Amy Craddock’s parental leave was all planned out; until the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Amy reflects on what it’s like to experience parental leave as a first-time parent during a pandemic, and some invaluable advice how we can help a parent returning to work during uncertain times.
First up, this is no pity party!
I am well aware of my privileges. My partner, Josh, and I gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Minnie, in October 2019 and are lucky to have a lovely home in Melbourne. I have also been fortunate to spend the vast majority of Minnie’s first year at home. I am cognisant there are individuals and families who have had their lives change as a result of COVID; lost loved ones, livelihoods decimated. The experience I have had bears no comparison, and this article is not meant to elicit sympathy. Instead, I’d like to give some context and outline some things that may make a parent’s return to work a little smoother.
Empathy, a kind ear and understanding are now more important than ever
When I went on parental leave at the end of September, I spent my days, like most primary caregivers (with their first baby at least, when naivety is at its peak!), looking forward to walks in the sunshine with my pram, meeting new parents, drinking tea, and taking my baby to sensory and music class. We had planned holidays – I would travel back and forth to Sydney to spend time with my sister, and fly to the UK to introduce my new addition to family and friends. I also recall thinking how I would do baby Pilates and yoga, and probably hire a personal trainer to get back in shape… I know, no clue.
I should have known we were in for a bumpy ride when the bushfires spread around the country at the end of 2019, and my parents’ group got cancelled, as most deemed it too high-risk to take our babies out in the haze.
Fast forward to the end of March and the first lockdown: all baby classes cancelled, maternal health check-ins via phone, no meeting up with friends, weighing up whether to stay home or brave the supermarket with a young baby to get supplies, worried about going to the GP, wondering whether to keep baby inside or leave the house to vaccinate.
Despite all this, the novelty of parental leave hadn’t yet worn off and I kept relatively positive. Wine Zooms with my parents’ group, trying local restaurants for take out; there was a sense of us being in it together. And the fact that Australia was by all accounts ‘flattening the curve’, initial concern was replaced by a ‘just get on with it’ attitude. Josh was at home and he got extra time with Minnie that was unexpected, so everything was pretty good… right?
On reflection, wrong. Across the two lockdowns (and by the way, the second lockdown we are currently experiencing in Melbourne is significantly psychologically harder than the first), a number of things came up for me:
- Nobody really knows my child.
- I mourn the things I can’t do with my baby.
- Meeting a girlfriend for a coffee has never felt like such a luxury.
- It’s lonely and isolating.
- My baby only speaks to her grandparents over FaceTime.
- I have very little support – I haven’t had so much as a couple of hours to myself. Where’s my village people keep talking about?
- My baby doesn’t know any other adults and hasn’t been left alone with anyone other than her parents.
- I feel cheated out of the parental leave everyone else got.
- Is my baby going to be impacted socially having not spent any time with other babies?
- When outside, my baby only sees people wearing masks.
- I feel guilty for bringing my baby into this world.
Oh, and all of this was felt whilst being highly sleep deprived, which only serves to heighten self-doubt.
Whilst the first year with your baby is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and wonderful experiences, it can also be gruelling, isolating and lonely. With COVID, all support systems have been removed. So much postpartum advice includes getting outside with your baby, spending time with other new parents and asking for and accepting help, all of which is almost impossible here in Victoria and in other parts of the world.
So how can we all help a parent returning to work during this time?
Returning to work post-baby is a challenging time regardless of a pandemic: grappling with identity, finding the right childcare, juggling logistics, dealing with competing priorities and general feelings of parental guilt. We can all offer support to friends and colleagues who find themselves in this position.
Here are a few ideas on how you can assist the transition:
- Be kind and give them time to re-integrate. Yes, they are lucky to have a job and, yes, they know they likely need to get up to speed to an entirely new way of working, but please acknowledge that not being ‘at work’ through the past few months does not make them ‘more fortunate’. They have been working (24/7), raising a tiny human during a highly challenging time, likely with limited support. Give them an elbow bump or a virtual hug! It is likely they also felt anxious about whatever changes were happening to the business and that they were disconnected from their colleagues.
- Call them. Many will be restarting work from a home office (or kitchen, like me!). It’s isolating for most. Tell them how you’ve coped, what’s worked and what hasn’t. Give them a helping hand.
- Listen and empathise. Depending on their experience, they may feel resentful of a lost parental leave. This is a valid emotion. Don’t dismiss it.
- Utilise their skills whilst supporting and encouraging them. Chances are you have a resilient, resourceful, productive and expert multitasker returning to work.
I consider myself lucky…
I had my baby, met local parents and had my mum and dad visit from the UK all before COVID restrictions started. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have formed friendships with new parents who have at times been my whole support system (via WhatsApp!) – a luxury I know parents who had their babies just six months later won’t have had. I have girlfriends who cancelled baby showers, had to prepare to give birth not knowing if their partner could be in the hospital. Some have had to have virtual parents’ groups, others haven’t been able to have the support of face-to-face specialists that are so incredibly important for the postpartum mother. I worry about the impact the lack of physical support is having on parents who are suffering from postpartum depression, or the number of babies who are being misdiagnosed as a result of not having face-to-face examinations by maternal health professionals.
The reality is this is not an easy period of time for anyone, no matter your circumstances: live alone, parents to children who are remote learning, Year 12 students, business owners, single parents, frontline workers, immunosuppressed, relatives in aged care. So much of what is happening is out of our control, but being a decent human being who stops, listens and empathises goes a long way. Be kind to yourself and others, don’t judge, and don’t pretend to know what another is going through. It may be science that gets us out of this, but humanity and respect for each other will get us through it.
Written by Amy Craddock. Amy is a Senior Manager at PwC Australia and leads the national events and integrated marketing function. Originally hailing from the UK, she has worked across the globe delivering large scale events, experiences and activations. She currently lives in Melbourne with her fiance, Josh, and daughter, Minnie. Originally published at LinkedIn.