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'Easing' Back Into It

By Anonymous


Returning back from parental leave following the birth of my second child was less an “ease” and more of a crash landing. The baby wasn’t sleeping. We all got COVID the week I was supposed to return to work. I forgot what the dose of paracetamol was.

Little things had changed, like the anticoagulant we typically used for renal replacement therapy. Big things had changed, like how my colleagues had had to cope with the ever -changing configuration of the unit to adapt to COVID surge after COVID surge, and then watching it recede back to normal. The N-95 masks lingered for a while longer.

I recall my first ward round as a consultant my first day back. I had done a couple of afternoons in theatre warming up my intubation fingers again, but I had not warmed up my brain for the cognitive overload that comes with the methodical assessment and planning for a patients’ next 24 hours in the ICU.

I would return from work exhausted, but with a young baby and toddler at home, my partner and I would continue to work through the night – cleaning up, doing the endless cycle of laundry and food prep (outsourcing was minimal – we just purchased a house so money was a bit tight), waking up for night feeds. Eventually, like all things, the fog lifted, and things got easier. I finally caught up with the changes in our unit. The little one started getting up thrice, then twice, then just once a night. I started exercising again. A bit more outsourcing as the financial strain being on unpaid parental leave lifted.

The motherhood penalty lingered a little longer (unsurprising - it can last for up to five years). I was keen to contribute. I put my hand up for exciting projects. More than once, I was told “we thought that perhaps you would like to ease back in to work first” and “don’t take on too much!” I wondered how many of the blokes this had been said to. When I missed out on opportunities, I was reminded how lucky I was to have a beautiful family, as if it was some sort of equalizer for the failure to take into account the impact on pregnancy and parental leave on a person’s “productivity” at work, or whether they had considered how this failure unevenly impacts women. “You can’t have it all” was another oft uttered phrase. Once again, I wonder how many men had been told this.

I’m emerging from the process with some more wisdom. And some tips. For both parents taking long parental leave, and for employers and supervisors. Here’s my top 10.

  1. Outline early what the expectations for both the parents (for two parent families) are for both child minding and housekeeping. Who will do the shopping? Cooking? How will you both get downtime? Remember the person with the kids has the harder job.

  2. Outsource. What you can. When you can.

  3. Enquire about keeping in touch days. Warm up that brain again. Get back into theatre and practice intubation.

  4. You will take sick days, at the most inconvenient time for things like a borderline fever, or yellow snot in your child. Make peace with that.

  5. Outsource

  6. You probably won’t get that amazing work or home improvement project done during parental leave, but you probably will be able to recite “rock a bye your bear” in your sleep.

  7. Join medical parents support groups online. They are a tremendous source of information.

  8. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you are struggling. Think about where and how you can decompress when it’s all systems go at home and at work.

  9. If you are an employer – don’t assume a birth parent wants to take it easy at work, don’t assume the non-birth parent is wanting to be all systems go. It’s absolutely ok for either choice, in either person. So ask them what they want and need.

  10. If you’re an employer – how are you mitigating the motherhood penalty? What assumptions are you making? How are your recruitment processes going to protect newly returned parents from long parental leave?

Parenthood and medicine is a challenging, exhausting, beautiful and rewarding combination. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged, but remember you are not alone. With time, it does get easier and before you know it, you’ll be that incredibly inspiring Intensivist-Parent who is supporting the next generation and passing on your own words of wisdom on “having it all.”

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