Own it! Make Parental Leave add value to your career

Whoever decided a parent’s career is on hold during Parental Leave? Did you make Parental Leave add value to your career?
While a secondment or sabbatical is generally thought to rejuvenate life and career, Parental Leave is regularly viewed as slamming on the career brakes. I admit, I too am guilty of considering Parental Leave like career time out, but with reflection I realise I have been looking at it wrong.

I have taken Parental Leave twice, approximately one year each time. Back in the baby fog, I felt that because I was taking time away from my career to be with my child, it was reasonable for my job role expectations (and pay) to remain ‘on hold’. I felt lucky that my employer would hold my spot for me. At no point did I or other mums in my circle consider our employers lucky to have our commitment to return to them post-leave. In fact, most of my friends felt they owed their employer a great debt of gratitude to be repaid with loyalty and overworking once they returned.

On top of that, most had considered, and many chose, to actively reduce their expectations and responsibilities. Some changed career path entirely, from corporate to family friendly roles like teaching. When I asked why, the reason was often a lack of confidence, or self-doubt wrapped in various layers of mum exhaustion! There was also a lot of concern over the relevance of any technical skillset that had been put on hold during leave. But what we failed to acknowledge were the new skills we developed while on leave.

I never really thought of Parental Leave as a skill development period. Going into it, I assumed it would be an enjoyable, well-deserved break from the nine to five. OK, so maybe I’d be a little sleep deprived! But as any primary carer of an infant knows,Parental Leave is NOT a holiday. It’s a full-time job…or rather two and a half full-time jobs, without adequate breaks or income, let alone any overtime pay! Parental Leave is a fast-track development program, a steep learning curve that enables new parents to gain additional skills and knowledge that ultimately should enhance their career prospects, not hinder them.

Let’s take a look at some of the skills developed whilst on Parental Leave:

  • 24/7 commitment
  • Strength to cope during moments of complete chaos and no control
  • Ability to offer emotional, physical and developmental support
  • Skills to influence and negotiate
  • Time management and prioritisation
  • Logistics management
  • Project management
  • Conflict resolution
  • Crisis management
  • Problem solving
  • Resilience development
  • Nutritionist and cook

If Parental Leave were a year-long personal development training course it would be expensive, and there’s no question it would add value and marketability to the skillset of the trainee. But because this education comes with the territory of being a new parent rather than its own marketing spiel, it seems to lose its value. In my opinion, this is caused by the societal view that unpaid work is of low value, and it’s compounded by women in the workplace (still the majority of parents taking Parental Leave) maintaining underlying feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt and lack of self-belief.

On researching this topic I was bothered by the many expert recommendations that mums should study/network/start their own business to stay relevant and make themselves more marketable for their return to work. When is this possible?! Isn’t raising a child 24/7 enough?! Seriously. I am yet to meet a working mother who isn’t more valuable (or more productive) to her workplace than she was before kids, and all without any additional formal education. Most mums I know are selective about how they invest their time at work, often choosing to skip lunch to close out a deal or finish a deliverable. Yet women continue to speak of feeling unworthy, and lucky to return to jobs in which they are often underpaid for their skill level and working more hours than they are contracted. Combined with feeling doubt in their capability, underselling themselves, and withdrawing from opportunities, overwhelmed by self-doubt.

Until we can translate the myriad of life skills developed on Parental Leave into valuable outcomes in our performance, employers will continue to get more bang for their buck while working mothers feel ever more overworked and undervalued.

So how do we give value to these transferable life skills and do a U-turn on the way society views Parental Leave? I believe it starts with us. Try this short exercise:

  1. Reflect on all the days you have guided the development of a new little person and kept smiling. Feel proud of your achievement and let it fill you with belief in yourself. Self-belief and confidence have a direct and impactful effect on your career.
  2. Reflect on the moments you juggled life admin, child rearing, cooking, cleaning, caring, driving, with more patience than comes naturally. This skill can be used to demonstrate greater levels of productivity at work and better time management on creating valuable outcomes.
  3. Reflect on the resilience developed over your Parental Leave. The near crisis moments of choking, whooping cough, projectile newborn explosions, etc. This skill helps build strength in times of challenge—which can also manifest itself as a good leadership quality.

So, my wish for women in 2019 is to:

  • Know you are more than enough and know you are always worth more than you think.
  • Rely on your own sense of self to build confidence rather than relying on external means.
  • Be bold, say ‘yes’ before ‘no’, ask for what you want, be brave, have an opinion and share it with pride. Don’t be inactive.
  • Demonstrate self-compassion and vulnerability which is integral not only to wellbeing but also motivation and confidence.

A final note: According to a survey by Cameron Anderson (University of California Berkeley), coming across as overconfident leads to higher societal status, respect, prominence and influence! So why not give it a go in 2019!

Written by Ghislaine Entwisle, director in a global management consulting company and passionate advocate for women in the workforce. Ghislaine is also a supporter of women struggling from homelessness, domestic violence and poverty in raising kids. She is involved in a social enterprise to improve executive level involvement of culturally diverse women, and is actively involved in technology and female networks in Melbourne.

Read Ghislaine’s Real Story.

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