Article

What’s my job again? On returning from parental leave

By Dan J. Levy

Published July 1, 2020
Last updated July 1, 2020

The first time I left on parental leave, my company had just been acquired. As a long-time employee who had been around my share of stalled startups, the acquisition felt like success. It was also a little unsettling; there was no question that the job I'd return to would look different than the one I was stepping away from. But any sense of uncertainty was mitigated by two realizations: one, that with the baby due in a few months, I had even bigger adventures ahead of me; and two, that Zendesk, my new employer, offered 16 weeks of fully-paid parental leave.

I decided to split the leave into two eight-week chunks. The first half began as soon as my son was born, the second when he was six months old. I hoped that my wife and I would find our groove by then and maybe even be able to travel as a family (allow me a moment of gratitude to acknowledge how extraordinarily privileged we are compared to many working parents). During the first half of my leave, I detached from work completely. This was not a matter of principle, but of pure necessity. In those chaotic, sleep-deprived weeks, any task that wasn’t laundry, diaper, or food-related felt impossible—and I’m not even the one who gave birth. So when those first eight weeks were up, going back to the office felt like a luxury. Plenty had changed while I was away, but I could see where my particular expertise and experience had been missed. I was glad to be back and could tell that my team felt the same way.

The second time was different. We were now a year post-acquisition, but because I'd spent so much time away, I still felt like the new guy. The team had grown and some of the projects I had expected to dive into had been reprioritized. Others were sailing along just fine without me, and I was reluctant to re-assert myself as yet another cook in an already crowded kitchen. And then there are the things no one can plan for: my return came in the midst of a global pandemic.

In those chaotic, sleep-deprived weeks, any task that wasn't laundry, diaper, or food-related felt impossible—and I'm not even the one who gave birth.

Former Google and Facebook exec Molly Graham talks about giving away your Legos. The idea is that by handing over your most prized responsibilities, you empower the people on your team to step up and allow yourself to focus on other things. It’s a leadership strategy I’ve always admired—and it’s often necessary when someone is planning to take an extended leave. But it can be jarring to return to an empty slate, especially during such unprecedented times. In the U.S. alone, unemployment numbers had reached Great Depression levels. I’d seen more than a few former colleagues on LinkedIn announce they’d been laid off, some from companies they’d worked at for decades. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to work at a company that was committed to supporting employees as they navigated the “new normal.” I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty, and a little unmoored.

I reached out to other leaders at Zendesk who had personal experiences with parental leave. I wanted to know if they shared my feelings of disorientation and self-doubt upon their return. Everyone I spoke to emphasized that being able to set aside work during those early months was a blessing and a privilege; many confessed that coming back was a challenge. As Rebecca Larsen, a director of product analytics put it, “If you gave away all your Legos, what are you supposed to play with?”

[Related read: Harness the power of parenting at work]

Expect things to be different

Larsen had her first baby in September. Like most birth-giving mothers at the company, she took her entire leave at once, returning just a few weeks before the pandemic forced everyone to work from home. “It’s hard to find your place,” she told me, about her initial return to work. “It was like, ‘What am I supposed to be doing with my day?’”

She soon found her footing, though had to work to reestablish her relationships, especially since her colleagues had forged their own while she was gone. “People have grown into their own leadership roles and that’s challenging to navigate,” she said. Making things more complicated, Larsen and her manager agreed to adjust her role while she was on leave. The plan had been for her to absorb a team overseas, but she decided the opportunity wasn’t worth sacrificing her precious morning time with the baby. “I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want the sexy international team where on a day-to-day basis I’ll probably hate my life?’”

Everyone I spoke to emphasized that being able to set aside work during those early months was a blessing and a privilege; many confessed that coming back was a challenge.

Things went the other way for Kim Lenox, a VP of product design. Ten years ago, Lenox left a management position and signed on as an individual contributor at Palm, figuring it would allow her to take it easy while she adjusted to motherhood. When she returned, the company had been acquired by Hewlett Packard, her bosses had all quit, and she was asked to manage a 23-person team with 4-month-old twins at home. “I am an empathetic manager now,” she told me.

These days, Lenox expects at least three people in her 60+ person organization to be transitioning in and out of parental leave at any given time. The advice she gives employees before they depart is, “We’re in a high-growth company and we’re pivoting regularly, so get comfortable with coming back to something different.” She even plans her organizational structure around leaves. Instead of hiring contractors to fill in for people while they’re away, she makes sure to hire people with complementary skills. This doesn’t mean stymying career growth; it just means employees need to get really good at goal-setting and planning ahead. “We can still promote someone who has been gone six months,” she said.

The advice she gives employees before they depart is, "We're in a high-growth company and we're pivoting regularly, so get comfortable with coming back to something different."

Roshni Sondhi, a senior director of customer success, is a case in point. She was promoted two weeks before her first parental leave at Zendesk, and six months after her second one. Sondhi told me she sees parental leave as an opportunity to build the careers of more junior members on her team. Before she left the second time, she promoted someone to take on her management responsibilities. “When I came back it felt weird, I’m not going to lie to you,” she told me. “The first day I had a little bit of, ‘Is there still a need for me?’ because she did such a tremendous job.” A month later, it was the employee’s turn to go on parental leave.

[Related read: Shannon Weber on how to show up for others in hard times]

Don't call it a 'pat leave'

Not all parental leave is created equal. The realities of breastfeeding and often long, arduous physical recoveries, make it more likely—and necessary—for birth-giving mothers to take their full leaves immediately after the baby is born. Splitting up the time is a privilege mostly enjoyed by fathers and other non-gestational partners. Parental leave is a relatively new thing for men, in particular. Even in places that do support it, like several much-touted Scandinavian countries, the majority of men still don’t take it. Quebec, the Canadian province where I live, allows parents to share the bulk of its parental leave benefits, but most men I know only use the 3-5 weeks reserved specifically for partners.

I try to avoid the term “paternity leave” because there’s nothing gendered about spending time with your family. Still, the fact that I took so much time off when I did was met with skepticism from certain male relatives. The first time, in the wake of the acquisition, they asked, “Do you really think now is the time to be away from work?” To which I replied, “Well, now is when the baby is coming!” The next time, mid-pandemic, it was, “Are you making sure to check in regularly?” The implication, of course, was that I’d be out of sight, out of mind, and first on the chopping block if my company resorted to layoffs. The question made me angry, not just because this way of seeing the world felt so wrong, but because for some people in my position, it may have been right on.

I try to avoid the term "paternity leave" because there's nothing gendered about spending time with your family.

“I definitely feel a stigma about being a man and taking a long paternity leave,” Luke Behnke, a VP of product, told me. Behnke is a father of three who has been on parental leave twice at Zendesk. Although his managers have always been “extremely supportive” of him taking as much time off as he needed, he’s never taken the full 16 weeks. This reluctance is partly a question of seniority, but mostly about societal gender expectations. Benhke told me he once heard another dad at the company with older children remark that he couldn’t imagine having taken so much time off when his kids were born. This was someone Behnke respected as a leader and although he knew the comment didn’t reflect Zendesk’s policies or culture, the words stuck with him: “You’re like, ‘Am I being judged for taking this benefit that the company gives me?’”

Behnke was scheduled to take a second block of leave for his third child this spring, which he postponed when the pandemic hit. The plan had been to take no more than 13 weeks total. Now he seemed to be reconsidering. “It’s all about your role models,” he told me. “Maybe I also have to think about the example I’m setting for other men.”

Another problem with the terms maternity and paternity leave is that they don’t account for the realities of same-sex parents. Lori and Shannon Anahata both work at Zendesk. Lori, a design operations manager, took her full leave after giving birth to their daughter two years ago. Shannon, a product manager, split her leave in two eight-week stints, much like I did. They spent the first eight weeks together with their baby, and then Shannon took the second half of her leave as Lori returned to work. About six months later, while she was still “very much in it,” breastfeeding at home and pumping at work, Lori switched departments. She had been hired as an events coordinator, a stressful role that often required her to stay in the office late into the evening. With her daughter now in daycare, that was no longer tenable. “I needed more flexibility in my schedule,” she told me.

“It’s all about your role models. Maybe I also have to think about the example I’m setting for other men.” - Luke Behnke

When I asked Shannon if she felt any hesitancy around taking time off as the non-gestational parent, she revealed the same conflicting feelings as any other working mom. “There’s no way I want to miss this time with the kid,” she said. At the same time, “the stigma for women is you take all this time off and you aren’t considered for promotions. I don’t think that stigma is as much there for men.”

As many studies have shown, women have been dealing with the challenges and opportunity costs of parental leave for ages. If guys like me are now feeling some of the pain, that may not be a bad thing for our egos and our empathy. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a new father switching careers like Lori, giving up a global team to spend mornings with the baby, like Rebecca Larsen, or forgoing the management track altogether, like Kimberly Bertrand, a lead IT financial systems analyst. Shortly after returning from parental leave, Bertrand decided to shed her manager role and become an individual contributor. “It was difficult for me to be emotionally available to my team of high-performing, high-potential employees in addition to being a mother,” she said. This sounded to me like someone who had their priorities straight.

[Related read: Holding onto the rituals we’ve learned to love as we shelter in place]

Coming back to COVID

“You have to prioritize ruthlessly,” Larsen told me. She was referring to being a new mom, but she could have easily been talking about the current situation. In retrospect, Larsen speaks fondly about the few weeks she had back at the office before the pandemic forced us all to stay home. “I was really enjoying having my not-mommy persona back, being respected for my thought leadership and not because I was milk,” she said. Now she’s forced to vacillate between these roles at any moment: “It’s like you’re needed, and then you’re needed.” Ted Smith, a senior director of competitive and market intelligence, was already working remotely from Oregon before his daughter was born. “Pre-COVID we had a really good rhythm,” he told me. “All of that got disrupted.”

For better or worse, remote work is here to stay, at least in the tech industry. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has told employees they can keep working from home “forever.” Shopify’s Tobi Lutke tweeted that the age of “office centricity is over.” Zendesk is still in the process of reimagining what our offices will look like whenever they reopen, but it appears that for many of us, “going into work” will be a sometimes thing instead of an everyday routine.

This may be good news for champions of paid leave. Darby Saxbe is a psychologist at the University of Southern Carolina who has written about the public health benefits of parental leave. She thinks an “unexpected silver lining” of the pandemic is that it’s allowed more parents to spend extended periods of time with their babies (although she’s careful to point out this isn’t the case for many low-wage and essential workers). This prolonged exposure to domestic life could be an eye-opening experience, especially for men.

It appears that for many of us, "going into work" will be a sometimes thing instead of an everyday routine. 

“Dads who have jobs that take them away for long hours are just getting to know their kids better,” she told me. “My hope is we come out of this with a renewed appreciation for the father-child relationship just because it’s not really possible for one parent to do everything while also trying to work.” Traditionally, moms have bridged this gap by working part time or putting their careers on hold altogether. While men aren’t always comfortable asking their managers to take off two hours in the middle of the day to help with childcare, this crisis could be an opportunity to “renegotiate” these norms, as Saxbe put it. “I think having the kind of society where men taking time off is celebrated rather than seen as shameful is going to be a huge step,” she said.

Of course, parents aren’t the only ones struggling with working from home for the first time. Think of single people starved for human contact, employees charged with taking care of sick relatives, young professionals who rely on the office for a good portion of their social lives. Quartz reporter Lila MacLellan has argued that businesses need to start thinking beyond families and offer paid leave to all workers. This would take some of the pressure off new parents and give other deserving employees a shot at self-care. When I spoke to Ted Smith, the Oregon dad, the biggest concern he had about his parental leave was the burden it put on his team. A universal sabbatical could even the playing field, and remove the cloud around parental leave once and for all. For years, employee perks have been designed to keep people in the office. But the age of ping-pong tournaments and beer on tap appears to be over. If the end goal is productivity and retention, it may be time to incentivize employees to get away for a spell.

[Related read: Can burnout actually be good for you?]

With change comes opportunity

After spending two months at home with my wife and baby, our travel plans stymied by the virus, I returned to work—from home. Like most parents, we’ve had to adapt our schedules and our sense of space. In many ways, the pandemic has put my own quandary into perspective. We’re all dealing with shifting priorities and trying to find our bearings. It’s “uncertain times” for everyone.

My conversations with colleagues made it clear that the challenges around parental leave are both universal and individual. Coming back is hard even in the best of times, and there’s no one-size-fits all approach to dealing with an extended absence. Success depends on open communication, solid preparation, and empathy all around. As generous and flexible as a company’s policies may be, employees and managers will always have to navigate the emotional and cultural realities of the world outside the office walls—virtual or otherwise. This can be messy, but it can also lead to unexpected rewards and growth opportunities. A lot, I’m learning, like parenthood itself.