I was supposed to start a virtual writing intensive on the day Evie and I were released from the NICU. I emailed the teacher the day before, explaining that our daughter arrived three days early and that I would likely miss some of the class. I let her know that, if it was an imposition, I’d not come to the close-knit class so that I wouldn’t upset the flow she’d established.
Her response was not what I expected. “WELCOME EVIE! You are welcome in this space whenever and however it works for you.”
When I tell others that I was in a workshop and using my brain with so little sleep, I get comments on how I’m so “strong” and “brave.” I don’t know how true that is at all, but what I do know is that those two adjectives change by the day – no, the hour.
Dave and I started talking about our parental leave expectations as he accepted a new job this summer. We’ve been down this road before, and paternity leave five years ago was a different story. Dave started a new job and got a very generous leave, but wasn’t able to take any of it. His goals never shifted – the work still needed to be done. And so, he took four weeks at the top with more later sprinkled throughout the next six months, and I quietly – or maybe not so quietly – was bitter for a while. At first, I rationalized my emotions feeling like I was taking on all the work. I took on a bit, but not all, so that couldn’t have been it.
It wasn’t until we struck the conversation as he negotiated his new job package that I realized where my frustration bubbled up from. It wasn’t that I was doing all the work, but I wasn’t afforded the same time to do the things I wanted to do – one of them being work. (Keep in mind that my work is writing and reading and making all sorts of cool content. It often doesn’t feel like “work.”) We also knew that with his new job, there were some key moments after Evie was born that he’d have to finish up so he wouldn’t be truly “off.” I also had clients to move forward with and couldn’t totally be “off” either.
So what does a parental leave look like when you own your own business or work remotely? We had no clue.
I didn’t know what to tell clients about when I’d return, which made it even more complicated when Evie arrived early. There is no rule book for this. And now that the pandemic ushered in a new era of remote and hybrid work situations, the definition of leave is a little more complex for those of us who do find joy in work but can only do part-time for now. The Society for Human Resource Management documented how employers are leaning into flexible arrangements regarding pay and time off, but that’s only part of the equation. No one has it figured out. No one has a clearly set agenda of how to support birthing parents for a leave that benefits everyone, and a reentry that provides the social support each parent needs.
The rise of remote work is intrinsic to this struggle. With greater flexibility comes an internal nudge to check email or watch for Slack messages while the baby sleeps. Is there room for rest when the workplace is at my fingertips, when I can fire up a laptop while my baby is content sleeping in my arms? Should I sprinkle in work here and there simply because I can?
I’m a staunch supporter of paid family leave. We’re lucky in that we’re part of the 17% of civilian workers that have access to paid leave options, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. I advocate for expanding policies, and I long for the day that we don’t have to keep having the conversation about how women are often disadvantaged when it comes to family care. For Brendan, I took 10 months off and didn’t look for more clients for my own mental health. So imagine my surprise when, three weeks in, I’m sitting at a brewery with Dave, still stewing in a bit of frustration that he was working so much, and finally admitted what I needed.
“I think… I think I want to go back to client work soon, even if it’s only part-time. And I have no idea what that looks like.” What I really believed is that there’s no blueprint.
Sure, there’s a desire to support my family and not let clients down. But this was a more profound shift for me in that I’d envisioned I’d take five months to do nothing else than support my family. What I found is that I wanted to do more for myself on terms that eased back into as much of a balance as we can muster.
And if I’m really honest, I’m scared about what people will think about my choice, whether they feel free to share it with me or not. I’m sure well-meaning comments like “you should spend the time with your baby” and “you’ll never get this time back” will be abundant. Yet, if there’s anything I learned with an extended battle with postpartum depression the first time around, it’s that I have to be true to what my body is telling me and I also can always ask for help. My path doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
So, I’m dipping my toe back into work to see if the water temperature is warm. I’ll lean on my boundaries and gut-check my work at every step. If it doesn’t work, we’ll pivot and adjust. It’s not a superhuman act, just one decision that feels right even though it wasn’t what I expected.