A distinctive perspective on being on parental leave

Christina Kokkinakis
By Christina Kokkinakis | 8 November 2023
Christina Kokkinakis. Image: Supplied

This will be my first week back at work after eight months on parental leave with my daughter.

It is a strange feeling coming back. Despite the familiar surroundings and friendly faces, things are naturally a little different.

While the narrative of parental leave often revolves around anticipated sleep deprivation, around-the-clock feeding schedules, and the countless nappy changes, perhaps what is less talked about are the complicated feelings of being away from work for an extended period of time.

Whether it's parental leave, a sabbatical, or something more unexpected, any form of extended leave is a big adjustment. There are no rules of engagement for how both sides (employer and employee) should act and so, in this vacuum, people are left to make their own assumptions and most likely just go down the route of disconnecting from the employee during the whole parental leave. Finding a way to navigate these moments of change in a meaningful way requires a collaborative effort from both the employee and the employer.

I recognise it is a deeply personal decision how much interaction you want to have with your employer while you’re on leave. Personally, the idea of complete detachment seemed daunting - not because the team wouldn’t cope without me, but more because I couldn't. I was curious to know how projects were progressing, how creative problems were being solved and whether level 18 had a new barista. I believe it’s because work forms part of who we are and going on leave doesn’t come from a desire to remove that part of our identity, but rather to make way for something new.

More often than not, individuals on parental leave maintain a keen interest in the business, yet it’s quite common for managers to assume that new parents prefer not to be "disturbed" while on parental leave. While of course this might be true for some, I think the real issue lies in the assumption. I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced a unique
balance during parental leave of caring for my daughter whilst remaining connected to the team.

How? Well as cliché as it sounds: communication.

Here are four practical things that helped me remain connected. 

  • Set the tone in both communication and frequency, acknowledging that it might evolve.
  • Continual contact, without an expectation to respond.
  • Access to internal communication channels like Slack and Miro, purely to observe rather than participate.
  • Inclusion in team strategy sessions and informal gatherings, with no pressure to attend.

On reflection, perhaps the key was continual inclusion without the expectation to participate. Ultimately, I was in control and could dip in and out without feeling a sense of obligation or a sense of failure during intense parental responsibilities.

In speaking with industry colleagues and friends, I recognise my experience isn’t necessarily the norm. Understanding the value of a supportive approach during parental leave and how it affects employee loyalty and motivation is critical to any organisation's employee experience, and it plays a pivotal role in onboarding individuals back into the organisation.

In our lives, we naturally assume various roles, and though a specific identity may come to the forefront in a particular moment or context, it doesn't mean the others disappear.

Just because you've taken time away from your job, it doesn't mean you're no longer an employee. Similarly, when you rejoin you don't switch off being a parent, as reminded by a dear friend and colleague, “I will always be her mum.”

Christina Kokkinakis, general manager, FutureBrand

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