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Parental Leave Isn’t Leave — It’s a Three-Phase Transition

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When most people hear the words parental leave, they still think of maternity leave: the time a mother — because let’s admit it, dads are still largely ignored — is absent from work to be at home with her new baby and recover from childbirth. This is a very limited view that (unintentionally) reinforces prejudices and inequity and misses the bigger picture and the opportunities inherent in this major personal and professional transition — for new parents of course, but also for managers, teams, and companies.

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At the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, we find it more accurate and productive to define parental leave as an extended period of transition for all new parents, regardless of gender identification, their manager, and team that is experienced across three phases: 1) preparing for leave, 2) during leave and 3) returning from leave. This transition lasts roughly from the time an expecting parent announces they will be welcoming a new child, through their return to work, and includes an indefinite period of adjustment that can last anywhere from three-to-six months or longer.

Each phase has its own focus, its own set of critical touchpoints, and its own set of role and identity changes. When you understand how to handle these touchpoints and role shifts well, you significantly improve the chance of transition success — and employee retention. 

Phase 1: Preparing for Leave — Work Focus
In the first transition phase, the expecting parent is still working and focused on career stability while also making preparations — both at work and at home—to welcome their new child. This can look like wrapping up projects and offboarding their work responsibilities so they can be fully ready for leave in ways that don’t jeopardize or upset their work, colleagues, or stakeholders. 

Everyone involved is assessing the situation and starting to feel the shift in roles and routines that is coming. The expecting parent and their manager should be actively ensuring that tasks are clearly documented in a leave (and return!) plan and sorted to ensure a clean handoff to anyone covering while the parent is away. As this phase comes to an end, host a sendoff, like a baby shower or team lunch that is universal, yet meaningful for the expecting parent. 

Tip: Think of parental leave as a cross-training opportunity. You can also stay ahead of the curve by creating internal “floater” teams who can serve as infill and cover when people are on leave.

Phase 2: During Leave — Parenthood Focus
During the second phase, the new parent will be at home and, if their tasks have been handed off effectively, they will be able to fully shift their focus to welcoming their new child and learning their new parenthood role in a very short time. They also need to bond with their new child and develop family norms that will support them all into the future. 

Birthing parents will also be healing, many from major abdominal surgery. This phase is a wondrous time for some. For others, it can be dreadful. Wherever the new parent is on that spectrum — it is never a vacation. At work, colleagues are often figuring out they forgot to get a crucial piece of information to move a project forward or they are worried they should be reaching out in a different way or not at all. Leave is never only about the new parent, there is an entire ecosystem at home and work that is involved and needs to be considered as well. 

Tip: Prior to leave, work together to create a specific Keep-In-Touch strategy that clearly outlines who/when/how any communication between work and the new parent can occur. 

Phase 3: Returning from Leave — Working Parent Focus
In this final transition phase, the new parent will be focused on integrating their dual roles of worker and parent into a new, singular working-parent role (even if this is not their first child, this applies because they’ve never done it this way before). They will be heading back to work and slowly establishing their new normal through a series of experiments and adjustments. 

Remember, they have just gone through a completely life altering transition which may also be accompanied by physical or emotional changes. All involved should expect and plan for an adjustment period and reintegration time. Managers should welcome them as they would a new hire while also respecting them for their tenure. 

Tip: Think of parental leave like a high intensity leadership development and experiential learning off-site. Ask the new parent to bring all of the insight, knowledge, empathy, and skills they have just acquired back into their workplace and support them to do so.  

About the Author

Amy Beacom, Ed.D., is the CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership. 


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