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Why you shouldn’t take parental leave from volunteering

At Circle In, we talk a lot about our different journeys of expecting a baby, parental leave, and returning to paid work. We all get the myriad of challenges along the way, but holding a volunteer position on parental leave isn’t usually on our radar. Most of us are just flat out coping with home, family, health, relationships, and keeping in touch with our workplace. There’s not much time left to volunteer at the school reading program or swimming club, let alone being an unpaid hospital board member. For most, there just isn’t enough time or energy to volunteer. But Nancy Panter recommends thinking again. 

As vice-chairperson of her local hospital, Nancy Panter would describe herself as “a volunteer kind of girl”. She says that, when pregnant with her first child, her “first instinct was to take parental leave from [her] job and unpaid board position”. However, she changed her mind and stuck with her volunteer role. She now says this was one of the best decisions she made. “It provided me with some intellectual stimulation and it energized me,” Nancy says. “I was doing something good and using my brain.”

Nancy’s volunteer position involved attending two meetings a month, and about four hours of reading board documents. While she didn’t cancel these commitments, she did ask for special consideration. When her son, Toby, was three-and-a-half weeks old, she attended a two-hour meeting by phone rather than in person. When he was four-and-a-half weeks old, she took him to a morning meeting where “luckily for me he slept for most of the meeting”. She found that the other board members were extremely supportive.

By the time Toby was eight weeks old she was able to leave him with her partner while she attended a meeting in person. “I felt so alive at that meeting,” Nancy tells us.

“I got to be me for a couple of hours. I wasn’t changing nappies or feeding. I was using my brain and providing value to the organization that I volunteer with.”

As a bonus, “my partner looks forward to the evenings I am out of the house so he and our son can bond without me.”

Perhaps the message from Nancy’s experience is that, while volunteering may not be for everyone on parental leave, it can be a more positive experience than you might expect. Here are Nancy’s volunteering tips for new parents:

1. Ask for special consideration – “Phone into a meeting rather than attend in person.”

2. Set expectations and be upfront with the time you have available – “I will often say at the beginning of a meeting that I can attend for one or two hours only. This also helps keep the meeting succinct.”

3. Family comes first – “Don’t be afraid to cancel a meeting or reschedule due to family commitments if you need to.”

4. Don’t check your phone every five minutes – “Enjoy the time away from your beautiful baby. The cuddles on your return home are the best.”

5. Prioritize your many volunteer commitments – “While I continued to volunteer on the local hospital board, I did take leave from another volunteer position as I didn’t want to over-commit as a new parent.”

Written by the Circle In team.

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