Seven pieces of advice for parents returning to the "office" after parental leave
“In 168 hours, there is plenty of space to nurture yourself alongside your career and your relationships.” ― Laura Vanderkam, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time
“Dear Working Mum (WM),
I know that sometimes you feel guilty about not being there all the time. But WM, I know this. You are setting a wonderful example to your children. You are showing them that a woman can have a career, contribute in some way outside the home, and still be a loving mother. You are showing your daughters that they can do anything they want to do in life. You are displaying strength, endurance, dedication, tenacity, and you do it with so much joy and love....” 🤗keep reading the letter from a stay at home mom to a working mom and vice versa.
📚Before I get into the seven pieces of advice I have for parents going back to the “office job”, I want to recommend I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam where the author elegantly discusses time management and the trades offs that successful women make in order to work fast paced corporate jobs while also being active with their families. Her uber point is to not think of a 24 hour day or an 8 hour work shift, but rather look at your entire week (168 hours) and prioritize work, family, relationships and sleep in that time span. I wish I read this book when I was coming back from parental leave as time management is such a critical piece of working and having a young
Seven pieces of advice from my lived experience:
Make sure your job is worth coming back to – this really shifted into focus for me when I was coming back after maternity leave #1. I was leaving a baby behind to be cared for by someone else, giving up spending her preciously fleeting years so I could contribute to a corporation. It became more important than ever that my job was fulfilling and interesting.
My reality: When I came back, there was a big new project happening on a sister team that hadn’t been funded yet. Some may have thought that I wouldn’t want the extra work/challenge having just come back from leave, but my manager gave me this opportunity and let me decide if I wanted to jump into something new or stay put in a job I knew and understood. Ultimately, for me, I decided that the new problem space was more interesting and I was grateful that my team supported me and did not make assumptions on my behalf.
Make trade offs every day – As I dreamed of parenthood, I hoped that my children will grow up eating organic homemade baby food, wearing homemade Halloween costumes, speaking my native language, never watching TV, being avid readers by age of 3 (ok 4 at the latest), playing piano, dancing, and being great at team sports. I was going to wear make up every day, meal prep on Sundays, and work out 3-5 times a week. I look forward to meeting this person one day, but it’s certainly not me.
My reality: I make a 1,000 decisions every day (and sometimes I make a different one depending on the day). For example, there was a time when we prioritized Russian language (my aforementioned native language) in our household. We had a Russian nanny and she was able to teach our oldest Russian and I could amplify and support it. However, as our daughter grew older and our nanny changed, it took a huge toll for me to speak only Russian to her during the precious 3 hours of family time that we had together in the evenings. So I gave that up in favor of quality time as a family consciously making a heartbreaking decision that my grandparents will not be able to communicate effectively with my children.
On the smaller scale of tradeoffs, it turned out that you could buy organic baby food without making it, so that was a big plus and over the years, we’ve learned that TV is a tool for us and we use it as such as needed without guilt.
Accept that you will miss some things at home due to work – it is possible that you will not be there for your kids’ first step or their first tooth falling out if that happens during working hours or while you are on a work trip. It’s possible that your kid may spike a fever and you will have a caregiver hold them while you either finish out your day or scramble to get home. I recommend identifying and prioritizing key aspects of family life that you can plan for (take first day of school off so you don’t have to rush, agree on a family dinner (or breakfast schedule), and of course, try to make the time you have with your family as meaningful as possible.
My reality: I have been organizing a day of birthday activity for my oldest daughter for the last few years, which means I take her birthday day off, and do a special activity with her. The kids love it when I make crepes, so we often do that together on the weekends.
We also try to vacation during school holidays/breaks and maximize time together, but it doesn’t always work out perfectly. And we strive to have dinners together except on our respective nights’ out (more on that in a minute).
Scale with help – I cannot stress this enough – if you are going to be working full time and raising a family, you need to be able to scale. Whether it’s batch meal prep, hiring cleaners, outsourcing laundry – figure out what menial tasks you can give up (both physically and mentally) and then do it. By the way, that also means letting go of a certain amount of perfectionism - for me, that means laundry is not always folded following the Marie Kondo method and the dishwasher is loaded differently – if it’s done and I didn’t have to do it, it’s a win.
My reality: Over the years, in addition to childcare and cleaning, I have hired virtual personal assistants, personal shoppers (Trunk Club), meal prep help (Daily Harvest is our latest), and household managers. This still requires logistics management, as well as a good sense of humor for when kitchen cabinets getting re-arranged and you can’t find anything, but if you can sort that out, life gets easier.
Make time for yourself – “Happy wife, happy life” as the saying goes. The thing that I have realized over the years is that no one is going to help you prioritize time for yourself, so you have to work that in and figure out what “happy” means to you. It is not your partner’s job to make sure you worked out or planned a night out with a friend - it is your job to be in charge of your wellbeing. Lastly, I highly recommend this article: How Wednesday Nights Saved My Marriage, which suggests a regular night out every week (for each partner) - this is advice we adhere to pretty strictly in our household as well.
My reality: Every Sunday night, we look at our week ahead – at this time we go over workout schedules, night outs, pick ups/drop offs, dinner planning and kid activities that need to be managed. Every 3 months or so, we look ahead and discuss upcoming family travel, as well as individual travel (girls weekend, couple getaway) and get mutual agreement. Yes, this leads to a highly scheduled life, but if that means we get to be physically and mentally healthy as individuals as well as a family, I’ll schedule away.
Know when to work hard and when to work smart – before having a family, it was easy to work late, to procrastinate big projects and to lose focus - after all, you can always stay late in the office or come in on the weekend.
I have found that especially in the early days of parenting, it is pretty important to get super organized and figure out how to stay ahead of your day and preferably week. The sooner you can figure out how to be most efficient, rely on other people as needed and communicate your needs, the better off you’ll be.
My reality: After I had kids, I adjusted my work schedule (this is back when we worked in the office) - so I worked 9am-4pm (with 2 30 min pump breaks in between), then was completely offline until after bedtime. This meant that my time was a lot more precious – I went only to meetings I needed to go to, limited watercooler time and got back online in the evening to catch up as needed.
I had a manager for awhile who loved 4:30pm 1:1s – I was very clear with my challenges, so for awhile, we had our 1:1s in the evening. That was a tradeoff I was happy to make to protect my boundaries (and it didn’t last for very long as my schedule eventually shifted again). I also wrote down what I wanted to get done for every 2 week period – and ruthlessly prioritized that (I have carried this practice with me since then).
Life as a working parent is a marathon, not a sprint – The advice I’d give to a parent returning to work is to not get too committed to any routine/approach as things change quite quickly. I don’t know what the future holds as our children get deeper into school age, but I know that there will be a new set of logistics and demands on our time that will require a different balancing act than infants and toddlers did. If you are sleep deprived as you return to work, give yourself grace to lighten your load, go home early and recharge – I promise you will not be sleep deprived forever.
My reality: Just in the previous paragraph, I talked about having a 9-4pm schedule when I came back to work – well that all changed when we moved closer to work, when kids bedtimes moved from 6:30 to 8pm, when nanny hours changed and so on. While I couldn’t fathom traveling with a 5 month old at home, a year later, I looked forward to travelling periodically (I got 5 hours to myself on a plane!). Believe it or not, a week ago, I finished a 500 page novel over a weekend – not something I could have imagined even a year ago.
Summing it up
I am a firm believer that for me – working makes me a better parent, spouse and friend. I am grateful that my kids have two highly engaged parents in their lives and they see us balancing work and life together as a team. Is it perfect every time? No, it is not. But we lead a full life that is constantly keeping us on our toes in the best of ways.
Coda on privilege
We try to end most newsletter posts with a note on privilege and giving back. I reflect on how lucky and privileged I am to have choices – to work or stay at home as well as to hire help as needed to enable me. I deeply respect Mary’s Place in Seattle and Sophia Way in Bellevue for helping women get shelter and resources.