Getting to back to work after parental leave

Before I had my first child, I always thought of myself as a person who knew how to balance the demands of a high pressure job with a busy social life. I worked really hard when I was at work, smashing billables or KPIs, and being regularly recognised for strong performance. But when it came to my down time, I made sure I always fit in time for family, friends, and the things that I really enjoyed doing. Life was good, life was fun, and work was challenging but rewarding.

Fast forward to becoming a parent. It’s at that point you realise that the productivity you knew before you had children was basically a trial run, where life operated at snail’s pace. Once you’re a working parent in a high pressure job, you suddenly come to the realisation that there is no time for the Monday morning chit chat about what people got up to on the weekend, or that awkward birthday cake celebration that seems to occur on the day you’ve got a major project due. Instead, every minute that you are in the office now equals three pre-parenting minutes. You now have to fit in three times as many things into the hours that you are in the office, which suddenly seem to have shrunk so much that it makes you wonder how many hours you truly worked before you had children…

So how do you manage it all whilst also continuing to be that high performer you once were before you had children? I’ve come up with a list from my own experience that I hope can assist busy parents navigating this challenging time in their lives, whilst also making sure you continue to kick goals at work.

1. Read your position description

If you want to return to work flexibly or part time make sure that you and your boss sit down and review your position description. There may be some aspects of your role that cannot be performed flexibly, or there may be significant components of it that now need to be reallocated if you want to work part time. Your employer doesn’t have to afford you part time or flexible work arrangements, so make sure you are realistic about how you will perform your role if your hours change.

2. Manage expectations

When returning to work after parental leave, it is important to manage expectations. This doesn’t mean that you are letting your employer know that you will be doing less work because you became a parent, instead it is ensuring they know you will perform just as well, if not better, but you will do it on the days and in the hours you agree upon prior to your return.

Also bear in mind that if you repeatedly work at times that you said you would not be working, the expectations of your employer and your colleagues will shift so as to assume that you are now available and ready to work at any time. 

3. Communicate with your partner

Maintaining regular communication with your partner is now crucial to managing the burdens that childcare arrangements will bring. Be clear about who does drop off and pick up, who might need to take a day off when the little ones are sick, and which days each of you might have flexibility to start late or leave early should anything urgent arise. In my family, we found that my ability to start late meant I could often do drop off, but my regular afternoon meetings meant my husband had to do pick up.

4. Secure your village

In the same way that you need your employer to be flexible, you also need to be available if people really need you. When I had my first child I was in charge of a litigation practice. This meant that I sometimes needed to switch my working days to be available for trials. I was fortunate that I was supported by two sets of amazing grandparents, which allowed me to be flexible with my employer. But if you aren’t so fortunate to have a village like this, then you need to create one at work. That could mean establishing a job share arrangement; including another staff member in major matters, accounts, or projects as your backup; or simply making yourself available for telephone or video conferences outside your normal working days, even if that includes a soundtrack of screaming children.

5. Set daily targets

Being extremely organised is key to increasing productivity. This means taking stock of where you are up to with your tasks on a regular basis and constantly revising to do lists. Setting bite size, achievable targets each day will increase productivity and outputs.

Make sure you also keep your colleagues regularly informed about where you are up to with projects, and when they can expect things from you, particularly if you are not going to be in again for a few days.

6. Maintain self discipline

When you return to work after a period of parental leave, the return to social interaction with other adults is a welcome change. So don’t give up all of your coffee dates, or work through every lunch hour. Instead, be more disciplined and strategic about how you use your social time when at work. For example, try to make some meetings a coffee date with a colleague and try to avoid meetings that could have been an email.

The reality is that as life gets busier the amount of things that you have to fit into your life just increase. Therefore, being organised and highly productive is essential to getting the most out of both your work and personal life. But never forget why you chose to have children in the first place, because after all, if you blink you will miss it.

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