Leaving is hard. Coming back is harder (paternity leave)

Do you remember that time when you took 4 months off from your job and when you came back everything was exactly the same?… Yeah, me either.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this topic without sounding like a “spoiled millennial” or, even worse, give the impression to my employer that I am ungrateful. I don’t know that I avoid either one of these concerns but, I do think I am touching on a real topic for a lot of new parents that are facing similar situations — and I’m hoping that my vulnerability to do so makes it easier for people to understand this thing that so many others go through. Now that I’ve been back at work for several months, I have overcome this challenge and have some insight to share with those curious or concerned about doing the same.

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Zendesk offers a 16 week parental leave package. 16 weeks. That’s crazy. How amazing for any parent to be able to take 16 weeks to spend time with your family without the stress of child care, work, money… etc. My wife and I were planning on giving a third kid a go — this paternity package certainly didn’t hurt the discussion. I know it seems a bit short-sighted to have a kid because you could get 4 months off of work, but when you are planning it anyway, it definitely can act as the push you need. Needless to say, we had our third child back in April; he’s fantastic (and I’m not biased at all.).

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On paper, this leave is all positive: Zendesk, as a company, putting its employees first and being so progressive; time with family and the ability to recharge and be with my newborn for the first 4 months of his life. The cultural benefit for the workplace at Zendesk certainly doesn’t hurt. So many good things. But, I wanted to shed some light on the other side of this coin: the challenges.

Leaving the team
It turns out that just getting up and leaving your team in the middle of projects is hard. It’s hard on them, and it was hard on me. I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving them high and dry, and I had a good amount of guilt about just disappearing. Don’t get me wrong, we planned for it. They knew I was going and I did everything I could to minimize the damage. But even softening the blow didn’t take it away — it’s hard to leave a team you care about with a bunch of things to do to pick up your slack.

Trying to stay up-to-date
As hard as it was to check out and leave things unfinished, it was just as difficult to find a balance of how to check in. I wanted to stay in the loop: keep up with emails, give input on projects that I normally would be a part of, and just be a contributing part of the team in general. The reality is that it’s very hard to do that without causing more stress on everyone, and looking back on it now, I probably shouldn’t have even tried. Time off is time off. I found myself in a weird inbetween land of only knowing some things and not having full context. Trying to stay connected gave the opposite effect, and instead, made me feel even more disconnected. In hindsight, it would have been better to completely check out.

Going back to work
Having a child tends to put you in a different headspace at least, it did for me. I just had a kid. Somehow, work felt less important. Obviously, having a job is very important, but I’m talking about the actual work. Staying passionate and engaged with what my team was doing was harder to maintain; all I really wanted to do was get home to my family. Kim Scott writes about this in her book Radical Candor. She talks about different phases of a career and how you need different things out of a job at different times of your life. For her, when she had her twins, she found herself less ambitious in her career. She needed time to be with her family and let her job be just that: a job. This definitely struck a chord with me.

Feeling relevant again
It’s not that I was unhappy at my job, I just wasn’t quite sure how I fit back into the picture after an amount of time that was, in theory, so short, yet seemed so long.

I don’t know if there is research to back this up but I am going to go ahead and say four months is perfect — but not in a good way. Four months happens to be the perfect amount of time for a team to adapt to someone leaving. They’re forced to adjust their processes, other people step up to fill in the holes, and decisions are made — all without someone who was previously very involved. They learn how to run things without you. So…where did that leave me?

Getting over it
The first step here was simple: get over it. I had to let go of any insecurities I had about not being needed or relevant. I had to remember that the team didn’t choose to find ways to work without me they did it out of necessity. And while I was definitely still welcomed back, there was a reality that my position and role would be a bit different. That took time to get used to: the most important action that I took when I first came back was not taking much action at all. Being patient and listening was key. Things changed (kind of) and it was important to not jump in and try to insert myself. I had to take a step back and just listen. Nobody was expecting me to come back and fix things or contribute at 100% on day 1. In fact, doing so would have caused more harm than good.

I had to lose the ego. A humble approach is a good approach here. Don’t get me wrong, it took some restraint to not take offense to things happening around me after my return. I was left off a few meeting invites.Projects shipped without coming my way beforehand. It definitely tested my confidence, and it took me a few good punches to the gut before I realized that it wasn’t personal. It was simply the effects of me being gone and the team getting shit done without me. And I had to realize that they are in many ways better for it.

Feeling the love
Within a few weeks of my return there were some challenges regarding ownership of a project that spanned across a few departments. It was then an opportunity for me to re-establish myself as a confident voice of authority in the creative department. I quickly realized that while my team was filling in the voids of my departure, they were spread very thin. There were a few crucial areas of weakness that they were managing to mask pretty well, and it became obvious fairly quickly that the need for a voice of leadership never went away.

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Things are different, but that’s not a bad thing. It took a bit of time, but I have found the place on the team where I am most valuable once again. My absence shined a light on other members of the team that were able to step up and become great leaders. My time away gave others responsibilities and opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and my team is stronger and more creative than I could have ever imagined because of it. And sure, while I knew that before my leave, the four months that I spent away allowed me to appreciate it even more than I ever could have.