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How I’ve stayed engaged with my career while on maternity leave

I’m 3 months in to my second maternity leave. I’m quite surprised that I’ve made it this far. I returned to work just 2 weeks after my first baby was born. But this time around I knew that I didn’t want to go back straight away.

After my daughter was born work kept me busy and solved my identity crisis. Or maybe more accurately, avoided my identity crisis. But once I dove back in that was it. There was no getting out. I was accountable to colleagues, clients, my boss, myself. I had to be “on”. And being “on” all the time with a brand new baby, especially a first baby, is exhausting.

There’s not much time for exhaustion with a baby and a 3 year old. When your daughter wants you to read books and play make-believe with her teddys, you have to get on with it. Tired or otherwise.
So I decided to take some time off, but I knew also knew I’d need to keep my brain busy, so to speak.

Instead of returning to work, I’ve spent a lot of time “keeping in touch”.
Here are some of the ways that I’ve stayed engaged with my career while I’ve been on leave.

1. Making myself available by email and phone

Before I went on leave I made sure to let my colleagues know they could contact me if they had any questions.

Ok, I’ll be honest, it was more of a “please call me” than an “I’ll be available.” If you’ve ever spent a day alone with young children you’ll understand the despair for adult conversation.

They’ve rarely taken me up on this, but every now and then I’ve had an email or phone call asking for my opinion or advice. Nothing too onerous, but enough to remind me of what goes on around there.

Also enough to remind me that my brain is still good for something other than recalling the words to Frozen’s “Let it go.” (Yes, we’re slow to catch on around here.)

2. Joining meetings (but not all of them!)

It’s nice to forget about the day-to-day for a while. I don’t miss the “ding” of incoming emails or the never-ending ringing of the phone. But it is also nice to be involved in the big picture stuff. I’ve made an effort to take part in the important meetings.

How does this look?

Sometimes it has meant Harry and I going to the office to join a meeting in person. Sometimes it’s sending my comments to someone else before or after the meeting. Sometimes it has meant a phone call with my boss after the kids’ bedtime when it was easiest for me to talk.

3. Interviewing our new staff

After I went on leave my team got busy. Really busy. It was tempting to offer to help by taking on some work. Instead, I put my hand up to organise the recruitment campaign.

I read the applications at home, fitting them in between breastfeeds, dance parties and jigsaw puzzles. My husband took Harry for a walk while I did the phone interviews. Two of my colleagues did first round interviews. Then Harry joined me to meet our final pool for the last interview.

4. Upskilling

One of the projects I set for myself during my leave was to learn new skills in design. Even though I’ve been “designing” services for years, I’ve never done any training in design.

How has this looked?

  • I’ve enrolled in online courses through Coursera and IDEO U. The courses are self-paced and completely online so I can do them at my leisure. We all know this really means I can do them when it suits my baby, but let me pretend I’m in control.
  • I joined the Service Design Perth meetup and Harry and I went along to their workshop. I breastfed him at the start, popped him in the wrap and he slept while I did my thing with post-it notes.
  • Reading books, e-books, articles, blog posts, twitter feeds, status updates … you name it. Many of these have kept me occupied during those late night feeds.
  • Listening to podcasts. My favourite way to learn information. Best of all, I can have them on in the background while bouncing Harry to sleep or playing with toy animals and pretending to be a lion.

5. Writing

Listeners of The Juggle Podcast will know that Jo and I are writing our book about managing the juggle. You’ll have heard me declare that I was going to write my part of the first draft before Harry was born. You’ll also know that that didn’t happen.

But there has been plenty of time for writing since his arrival. We are well on our way with writing our book. It’s been a lot of fun. So much so that I have even started writing another book. But I’m not ready to share about that yet…

6. Being social on social media

Are you social on social media? Or do you lurk around in the comments section, keeping your thoughts and opinions to yourself?

I’m usually in that second gang.

But remember that exhaustion I was talking about? Come 7:30PM that exhaustion has well and truly hit. This means that while my colleagues are out networking, I’m tucked up in bed. Usually with a baby or toddler. Or both.

I can make early morning and day-time work with a baby, but evenings aren’t for me. Come 7:30pm I’m ready for bed.

So I’m replacing that face-to-face with thumb-to-screen.

Let’s be honest, when have I ever been this active on LinkedIn? I’m loving it. I’ve made time to engage with my colleagues, have built some wonderful relationships and have learned a lot. All while snuggling my tiny baby.

7. “Actual” work

Like I said before, I’ve kept my client work to a minimum. I don’t want to open the can of worms that is client expectations. As soon as I do I will have to check my emails regularly, answer the phone and get stuff done on other people’s timeframes. I’m not ready for that just yet.

8. The Juggle Podcast

We’re not called “The Juggle” for nothing. I’ve literally been juggling my baby and the mic as we’ve interviewed guests and recorded shows for the podcast.

Jo and I presented our keynote “How to Manage The Juggle” for The Tax Institute’s Women in Tax event when Harry was 6 weeks old. He joined us for that too.

Yes, we practice what we preach.

Can I just “keep in touch” forever?

I’m enjoying floating between mum life and professional life as and when suits me. But I also miss the structure of work. I enjoy working with people and working only when it suits me means I am often working alone.

There’s also that thing called money. It helps to earn it. Especially when you have a family to look after. I’ll return to work on a more structured basis in July, but Harry will come with me while he is breastfeeding.

Think twice before you open the can of worms …

If you’re thinking about cutting your maternity leave short, see if you can up the ante on staying engaged first. Once you open that can of worms there’s no going back.

Are there any projects that you’ve always wanted to work on but never seem to find the time? Are there conferences or workshops that you’d really like to attend? What about books you want to read? There are so many ways to stay engaged but keep the ultimate flexibility that comes from being on leave. Not to mention all the new skills and ideas you can learn and take with you when you go back.

Living the laptop lifestyle is good fun. Shame I’m not making any money from it!

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