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Learning on Leave

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Originally posted on www.ryersonstudentaffairs.com on May 30, 2016.

Last Thursday I became a soccer mom. We took our 3 year-old to the park and watched him chase the ball with 15 other kids, as we sat on the sidelines with our baby and a host of other parents. The whole time I was struck with this feeling of unreality…how did I get here?

Today I return to work after my second year away on maternity leave.

I first left my position as Student Life Programs Coordinator in 2013 when I gave birth to my oldest son. My anxiety about becoming a first-time parent was mitigated by years of event planning. I had an ace up my sleeve. Even my back-up plans have back-ups. But the one thing I couldn’t plan for was how my decision to have kids would affect my career progression. For years I had carried a deep fear that choosing to have children meant that I had to also choose between my career and family goals. As my due date approached, I started to believe that I had no control over what came next at work; that all my options were dependent on other people. My work is a key part of my identity—I am so lucky to have found my calling—and one of my biggest anxieties was how I could remain a career-focused professional and a good mom.

Once I brought my baby home, I carried all the guilt that new parents quickly become familiar with. Other people showered me with opinions about how I should parent, and what a “good mom” looks like. When I talked about missing work, I’d get sidelong glances and I could almost hear people thinking, “How can you be so selfish?” I fell silent and tried to be the parent that my baby deserved. I began intentionally neglecting my own desires because I fell into the trap of believing that martyrdom is required of good moms. Unsurprisingly, it ended up being a tough year for my whole family and me, marked by mental wellbeing challenges and conflict.

Things eventually improved after I returned to work and was forced to find a balance that fit my new circumstances, but my initial return to work was a challenge. All of my fears about falling behind in my career came home to roost as I returned to a workplace that had undergone massive organizational change. I had different job responsibilities. I had a new boss. I had failed to secure a possible promotion. My fear of missing out was frighteningly realized—or so I thought. (Conveniently, I wrote a blog post about it at the time.)

When I found out that we’d be welcoming another baby to our household I knew I had to find a new way to be a good parent; a way that would work for who I wanted to be. So I decided to take control.

I have been raised to believe that those who work hard and well will be rewarded. I had long believed that if I put my head down, hustled and produced, that I would get to where I wanted to be. The problem with this belief is that you might end up spending a lot of time waiting because you’ve never actually communicated what it is that you want. This time, I set up meetings with my manager and executive director to talk about where I wanted my career to go. It was the best possible move I could make because it simultaneously did two great things. It gave me back a sense of control thus calming any anxieties, and it gave important information to decision-makers about me.

In those meetings I was able to articulate my desire to move into a new discipline—assessment. We talked about how I could build on my existing skill set to prepare myself for such a change and then I put my planning background to work. I already had requisite skills in statistics and research from my time in grad school, and years of assessing my programming. And I had the interest.

I started by meeting with the #RyersonSA blog manager, Lucas Gobert, to discuss writing a series about assessment. I started to follow conversations through social media to inform myself about the culture of assessment in Student Affairs, and to make important connections with student affairs assessment professionals. I volunteered to write guest blogs on various professional sites, and vigorously researched and wrote the Assessment & You series.

I stayed connected with work, not because I felt obligated to, but because I wanted to. It helped me to have something in my life that helped preserve my identity as a Student Affairs professional. Beyond developing a new skill in assessment, I engaged in wholesale professional development. I attended a professional conference in March and brought my new baby with me. I worked as a co-lead for the CACUSS Orientation, Transition, & Retention Community of Practice, and helped to create and distribute the first Canadian Orientation Benchmarking Survey (check out our presentation of the results in Winnipeg). Looking back, I’m proud of the accomplishments I made, not the least of which was successfully navigating the transition from a family of 3 to one of 4. And my labours bore fruit. I start a new job today as the Manager of Student Affairs Storytelling where I will bring together my passions for assessment and communication. I’m so excited about what the future holds.

This is a story that is important to share. I communicated the news of my second pregnancy with a lot of trepidation; I was still feeling the effects of returning to work from the previous leave and was concerned that I had done irreparable damage to my ability to progress toward my career goals. While developing professionally isn’t the answer for every parent on leave, by sharing my story, I hope that we can come to support freedom and flexibility of choice, rather than reinforce expectations. In opening a dialogue perhaps we can begin to spread the idea that there is no wrong way for new parents to find balance while away from work.

I can say, without a doubt, that doing this was the right decision for me. I felt better as a person, and it made me a better mother. I spent hours in webinars, teleconferencing, and writing late at night, but that didn’t take anything away from the hours I spent watching my sons do their own learning. In fact, it gave us something in common. While I was finding success and purpose developing my assessment skills, my kids were finding their own success. For my oldest, potty training, learning how to play with other kids, and transitioning out of a crib marked this year. And I was treated to another year of watching my helpless baby become a force of his own. Despite being excited to come back to work, I’m also heartbroken that I will see less of their tiny, smiling faces and might have to leave the kissing of boo-boos to someone else. But I know that I can’t be replaced as their mom, and I can’t wait to find out who these little people will be. I hope that they’ll know the value of being true to themselves, and be proud of the lessons their mom learned in her beginnings as a parent.

Lesley hugs her new baby, Marcus.

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography