that you can use on the unpaid component of your parental leave period and are paid at your normal pay rate by your employer. These days are designed to help you stay connected with your workplace and you can use them for activities such as attending a team day or a strategy planning day. Used effectively, these days will help your transition back to work and enable you to hit the ground running.
Have a career mindset—Just because you are a parent doesn’t mean that you need to park all of your career aspirations. We see this all the time! Many new parents overwhelmed by their new responsibilities will say things like, ‘I’m just lucky to have a job’. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and this passive mindset will just stifle all of your career ambitions and limit your progression. It’s also important that when you return to work you maintain your current level, pay and status. This is an entitlement under the Fair Work Act, so don’t settle for a role which is beneath your skills or pre-child career level.
Can your partner share the load?—What parental leave can your partner take to share the caring responsibilities and help support you to return to work? Progressive companies are now starting to offer more generous paid parental leave for partners, so it’s worth looking at what entitlements your partner can access. You could then stagger your leave so that when you are ready to return to work, your partner takes on the primary carer leave. This will not only take the pressure off your return to work, but also help you have much more equality at home by sharing the caring responsibilities.
Written by Kate Pollard, Co-founder of Circle In.