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Working while on parental leave

Working while on parental leave

I recently published my first sole author paper link. It is a review of methods for interpreting machine learning models (translucent boxes rather than black boxes). I thought I’d write about the process because most of the paper was written while I was on shared parental leave. So I thought I’d discuss whether you should work while on parental leave and give some tips on working while on parental leave (many of which are useful for working as a parent more generally).

I think a lot of the terms used in the British law governing leave is gendered and probably doesn’t match up well for trans people. I’ll try to explicitly say “the person that gave birth” to refer to anyone who is taking leave after giving birth and just “partner” for anyone who is taking parental leave but didn’t give birth. I’d also like to be very clear right at the beginning that this post isn’t me saying “you should work while on parental leave! Here’s how to be productive!” Hopefully that will be clear.

So, should you work while on parental leave? The short answer is that if don’t want to or don’t have the energy or the time, then don’t. My parental leave was from when my son was 7 months until 12 months. I imagine that most people that give birth would really struggle to work during the first 6 months after birth (though I’m also aware that some countries have terrible parental leave allowances). The physical recovery and terrible sleep patterns makes that fairly impossible. Also, partners that take short amounts of leave straight after the birth (2 weeks is common here in the UK) should really be doing everything they can to help and not skipping out to read emails. However, by the time your baby is 6 months, I think quite a few people might actively want to do some work.

There are plenty of good reasons to want to work while on parental leave. Parental leave is emotionally gruelling and any way you can find to help yourself during that period is to be recommended. Having something to think about other than babies can be fantastically useful. It’s easy to go a week virtually without speaking to adults and thinking about nothing but looking after your baby. I live in a small town outside of Oxford (where I worked at the time) due to lower house prices, but this means I don’t know anyone within a short walk from my house. While looking after my first son, I met up with people for a chat on a weekly basis, but for my second son I didn’t meet up with anyone. Furthermore, babycare is a weird combination of incredibly difficult and all-consuming while also being basically boring (depends on your personality I’m sure). So having a “project” to think about can be a really useful thing.

Secondly, a small project can give a wonderful sense of achievement and progress. There’s very few milestones with a baby; every few months they do something new. But day-to-day, week-to-week , the measure of success is basically “did I manage to keep my child alive today”. That single, unchanging question is not a good way to give yourself that sense of pride and success. So again, using a doable, achievable project, with small, regular goals and a sense of progress and achievement can be a fantastic boost for your mental health.

So then some tips. Firstly, you need to be able to do 90% of the project on your phone. While on parental leave I very rarely got an hour free to get my laptop out and start working. I worked while my son slept on me but refused to let me leave the room and on the approximately 300 walks I took through Bure Park nature reserve to get my son to sleep.

Secondly, you need to choose the right project. The project needs to be largely achievable on a phone (as above); lengthy coding sessions are difficult, field work not gonna happen. Therefore I chose to write a review. It was a review that I felt I could write without hours and hours of research (I find that difficult on my phone but others might find it quite doable). The project should also be chunkable into very small periods of work that give a sense of achievement. I counted writing a paragraph in a day a great success. A paragraph in two days was well above what I expected of myself. No progress for a week wasn’t rare. But each drafted paragraph felt like an accomplishment. Each time I edited a single paragraph I counted it as an achievement.

There are some technical things that make working on your phone easier. You want the files on your phone to sync directly with your computer. When you do get half an hour to work on your computer, you don’t want to waste that time working out if your files are up to date or take 5 minutes emailing the file to yourself or whatever. You want it just there. I use the Dropbox app which has a text editor in it. Writing in plain text (probably markdown) is also really useful because you can make the text big. Word is totally useless on a phone. Something like markdown is also useful because you can leave comments to yourself so you can quickly get back to what your were doing. I wrote my plan in comments and then filled in the full paragraphs underneath. You want the plan and the text in the same document because switching documents is annoying on a phone. Keeping the plan once you’ve started writing is useful so that you know what a paragraph was supposed to say, even if you didn’t do your best drafting on that paragraph. When editing I also left a comment to tell myself which paragraphs I had edited. I still use these ideas for doing work on my phone while traveling or in spare minutes here and there. I often plan out presentations (beamer) or small documents on my phone. To a much lesser extent I’ve also planned software, writing the function names and what the inputs and outputs for each function should be.

So, to reiterate, I am not trying to say “you should work while on parental leave and here is how”. However, if you actively wish to work, as part of your own mental health management, maybe some of these ideas might help. I am 100% sure that for me, writing this paper during leave was beneficial to my mental health. I can very easily imagine that it wouldn’t be for many other people.