When we learned our family was about to grow, I felt happy and at the same time uncertain what this would mean for my career. I am kind of a perfectionist, so looking at these superhero celebrity mums in the media made me worry whether I could live up to the expectations. I thought that all I had to do was work hard enough and everything would continue as it was, just with a baby in addition. All of you who have kids know that this must have been the pregnancy hormones speaking. Truth is, things change, especially when you don’t have the cooks, nannies or personal assistants to lead that glossy superhero lifestyle. I needed to get real…which brings me to my first learning:
It’s not only about you
“Be honest about what you and your partner want from career and life.”
In many families the division of childcare might be clear but for many tough questions need to be asked. Who will stay home at the beginning? Will you both work full-time after a while? Who will be there when the kid gets sick, needs to be driven to playdates? I have witnessed discussions where couples argue about whose meetings are “more important” and who needs to pick up the child. One usually gives in more often than the other, resulting in frustration. Once you are clear about who does what it will make life much easier in the long run.
Your happiness could be someone else’s extra hours.
After the initial excitement in the office about a new pregnancy, worry can creep up on colleagues who start to imagine the extra work that may come their way. It could be tough to find a temporary replacement when you leave, so try and put yourself into their shoes: presenting them with a plan how your tasks could be split up and your return plan.
“Forward thinking is important if you don’t want to end up in a ‘parking position’ job once you return.”
It’s complicated, but it works
Recognizing these two issues strongly influenced my decisions. In our case, I was working on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa and our son was due in December 2009. I had put so much work into that project that I wanted to see it through.
Hence, I enjoyed eight weeks with our newborn and then went back to work, but not without pangs of guilt. My husband looked after the baby until the World Cup was over and then we swapped roles again and I took a year off to spend quality time at home. After that year, we found a daycare spot; I went back to work full-time and my husband switched to part-time. I usually drop our son off in the morning and my husband picks him up. I try to leave work early two days a week to spend time with our son and log on from home when he is in bed to finish up any tasks I have to do.
“Many people think that’s a complicated lifestyle, but it works for us. The most important thing is that you and your loved ones are happy and that you have an employer and manager who give you the flexibility to balance family and career.”
Keep in touch and stay informed
Speaking of closed, you might have decided to take some time off for a while, but closing down all lines of communication is a risky thing if you want to continue driving your career once you are back. During my parental leave, we restructured parts of the company and introduced a new strategy. Quite a change to stomach if taken by surprise! The first days back at work are hard enough, so I figured that staying informed while I was away was better than digging through a huge pile of information upon my return. Simple things like a coffee with colleagues, attending the annual kick-off, reading our news, kept me in the loop.
Shaking off the little devil
The fact that I still knew what was going on made my re-entry a lot smoother. What was hard was to draw a clear line between work and family. Often when I could collect our son early my smartphone was too tempting. I told myself that it took “just” a minute to type up a mail or call someone. Still, it made me feel uncomfortable, because I was giving him fake time: time yes, but not my full attention. In hindsight, I guess I did that because deep down the little perfectionist devil was on my shoulder and whispering in my ear: “Come on, show them that you can do it all. Family or not, there’s no difference.” Now, when I leave the office to pick up my son, I ask only to be called in urgent cases. My smartphone stays in my pocket and I fully enjoy our time together.