How did you feel on the last day of parental leave?


Today is the last day of my parental leave.

On Monday, I will be rejoining the paid workforce. I never really left. But during my parental leave, I was not really a part of it, either.

I am writing this post having just put little boy down for his morning nap, while little girl is watching Playschool. So I’m following a time-honoured tradition of Australian parents putting the period of a Playschool episode to use.

Like a lot of professional women my parental leave has occurred during my thirties, at a point where I have had a measure of success in my career. That has its pros and cons. But a big ‘pro’ is that I happen to know that being on parental leave is just as challenging – if not more – as being in a high-pressure job.

My job as a lawyer can be pretty demanding sometimes. But parental leave’s demands are different. There’s menial labour, drudgery, routine, feeding, washing, changing, sterilizing, putting down for a nap, getting up for a nap, trying to leave the house, packing bags, unpacking bags, locating change mats, dressing children, bathing children, refereeing. Those things don’t seem hard but they are constant. More significant are the emotional burdens. Am I doing this right? Is my child really sick or will this pass? Am I feeding the kids enough? Too much? The right food? Am I ingraining habits in my kids, in infancy, that will make them end up spoilt? Shy? Overweight? Unpleasant? Uncouth? Unpopular? Unhappy? Am I, as I think most mothers secretly suspect, a terrible parent?

These worries are magnified by the problem of sleep. Short bursts of sleep, occurring irregularly. Short amounts of sleep overall. Sleep problems. Sleep deficits. Sleep. Sleep.

And these demands are often carried out in relative isolation. I am daunted by the prospect of leaving the house with both little ones, by myself. I very rarely build up the nerve to do it. I try to stay in touch with friends but everyone’s lives are demanding and so that can be difficult, too. I rely heavily on my family.

None of this is meant to be a whinge. It’s just a description of why I find parental leave just as hard as paid work, and why I’m nearly at the end of my rope by the time six o’clock rolls around.

I think that knowing that parental leave just as demanding, in its own way, as paid work, carries some benefits.

Firstly, I have never fallen for the idea that my husband has necessarily had a tougher day than I have had at home with the kids. He would never assert that, but I think that in the past women who have not had the benefit of a career first might have been less prepared to insist on equally-shared parenting, on the mistaken view that their husband’s work is more demanding. That’s not my assumption. The consequence, for our family, is that my husband and I try to explicitly discuss and agree on the fair division of our caring and work responsibilities, and we both attempt to pull our weight on the caring front. We’re far from perfect practitioners of equally-shared parenting, but we work at it.

Secondly, knowing that being at home with the kids is as demanding, albeit in different ways, as working as an industrial relations and employment lawyer, means I tend to cut myself a break. I am aware of the emotional burden of being at home. So, when I find it overwhelming and too hard, I try to ignore the internal critic. When I need a break, I try to get one, and I get paid help when I need it. I know this is a privileged position and not everyone can do it. But I am lucky enough to be able to and I don’t feel guilty about that.

My experience of parental leave, and time out of paid employment, has been good on both occasions.

My relationship with my firm has remained strong. Maurice Blackburn has been so very, very supportive. I am in touch so constantly that I have never really been away, but at the same time my colleagues have respected the fact that I am on parental leave.

The experience at home has been great. The fact that it is highly demanding does not make in unrewarding. It is immensely satisfying to see children grow and learn. Parental leave has its boring times, but there are also parts of it that are fascinating.

And there is so much love.

I love my kids more and more every day. I love my husband being a dad. I love how much happiness the kids bring to all of their grandparents, and to my grandmother who has spent time staying with us as well. I find myself trying to remember to take more photos, and more videos, so that when the children are older, and don’t remember these times, they can look back and think about how young their parents and grandparents seemed, and see how much love we all gave them.

It is all this love that makes people not just willing but enthusiastic to take on the demands of parenthood.  It is all this love that has made parental leave such a wonderful time, notwithstanding all the drudgery, demands, and depleted sleep.

Parental leave is now a part of my past.  Time moves faster as you get older, so soon, no doubt, it will feel as though my parental leave was a long time ago. On its last day I will grieve the loss of the time spent with my babies: it is important to acknowledge that change can bring sadness. But the sadness just serves to heighten my gratitude for the time spent at home, the love of family, and the joy of parenthood: finding out what happens next, and seeing how far we’ve all come.



2 thoughts on “How did you feel on the last day of parental leave?

  1. Terri I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and I was especially moved by your comments on family. Yesterday I attended a 70th birthday surrounded by my husband’s extended family. Several generations were present. The children present never once left the group to play computer games although they had access to them. Parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and older cousins talked, played, sang (!), and ate with the young ones. I watched as something wonderful happened to my 30 something nephew who has had a high flying career and is a new Dad struggling with the change his son has brought. He spent the day observing others interactions with partners and children and as the day progressed he took on a more hands on role with his son and became more and more supportive of his wife. We all took loads of photo’s and video and better still we watched super 8 movies and old video footage from the 1950’s to today. The kids loved it and many of them knew who were in the pictures even though they have never met Nan or Grandy who are now no longer here. Thanks Terri!

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