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SocietyMarch 14, 2023

When two worlds collide: Returning to the workplace after parental leave


Emily Simpson talks to the newest parents at The Spinoff about making the tricky transition from parental leave back into the office. 

All week on The Spinoff we are delving into our relationship with the world of work in Aotearoa. For more Work Week stories, click here.

I vividly remember the morning I returned to work after a year’s maternity leave. I’d like to say the memory is one of brushing away tears as I kissed my baby goodbye for our first day apart ever, but it’s actually of pulling onto the motorway at the exact moment a late-80s power ballad came on the radio. I could yank up the volume without fear of damaging tiny ear drums! The little car seat in the back was empty. I was alone and free. 

This euphoria lasted at least an hour and a quarter. I pulled over and got a takeout coffee without wondering if it was OK to leave a baby in a locked car with a cracked window for a minute, as long as I popped outside every few seconds to make faces at her through the window. (I now understand it’s illegal.) At the office I talked to grown-ups, moved about at will and kept my clothes relatively free of sticky substances. 

Then there was the joy of coming home at 5.30pm to a delightful baby – although this was shadowed by the realisation that I had two jobs now. It was her bed, bath and dinner time – that trifecta I’d claimed I couldn’t bear to miss – followed by a night punctuated by howling sessions (her and me). My work days with grown-ups grew less and less euphoric.

I knew it was my right (and economic necessity) to occupy two worlds — the maternal and the professional — and I thought I’d relish the contrast, but in reality the stark difference between them felt brutal. I’d vacated the land of baby obsession and entered a workplace where not one person had a young child. They’d bellow “cute!” if forced to look at a photo, but this was charity. 

Nobody wanted to see my baby photos, not really. (Image: Getty)

The first time I brought my baby into the office, she displayed Mensa levels of brilliance by pointing to a Pump bottle on a desk and saying “water!” I looked at my colleague, mouth agape, ready for us to share in this astonishing moment, but she just took a bored swig and shot the one-year-old a smirk that said, “no shit.” This was 2008 and there was no escaping the office. “Working from home” was a synonym for being in bed with a hangover.

Fifteen years later everything has changed. Nobody cool drinks from Pump bottles, nobody under 40 listens to bogan radio stations or any stations in their car, and straddling the worlds between parenting and paid work seems more manageable. With a post-pandemic tightening job market, some companies are offering much more generous paid parental leave; while many jobs have become part-time, flexi-time, remote, hybrid and just generally a whole lot more workable within a balanced life.

But maybe it just looks easier to me because my baby now catches buses? I talked to some of the newest parents at The Spinoff about the daily transition between those two worlds. 

Sela Jane Hopgood, Pacific communities editor

Sela Jane Hopgood couldn’t wait to get back to work. Her son Villiami, now four, had just turned 19 months and Sela, then a reporter at RNZ Pacific, remembers “this hunger, this urge to tackle my journalism – 10 times more than I had before having a baby”. 

That high energy was partly because she initially went back for just three days a week which created a pressure-cooker effect. “I made the most of every hour,” she says “I felt like I was juggling more stories than when I’d worked five days.”

But there were other factors too. Sela had suffered from perinatal depression which took her to “a very dark place”. After her son’s birth she sought medical help and by the time she returned to the office she was, if not fully recovered, well on her way. “That’s probably why I just wanted to get back,” she says. “I was through the worst of it.”

Sela and Villiami (Photo: Supplied)

Navigating the mornings – a day-care drop-off, a commute – was a challenge, but she was part of “an accommodating and helpful team at RNZ… That’s another key factor. If I was running late I’d let them know but I’d never feel guilty for it, which I know is not the case in some workplaces.”

And she also returned with the clearest sense of identity she’d ever had: “I was a survivor of depression, a mum, a Pacific Island parent,” she says. 

Not that Sela, who was born in Auckland to Tongan parents, plans to raise Viliami in the traditionally strict Pacific style. While she loved many aspects of growing up in an extended Tongan family, the hidings and harsh scoldings she was dealt (and which she believes played a part in her depression) have been relegated to history. “I have a 180-degree view of how I parent my son.”

And that includes choosing to go back to work. “The moment my mum had her first child, she had this mindset of ‘right, my job now is to be a mum, to stay home and look after the children. It was very traditional – Dad goes to work. That was all she saw back in Tonga and she assumed that I would follow suit. And it took her a while to understand that I had plans to go back to work and ambitions in my career as well as being a parent and a wife. I think now she gets it, but for the first couple of years she talked to me about how important it is to be at home for your child. I agree, but I think there are multiple ways that you can be there for your child.

While Sela says her parenting approach has strong Pākehā leanings (her husband is Tongan, Māori and Pākehā), there are distinct Pacific elements in there too. Sela’s brother-in-law shares their home and she has always loved having an extended family member be a part of Viliami’s upbringing, especially when she first went back to work. “He wasn’t working at the time and I was so grateful he could look after my son, while we were unwinding at the end of the day. He loves to cook, so he would do every dinner and also play with Viliami if we needed to put the washing on and do things around the house. They’ve got such a beautiful bond, he and my son, they call each other ‘best friend’.”

Alice Neville, deputy editor

Alice Neville, mother to six-month-old Annie, is about to ease herself back into paid work – two days per week – which is nice because she wasn’t given the option of easing herself out of it. In late July last year, with her baby due in six weeks, she went home from work one night, went into labour at 4am and was the single mother of a tiny premature baby by the morning. But, she says, it was OK.

“It was fucked at the beginning because she was prem and I was not at all ready. But then when she came home [after almost a month in hospital] she was quite a chill baby and it’s stayed that way. I’ve never had that thing of her bawling and screaming and me pacing around at my wits’ end.

“The main thing I’ve missed about work is the social aspects, the banter. And I kind of miss engaging my brain, but I haven’t missed it as much as I thought I might.”

Annie and Alice (Photo: Supplied)

Alice says if money were no issue she’d take more time off work. “My government paid parental leave is going to end and I don’t have a partner so yeah, I have to go back. I’m lucky that I’m going to work around Annie; I’m doing two days a week, from 9 to 3, and then another couple of hours in the evening – I wouldn’t want to work every night but I can do it twice a week. I’m going to work at my sister’s house, and she will be able to jump in if Annie’s crying.”

She believes that work arrangements have improved for parents since the pandemic. “Definitely with flexibility around hours and working from home. You can’t really tell someone they can’t do that any more.”

She plans to put Annie in daycare when she eventually increases her days of work to four. “I don’t love the idea, because she still seems quite little. But I can’t afford a nanny and lots of kids are in daycare and it’s great. She’s on the waitlist for one that looks good, quite close to where I live. They’re not cheap, although apparently they’re increasing the government subsidy.

“The ideal thing would be a daycare in the office. Imagine that. That would be the pipe dream.”

Saj Patel, sales director

When Saj Patel became a dad to his son Maleek in September last year he took two-and-a-half weeks off work. Was that enough? “No!” he laughs. “No, no… I was offered four weeks of paid paternity leave, and I ended up taking the rest of it later on over the summer break.”

His return to work wasn’t easy, he says. “I felt dazed. I felt like I’d been through something. You watch your partner go through this incredible transformation. Your life has changed. All you can think about is trying to keep your new addition to the family alive and you’re at your desk! You’re still trying to make sense of it all and you’re back doing, you know, emails!”

Maleek and Saj (Photo: Supplied)

Saj says he was grateful to work for a company that didn’t downplay the impact of new fatherhood, that sent flowers and ready-to-eat meals and gave him some space. “It is a very big deal. You’re operating on half the amount of sleep you used to have. You’re going to need some time to get back to that same level of productivity.”

That sleep deprivation was (and still is) a challenge to combine with a nine-to-five job. “Maleek is a dream baby compared to other kids we’ve heard of. But they find their lungs, they get louder and louder, and he’s still getting louder.”

Leaving his wife at home was also hard, he says. “Because we were on this journey together, learning everything at the same time, there to support each other throughout it; and all of a sudden one person is there on their own through those work hours. I come home from work and she has to update me on all these new ways to parent that I miss out on.”

Working in the highly social arena of advertising sales, Saj says his approach to his work, or more specifically client events, has changed. “Because I want to get home to see my son and be there for my partner. You feel guilty being out.”

The plan is for Saj’s partner Bex to return to work, part-time, when Maleek turns one. “It’s a great opportunity for our mums and dads to be more involved, brothers and sisters as well. So we’ll work with a mixture of extended family and part-time daycare.”

Saj says he’s grateful that his company gave him four weeks’ paid paternity leave (a perk at the discrepancy of an employer). “Because It’s such a special time in your life. That moment disappears.”

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