Parental Leave Guide for Parents

I went back to work after being out for six months. A lot of things stayed the same, but a lot of things changed, including how I felt about myself. This post details my experience as well as a number of tips that a returning parent your return easier. If this sounds familiar, I was fortunate to speak on this topic at Lead Developer Austin in November 2019, and you can also watch the 10-minute presentation version of this information. 10 minutes is a very short period of time, so please consider this the extended “Everything you need to know about managing your parental leave” version. There’s plenty to say about supporting parents on parental leave, but that’s outside the scope of this post.

Before Parental Leave Begins

There is a lot to do before going out on leave, and this can be one of the most stressful, uncertain times for everyone involved. With these tips, hopefully you can mitigate some of that uncertainty with a clear plan.

Write Me Up Before You Go Go

At the moment where I was about to go out on leave, I was a senior engineering manager overseeing around 20 people who needed someone to help them – directly or indirectly – to go through our end of year planning process and performance reviews, along with the day to day project management and individual concerns. I began to chart all of this out in a parental leave document.

A parental leave document is a tremendously valuable tool for defining and sharing your coverage plan, whether it’s simple or complex.

What Goes in the Plan

  • Your Communications Plan
    • Who will make birth announcements? (is it you, or your boss?)
    • For what topics would you like to be notified? (organizational changes? compensation changes? company direction changes? All, some, or none are great choices)
  • Your Anticipated Schedule
    • When are you leaving? (in my experience, folks set this date too close to their due date and have surprise exits days or weeks earlier than anticipated; I suggest being fully ready 2-3 weeks in advance of the due date, regardless)
    • When are you thinking about coming back? (this is not a firm commitment)
    • Any other important dates, like expected travel or other time off soon after your expected return to help folks plan for team off-sites, etc.
  • Delegates and Responsibilities
    • If you do not have any reports, this section might only include a project hand-off or it might be entirely blank. That’s fine!
    • If you have a simple “this one person will handle everything,” this is the best situation and I recommend it.
    • If things get more complex, feel free to be creative. I ended up with a responsibility/delegate matrix due to some complications. Here’s an example of dividing team responsibilities (perhaps with differing domains or organizational ties) between two managers and a technical lead.
An example responsibility / delegate matrix table.

If you do end up with a table, I also recommend a secondary layout that may help some folks read through it, e.g.:

  • [My Manager]: Team 1 Approvals and Career Talks/Performance Reviews
  • [Tech Lead]: Team 1 Project Management
  • [Other Manager]: Everything for teams 2 and 3

Bonus: Include your to-do list of any documentation you need to write, projects you need to hand-off, decisions that you need to make so that those items can be included in discussions with folks before you go.

What to Leave Out

Generally speaking, don’t worry about making a plan for your return just yet. Your team or the company may shift priorities while you are out, and that is OK. Although your manager may not be able to guarantee that you will return to the exact same position, you may have legal protections (such as the Family Medical Leave Act in the US, or state laws such as the California Family Rights Act). You should talk to your manager if you have concerns about your placement upon your return, but trying to build a highly precise plan before you go out will likely lead to disappointment.

Share Your Plan

You should share this plan with every delegate named, your manager, and your teams to make sure that you aren’t forgetting anything, and you should do this at least two months before you expect to leave to ensure that it is completed. Once you’ve finalized it, share it with your partners and other teams – for example, other managers, your human resources business partner, etc. Adding it to your e-mail signature is a nice way to raise visibility, and you should add it to your out-of-office vacation response (which you should write in advance so that it’s ready to turn on when the big day comes).

Figure Out Your Support Network

You’ll probably want someone to talk to before you go out, and while you’re out, and when you’re coming back, and after you’re back. If you don’t already know who those people are, now is the time to figure it out. Here are some folks to consider:

  • Teammates who have also gone through parental leave,
  • Other company folks who’ve gone through parental leave (ask HR if you’re not sure who those folks are),
  • Your Parents Employee Resource Group, if your company has one,
  • Your friends who have kids,
  • People in that #parents channel on the work slack,
  • People in that #parents channel on your other industry slacks,
  • Strangers on the internet like me

When Parental Leave Starts

Because you’ve already worked out your coverage plan, this is the quick and easy “put the plan into action” time.

Let your manager (and HR, if applicable) know that your leave is beginning. This can be as simple as an e-mail (which you can pre-draft) while you’re waiting in the hospital.

If you wanted to send out an announcement e-mail, send that at your leisure.

Turn on your e-mail auto-responder, and consider disabling e-mail notifications.

Consider uninstalling work messaging from your phone and computer; you have other, more important things and people to focus on for a while!

That’s it; your work time is over and you can focus on your family.

Before Returning from Leave

Can I Still Be Successful?

The month before going back to work was one of the most stressful times for me. When my leave started, I did not have time to think about what I was missing back at work. Going back to work, though, I had plenty of time to think about changing my daily routine with my spouse and kids. I felt like I was good at doing that job, and had lots of frequent feedback: thanks for making dinner or for handling my son’s daycare transportation, bath, etc. My son hugged me and told me he was happy to see me. My new daughter smiled at me while I was changing her diaper or clothes. There are all of these little things that just feel good that make it easy to paper over the hard parts: everyone screaming, everyone tired, and running late to absolutely everything.

With the prospect of heading back to work, I wondered how successful I would be. My job as a manager is largely talking to adults about adult issues and project management. For my entire leave, my only adult conversations were about kids, movies and television, or home renovation. The problems were mostly simple or unsolvable. Our projects could be simplified down to whether or not to fix something broken in the house now or later. When would we begin sleep training our daughter? When would we start on solid foods? While these problems are easy to obsess over, because we’d previously gone through them with my son, they didn’t require as much mental effort.

Trying to merge my work and home problem-solving skills, I thought about putting my daughter on a performance improvement plan to get her to sleep more soundly through the night. I couldn’t get it past HR (aka my wife).

Baby’s first performance improvement plan, rejected by HR

I helped my daughter reach her first half birthday, but it’s hard to attribute that to mindful goal-setting and coaching. I was scared that I’d let my management skills atrophy and that I’d be a big mess going back. I had a lot of questions.

Would I remember anyone’s name?

Would they remember me?

Would I still be on the same team and know how to solve their types of problems?

Am I still competent?

Am I still relevant?

I mentally prepared myself for getting back to work. While I was out, the company re-organized and went through a performance review cycle, so I reached out to my new boss. I wanted to discuss my performance review and start to gather shared expectations. This was absolutely the right move and helped clear up some of my concerns.

I heard my performance review, including compensation changes. I learned which team I’d be starting back with, and shared my expectations around picking up additional responsibilities eventually. I learned about the kinds of challenges my new boss and old team were facing and realized that my experience was still relevant. We discussed my start date, which remained somewhat ambiguous, and then I went back to playing with my daughter, a little bit more ready for my first day back.

Change Can Be Hard

For parents, the transition back to work can be very difficult. Going back to work means spending less time with your family, whether you’re sending your kid to daycare, to a nanny, or just closing your in-home office door. This can trigger discussions with your partner and yourself about the trade-offs of going to work or staying at home. If you stay at home, you may feel societal pressures about “just” being a stay-at-home parent (despite the fact that this is a demanding and difficult job). If you go back to work, you may feel some degree of guilt: according to Pew in 2015, in households with two working parents, 50% of dads and 39% of moms felt they spent too little time with their kids.

On top of the stress of changing your day-to-day role, and being away from your children, you now have to learn everything that’s changed at work. It’s a lot to get through! Thankfully, there are a few key things you can do to make your life a little bit less stressful.

Let it Go

In the days and weeks before you head back to work, there is so much that is uncertain. Your success is like Schrödinger’s cat but you can’t even open the box until you actually go back to work. This is easier for me to write than it is to practice, but you can’t predict the future, so you have three options:

  1. Let the stress consume you such that you’re not enjoying your time with your family,
  2. Ask as many questions as possible to gain a little more certainty, and/or,
  3. Acknowledge that you’re living in an uncertain time and try to spend your energy on other things.

I highly recommend a combination of options 2 and 3.

What’s Your Return Look Like?

You should think about what your return looks like. Are you going straight into a 40ish-hour work week? Some folks, including Tara Feener, recommend starting on a Friday and considering a partial ramp-up, like 2-3 days your first full week, ramping up to a regular full week schedule. Unless your morning and afternoon commutes are already locked down, plan on experimenting in your first few weeks to figure out what time you can begin working and what time you’ll need to head home. This is a great topic to discuss with your manager so that they share your expectations. I tend to start my workday around 8am and end around 4:30pm with Slack/e-mail on my hour commutes, but six months ago I started later and came home later.

Back to Work!

Prepare to Know Nothing, Jon Snow

It’s going to take some time to re-acclimate and get used to everything again. Expect that. You can treat this like a new job, even if you are going back to the same team and working on the same (perhaps very large) project. When you start a new job, it’s a good idea to prepare something akin to a 30-60-90 day plan. Here is what I suggest for someone – especially a manager – going back to work.

The first couple of weeks

  • Meet with everyone on the team. You want to know them as individuals and how they fit into the team right now. If you knew them before, what’s changed? Regardless, what are they excited about? What’s troubling them? How can you help?
  • Get to know your team’s domain again. What shipped while you were out? What are you working on now? What are you hoping to do next? What did your team decide not to do while you were out, and why?
  • Get to know your team’s practices again. When are they meeting, for what purpose, and is it working? Don’t worry about making changes yet, you’re still in learning mode.
  • Experiment with your work schedule — things have likely changed with regards to getting out the door in the morning and getting home at night. Be open about this with your team so that they understand your obligations and also know that it’s safe for them to be a parent at work, too.

The next few weeks

  • Meet with people outside of your immediate team. Your peers, tangential stakeholders, other leaders at your manager’s level. How has your time away been for them, and what are they excited about now? Are there opportunities for you to help?
  • You can begin offering observations back to your team now that you’ve likely learned the full context around what led them to the status quo. That meeting doesn’t seem to be achieving our goals, what do you think about doing this instead?
  • Did you delegate anything away that needs to come back to you? Now’s a good time to start taking it back.

Your second month, give or take

  • You’re likely back to business as usual and can be relied upon for your usual duties.
  • Now’s also around the time that you’re likely to find other opportunities to help – your team has some gaps that you can finally see, other teams need your assistance, there’s something new to tackle at an organizational level. Your manager will have ideas about how you can help them once you’ve ramped back up.

Share this plan with your manager, your teammates, your peers. Let them know what to expect and what you expect. It’ll make your transition much easier.

It’s OK to Feel Like This

a seated baby with head thrown back and arms up having a bad day
You might feel like this on your way back to work. It’s OK.

It’s going to take time to get back to normal, and it’s totally normal to forget the names of teams, projects, people – even people you really like! It’s normal for it to be challenging to speak coherently at first. In my first 1-1 with dozens of people, I found myself struggling to find the words to convey my meaning. The easiest way through this embarrassment is to own it, let the other person know what’s happening in your brain, and then try to work through it. You’re not the exactly same person who left, however many months ago, and there’s no need to pretend that you are. The folks you’re speaking with grew and changed, too.

It’s also normal to feel weird. Or incompetent. Or to not know what you’re doing. To have extreme imposter syndrome, and mental and physical exhaustion. I felt all of those things for a few weeks before and a few weeks after I went back to work.

Go back to your support network. They will be your biggest asset right now. Talk to them about how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your day. Those moments when someone asked you to do something and you lacked clarity but you didn’t feel like you could ask for more information? They’ll remind you that you can and totally should ask for more information. Talk to them every day. Slack is fine. A group text is fine. Twitter is fine. Get a coffee or lunch with them. Whatever it takes to feel seen and like you’ll make it to next week.

Find tiny opportunities to be helpful. Those moments will feed you each day until you feel ready to take on bigger challenges.

In Summary

Parental Leave is an amazing opportunity to connect with your family, and there are great benefits to employers and teammates as well: longer retention for employers, and opportunities to step up and take on new responsibilities for your teammates. You can have a successful leave and be helpful your team, before, during, and after you come back.

Remember that regardless of your anxiety around re-starting your job, you can do this! You’re not incompetent, and your skills are standing by, waiting for you to practice them again. Lean on your support network when you’re feeling low.

If you’d like all of these tips in a summarized one-pager, you can find them here.

You got this.

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