The ups and downs of parental leave in a pandemic

COVID-19 has affected the traditional parental leave experience and altered the path to returning to work. Here, we speak to three mothers living in Melbourne, Australia, navigating parental leave in a pandemic. Their first lockdown began in March 2020; restrictions were lifted briefly before a second, tougher lockdown was imposed on July 9 (and is still ongoing at time of publication). Their stories bring to life the fact that we are all in this together – but that every experience is unique. 

The coronavirus pandemic has tried and tested families in extraordinary ways. Having shaken up the way we live and work, freedoms we once took for granted now feel so fragile. The ability to do ‘normal’ things like hug someone, go to work, take our children to the park, or visit relatives has been restricted in some form or another.    

Then there’s the impact on significant life events. Weddings have been postponed, university students have graduated virtually, pregnant mothers have had their first baby scan alone, and grandparents have had to wait months to cuddle their first grandchild. Limits on physical interaction have put milestones on hold or bent them completely out of shape. 

Parental leave in 2020 had the potential to be an exceptionally lonely experience. The first weeks and months after having a baby are a unique, intense time. For many mothers, it’s a ‘protected’ space where they can step away from work to focus on their family and the huge adjustment of their new role as a parent. It’s also a time where new friendships and social lives are formed as ‘life with baby’ becomes the norm. Here are their stories.

Helen*, teacher, mother to Mae, three, and Ryan, eight months. Helen is due to return to work in February 2021

As this was my second round of parental leave, I was hoping for a less stressful experience, not worrying about the things you do as a first-time parent. Things like calling the doctor to see if it’s safe to give my child Panadol for toothache! I was in a unique situation where my close friends all had babies at the same time so I imagined trips to the park, swimming classes, playgroups, and wine time. I imagined a community. I also thought I was going to be in a comfortable position financially. I didn’t expect to be worrying about money or job security – but I am.

I took 16 months parental leave from teaching English language at university because I thought I would have my casual job – marking exam papers – to fall back on if we needed more income. But that has stopped, because when you’re talking about venues that would normally seat thousands of students, you can’t set exams when social distancing. 

I can’t wait to work again. I’m looking forward to resuming my marking job because that’s done at home, and I can be around the kids. But I’m nervous about going back to the classroom because of the health perspective, and the hours. I don’t even know what job I’m going back to. For a start, there is no ‘school’ anymore. Like many businesses, my university has had to adapt. It’s all gone online. A lot of our overseas students went home as soon as the pandemic struck so, to accommodate time zones, classes start at 1.30pm and finish at 6.30pm. With two young kids, it’s impossible for me to work that late. 

This time last year, my university language centre had over 300 international students. Now we have 70, so I expect to eventually be made redundant. Casualisation of the teacher workforce means that if I lose this job, the work available to me would probably be emergency teaching. But for those jobs you get a call at seven in the morning and are expected to be in class at nine. I need guaranteed hours, but as a casual, I couldn’t get that. You might get three shifts one week and two the next. How can you be so casual when you have kids in childcare? So with the pandemic the way it is, if I get made redundant, I genuinely don’t think I’ll be teaching again in a classroom before my children are at school in four to five years. 

There have been some positives to parental leave during a pandemic. I got to spend almost three months at home with my husband, Thomas, who was furloughed from his job, so he was able to help. He got to see firsts. He helped with the baby at night, so I got more sleep. In fact this time round, he’s probably done more night shifts than I have! 

Kimmie Cullen, talent acquisition specialist at ME Bank, mother to Marlow, nine months. Kimmie is returning to work in four weeks. 

Prior to taking parental leave, I thought I would mostly be at home for the first few months with Marlow, getting used to each other. My partner, Andy, was working a lot so it was tough being alone with the baby. But I imagined that by now we’d be enjoying play dates, going to parks, swimming, or catching up with my friends and their babies on a weekly basis. I’d hoped to go away camping. I wanted to take advantage of weekdays in art galleries in Melbourne. I loved the idea of jumping on a train with the baby, going to the city – not just doing things for Marlow, but things for me. 

Our lockdown started when Marlow was five months old. He hasn’t spent time with his cousins, and we cancelled going back to my native New Zealand to see my parents. That was heartbreaking. 

As I am going back to work in less than a month, I feel a little cheated. Doing all those activities was meant to be an achievement. 

It’s interesting, though, because at the same time I feel privileged because I’ve had the opportunity to stay home. Andy would usually have been working six days or evenings a week, but because of the pandemic he’s been home all the time, which has meant I haven’t got bored during parental leave. The stuff I would have done during the day to entertain myself I haven’t needed to do. I’ve had adult conversation! 

The other upside is, Marlow has had two primary carers. When does that happen? That’s pretty cool. We lost finances but what we gained was so much more from a family perspective. I feel a little weird saying that because this pandemic has affected other people so much. 

We lost finances but what we gained was so much more from a family perspective.

The return to work is not what I expected either. Having another adult around means I don’t feel like I need to ‘reactivate’ my brain by going to work. But the other things you look forward to – getting out of the house, having a break – I won’t be doing those. I’ve been stuck here for what will be 12 months. My colleagues are still working from home, so I’ll be sent a laptop and I’ll just switch it on and go. It’ll be exactly the same as any other day at home, except I will work on my laptop. There’s no thinking about how to drop Marlow off at childcare, no planning the timings – all that anxiety is gone, but that’s also part of the journey of returning to work. That new outfit you look forward to buying, I don’t need it. I was looking forward to going for a haircut while Marlow was having his childcare orientation, but now that won’t happen. The ritual of that transition is missing.  

One thing I’m doing to combat that is setting up my office in the studio at the back of the house. I will get up, shower and put on makeup, to make it a ‘thing’. 

I do worry about when Marlow eventually goes to childcare. He hasn’t been around other adults. He only knows us and the fish. How will this affect him? 


Tanya Neary, People Geek & Sales Director AsiaPAC at Culture Amp, mother of Quinn, eight months. Tanya returned to work four days a week in June 2020, before increasing to full-time in July. 

Quinn was born during the bushfire crisis. I remember being really stressed taking her home from hospital because Melbourne was 40 degrees. We didn’t have air conditioning in her room, only a fan, and I remember feeling like this was going to be the most stressful thing of the year!

When thinking about parental leave, I wanted my husband, Jake, to have the same experience as me and perhaps take the same amount of time off work, but we couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen. We knew it was an indulgent aspiration but assumed we could adjust our budget if we needed to. 

Jake worked for the first five months after Quinn was born but just before COVID hit, he was made redundant from his job in marketing. It made the decision for us, because deep down I’m not sure if he really would have felt confident giving up his job to be primary carer.

All in, I think it was a good thing as it gave us peace of mind. I think I would have been a wreck putting Quinn into childcare at six months. Without COVID I may have extended my leave, but with Jake’s redundancy I had to go back at 5.5 months. That’s just how it was.  

Working at Culture Amp, the great thing was I had support. Lockdown was a relief from a go-back-to-work experience. I didn’t have to worry about expressing milk, or the logistics of leaving the house, getting to work, meetings, running around. From that side, it was really great. I could have a shower, put on some comfy bottoms and a business top, and connect with my team online. 

I had been told I didn’t have to go back full-time, but that choice was taken away. We were down to one salary. I might have been able to have a softer landing otherwise, but I was trying to look out for our finances. 

On my return, I felt very welcomed but upside down, and I didn’t realise how much it would impact me going from playing with Quinn all day to back-to-back meetings, four days a week – even though we were still in the house. That first week back was overwhelming, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Even though I could see Quinn all day, I was still mourning. 

Jake said, “How can you sit in the middle of the living room with us playing here, and still work?” But I told him, “This is the new world of work”. I was very much encouraged by my workmates that kids could be visible on Zoom calls. So I had no fear. I used to be the ‘professional career person’ who thought that that was taboo, but parental leave coupled with COVID took that all away. Instead of me going back and feeling like a fish out of water, we were all fish out of water. The team encouraged me to bring Quinn along to our virtual meetings. Clients were immediately understanding if I had to feed.

That part I loved so much: people knowing that when I turn off my camera I’m feeding my baby – and that’s okay.

The great thing about my parental leave was I didn’t have to be anywhere at any time. It was the biggest luxury. There was no guilt about having to be out and about. Part of me craved that, but part of me was like, “I don’t have to dress her a certain way, or do certain things”. Lockdown removed that and let me focus on hanging with my baby – looking at her, playing with her. It kept it simple. 

As someone who was really busy and thrived on doing stuff all the time, I surprised myself with not minding that I could batten down the hatches. As long as I could get out and have a walk each day. However hard it was, when Quinn has grown up, I will 100% look back and love the fact that we were in this bubble and it was just us. 

Written by Tan Allaway, Head of Content at Circle In.

*Name has been changed

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