Becoming a parent: What parental leave is like

Tes
30th March 2018 at 00:00
Every experience is different and here, six teachers share their stories of what happened when they stayed at home to look after their new child

The unexpected joy of maternity leave

Just before I went on maternity leave, I put a call out on social media for a list of books to read, as I was pretty sure I was going to be bored out of my mind.

Well, that list remains unread.

I mean, who knew that hanging out with a tiny infant could be so utterly brilliant? I certainly didn’t.

In the beginning, it works like this: snuggle, feed, sleep (whenever possible), change nappy. Repeat. With a lot of non-brain-engaging television soundtracking your life.

In time, you move into something that looks like a life. You start the meet-for-a-coffee-and-breast/bottle-feed routine. This massive step back towards normality involves getting your head around how the hell the sling/pushchair/car seat works, as well as comparing sleep-deprivation notes. It may seem like a tiny thing, but to a new parent, this is huge.

Finally, as you become a professional parent extraordinaire, there is the pure joy of just observing the little human you made and all their firsts: the smile, the laugh, their noticing that they have hands, sitting up, eating something, growing teeth, saying “Mama” and “Dada”, and taking wobbly steps. I did not expect any of it. I did not expect to enjoy it. I did not expect it to be so fulfilling.

I recognise it is not like that for everyone, but I think it is important to make clear that it can be like that. And that you are allowed to enjoy the experience without thinking you are giving up your career, letting anyone down or being any less ambitious.

Katie White is a secondary English teacher in Devon


Balancing being a new dad with a full-time job

I couldn’t afford to take my full paternity leave. My daughter Lily was born on a Friday in June and I was back to work on the Tuesday. The summer holidays were just around the corner and we needed all the money I could get.

My partner never made me feel as though I was letting her down in going back to work; in fact, it was she who urged me to do so. Her mother lived just two streets away, which was a huge help.

Yet, in spite of all that, writing these words evokes an uncomfortable feeling in me. I think it might be shame.

It being the final few weeks of the summer term, I could leave on the bell and be home before 4pm. I didn’t shirk from my duties. Lily was rugby-balled to me as I walked through the door and the evening routine of feeding, wiping and supporting one another began.

We ran a rota system of staying awake with Lily on alternate nights. We tried splitting responsibilities in single nights, but it didn’t work for us. Far more pleasing was the thought of a whole night of undisturbed sleep, even if it did mean we paid for it with a night of undisturbed hushing and rocking and crying.

Because we did cry a lot in those early days. In fact, the first few months of fatherhood were the first time I ever sought professional help for my state of mind. I didn’t cope well at all.

The saintliness expected of – and perpetuated by – teachers never sat well with me. Sometimes, kids annoy me. Sometimes, I can’t think of anything worse than marking books. I certainly don’t want to spend my weekends in total abstinence, lovingly creating presentation after presentation after presentation in PowerPoint.

But being a parent was worse. While other parents always seemed to be cooing and smiling, bombarding the world with images of rose-tinted smiles beaming over cots, for us, in those early days, parenthood was just a little bit shit, and I felt ashamed for feeling so.

All I needed was someone to say “You know what? It is a bit crap sometimes, ain’t it?” That would have helped.

Teaching in the day was, if I’m honest, a welcome break from the chaos a new-born baby brings to your world. But of course it was difficult, too. In a profession that puts so much value in children, I felt like an outsider, with my thoughts about babies being a bit…er…crap.

I have come out the other side. Before Lily was born, I remember driving to work and singing along to my favourite song. All of a sudden I had this thought: “One day, it’ll be just me and my daughter in here singing along to this together.”

I had to pull the car over because I started crying uncontrollably. They were tears of a joy and love I could not possibly attempt to measure now, or ever.

A year-and-a-half on, as I was driving Lily to nursery last week, my favourite song came on the radio and I started singing. Unusually, Lily went quiet.

As I turned my head to check that she was OK, I saw her staring at me, transfixed. And then, I swear it, she started to sing along with me.

That was the most life-affirmingly beautiful moment of my life.

To anybody who is becoming a parent for the first time, recognise, accept and be honest about the fact that it is shit sometimes. It really is.

But they ain’t wrong when they tell you it’s worth it. It really is all worth it.

Matt Pinkett is an English teacher. He tweets @positivteacha

 


Finding the right support on adoption leave

When I became a dad to a beautiful little nine-month-old boy (imaginatively known on social media as the Boy), it was (mainly) joyous. I had a few close brushes with post-adoption blues, but got through it pretty unscathed. The biggest struggles for me were the tedium of the daily parenting routine – three years in and I am still fighting with the laundry pile – and being a male primary carer in a playground in which the other full-time parents were mums. I had never anticipated that I would feel left out because I had no birth or breastfeeding stories to swap.

A local adoption playgroup was my salvation. Here, there was a different currency: we chatted about social worker visits, court orders, birth families, and whether what our children were doing was “normal” or perhaps “adoption normal”. We grew close as a group, as we each bonded with our children and they with each other.

I began thinking about returning to school and, like many, had the usual negotiations about returning part-time. The needs of the Boy as an adopted child meant that I had little flexibility; eventually, the leadership understood this.

I now work part-time to allow me to be at home more. I think that I am lucky as an adoptive parent working in a school; many of my colleagues understand the needs of previously looked-after children. As the Boy grows up, I know that this understanding and support will prove invaluable.

Daniel Hugill is a teacher at The Coopers’ Company and Coborn School in Upminster


Making the sums add up

Way back in those early days of pregnancy, I sat with a calculator and had the shock of my life when I calculated the monthly drop in pay during maternity leave.

After I wiped up the decaffeinated tea that I’d spat over my computer screen, I decided that there had to be a way to cut my outgoings and increase my income.

Unions and professional memberships

If you’re a member of a union, then contact their subscriptions department and notify them of your maternity leave because you may be entitled to a reduction in fees. Similarly, if you belong to a professional body, such as the National Association for the Teaching of English, then it may also discount its membership if you are on maternity leave.

You may also be entitled to subsidised tickets it you attend any conferences – and they often provide crèches, making for very frugal CPD.

Baby-class circuit

Signing up to classes can be fun, but also pricey – so weigh up what you want to prioritise before you commit. For example, “baby sensory” was great for the first term (you have to commit to and pay for the whole term), but I didn’t sign up for a second, as I knew that I was returning to work, and instead found a week-by-week class I could drop in on as and when. If you have two at home, then ask about sibling discounts. Not all classes need to be expensive: libraries will normally do a weekly rhyme time, and that will usually be free. Also check out church halls for playgroups with baby sections.

Making money

Before undertaking anything that could conflict with your contract, you should always check with your HR department about how that affects your maternity pay and the terms of your employment.

If you’re given the all-clear, then there are lots of options. Exam marking is a double-win – you have the valuable CPD and will earn money at the same time. If you’re new to marking, then it might be a challenge to keep up with quotas when you have a small baby. However, as a new marker, you would have a reduced quota. Plus, it entirely depends upon the baby.

You could also consider writing study guides, either by self-publishing or writing for an existing publisher.

And selling teaching resources can be a good source of income, as long as doing so meets all your contractual obligations and you are clear on copyright. I sell on Tes Resources*.

Grainne Hallahan is a secondary English teacher in Essex. She tweets @Heymrshallahan

*Tes is part of Tes Global, which owns Tes Resources


When your maternity leave doesn’t go to plan

At the end of my pregnancy, I approached my maternity leave like a hero swaggering away from a battleground victory.

Admittedly, this was partially because I couldn’t walk with my legs together by that point owing to symphysis pubis dysfunction, but also because teaching while pregnant is no mean feat.

Maternity leave was calling and I was imagining all that glorious time for relaxation stretching out before me; I’d probably get bored; I’d write a book in between nappy changes to keep my brain ticking over; I’d be back at work, fully recharged, within six months, probably less.

What happened next was that my son was born in the sort of gruesome birth scene that has you hiding behind your hands when you’re watching Casualty. I developed crippling postnatal depression, and then the little sod didn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time until he was three years old.

As the sixth month approached, I accepted that I was incapable of doing anything other than dragging myself and the baby through the day, while demolishing packets of biscuits. I’d abandoned all thoughts of returning to work.

Hello reality, farewell previous smug self.

It is important to remember that things don’t go so smoothly for everyone. And it is even more important to remember that if things do not go as you’d hoped, you are not a failure and you are not alone. The NHS states that one-in-10 women will experience some form of postnatal depression in the first year after having a child (read more about it at bit.ly/NHSPostnatal).

Postpartum mental health problems can hit you hard, and because you’re probably sleep deprived and stuck indoors with a screaming baby, it can take a while to recognise that you are unwell and not just struggling to adapt.

It’s not just depression that can be a problem – anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, more rarely, psychosis can also affect you after giving birth and can be extremely debilitating. One moment you’re a capable professional person, used to teaching classes, managing staff and racing through marking and admin, and the next you can’t leave the house because you’re a shaking, depressed wreck.

These conditions rarely get better without treatment, so it’s important that you see your GP if you’re struggling, and to seek help at the first signs of a problem.

But finding that maternity leave is not all you’d hoped it would be does not always mean you have a mental health issue. There are aspects of new parenthood that can simply get you down. Much of it is drudgery interspersed with picking dried mashed banana off surfaces and watching CBeebies.

And babies just don’t do what you want them to do. A common misconception with teachers is that because we work with children all the time, we’ll be naturals at looking after our own. I’m an early years teacher and I’m used to bringing my classroom to a calm, quiet standstill by clapping my hands and looking like I have something exciting to say. It turns out that this doesn’t work with a baby. Back to the drawing board.

Speaking openly about this should not be taboo. Thanks to several bloggers airing these views, it has become more acceptable and women are feeling less like failures as a result.

You may have wanted to be back at work within a few months, but now realise that this is not possible. Or maybe you have discovered that you hate being at home with a baby and want to return to work earlier than planned. Like me, you might decide that you don’t want to go back at all and will look for a new teaching position when the time is right.

The best rule to follow is to do what feels right for you and your child wherever possible. And to have a biscuit. That’s rule number two.

Lisa Jarmin is an early years teacher and a freelance writer. She tweets @lisajarmin

Who can help?

Local support

Speak to your health visitor if you are struggling to adjust to parenthood, or your GP if you are not coping emotionally.

Find your local Sure Start Centre for advice, classes, support and groups to help you to meet other new parents: bit.ly/FindSureStart

Online support

You can access various parenting websites and forums to talk to other new parents and receive advice. Specific to teachers, Tes Community has sub-forums devoted to pregnancy and parenting (community.tes.com) and parenting website Mumsnet has a sub-forum for teachers (bit.ly/MumsnetStaffroom).

Pandas Foundation

Pandas offers support to people suffering from pre- and postnatal mental illnesses. It has a helpline and local support groups.

Unions

Contact your local rep for advice and read your union’s maternity-leave guidance.


Making the most of KIT days

In the lead-up to maternity leave, I had a number of meetings with my line manager to discuss how I wanted my KIT days to work. For me, it was really important that I didn’t lose touch with my colleagues. To begin with, I planned to have a KIT day once every half-term, and then see how it went from there. I also aimed to check my work emails once a week, to keep up to date with the latest news from school life.

I was really keen that my KIT days should be as impactful as possible for the rest of the leadership team. I wanted to feel useful. It was agreed that my days would be spent working with different departments in a consultancy-type role. This meant my KIT days were also a really useful experience for me and allowed me to feel like I was continuing to develop.

I’ve found that as my maternity leave has progressed, I have had periods in which I have wanted more contact with work (especially during the early weeks) and times when I felt like I needed a good break (when the four-month sleep regression hit). I also now plan to use more of my KIT days in the final months before I return to work, meaning I can hit the ground running.

I have been fortunate to have a really supportive line manager to help me navigate the process and to accommodate the above. It makes all the difference, so if you don’t feel you’re getting the support you need, make sure you ask for it.

Below are some tips for KIT days based on my experience:

  • * Do as much, or as little, as you want during your maternity leave. Don’t feel pressured into working if you don’t want to, and don’t feel bad for wanting to work if you are keen. It is your maternity leave.
  • * Before you go on your maternity leave, make a plan for how much you might want to do and discuss this with your line manager. You don’t have to stick to it, but you will appreciate the structure once the baby has arrived.
  • * Have a think about what you might be able to do on your KIT days. The days have to be mutually agreed by you and your employer, so make sure you’re suggesting something that will be of use to them and to you. Some employers may support different flexible working arrangements on KIT days, so be sure to ask, if you have an idea.
  • * KIT days are knackering (especially if your little one has kept you up all night beforehand). Make sure you not only get some childcare for the day, but also some help before and after from a supportive partner or family member.
  • * Enjoy it. Have fun catching up with colleagues, seeing the students and doing a day’s work without the usual stresses and strains of the job.

Rachel Dooley is assistant principal at Oasis Academy Coulsdon, south London. She is a member of The MTPT Project

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