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Parental leave: don’t just lean in, level up

10:15am March 05 2018

Lauren Capelin and her son, Louie, at last year’s Fintech Australia conference. (Supplied)

When my maternity leave ended in December, I remember actually removing my out-of-office message with some excitement.

After Louie was born, I’d spent three wonderful months on a rapid learning curve negotiating motherhood and focusing on little else. By the fourth month, my brain slowly began to turn back to work, aware I was on the other side of my six months off.

A few months in, it obviously hasn’t been without challenges.

Beyond wondering how I can function at work after months (nine and counting) of sleeping in three-hour stints, we’ve had overnight visits to hospital and Louie getting sick on his first day of daycare. Meetings are scheduled on days I’m not in the office (creating added pressure as our families live interstate), or he wakes early during his planned lunch-time nap when I’ve pencilled in a few hours to work at home. Passing on interstate trips and evening events are a given.

Yes, the new reality of life as a working parent is a constant negotiation, and I’m still getting comfortable with that. And I’m not alone! As the first employee of venture capital fund Reinventure – a relatively small workplace with less than 10 staff – to be taking parental leave, there was no precedent for managing the situation, and we were all figuring it out piece by piece.

Expecting Louie, my first baby, in May last year, I started 2017 with Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra on repeat in my mind: “Do not leave before you leave. Don’t lean back, lean in.” Like Sandberg’s observations of many women, I was so fearful of losing steam as the months approaching my maternity leave evaporated, of being perceived as having “checked out” well before my due date.

In fact, one of the most memorable anecdotes from Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement was the woman who was tentative to accept a new role not because she was pregnant, but because she was “thinking” about starting a family one day. It was with this energy that I sat down with Danny Gilligan and Simon Cant, the managing partners of Reinventure, last February to map out exactly how I planned to use each week, and what I was going to put in place for a smooth transition upon my anticipated return seven months later.

I’ve seen enough family members and friends go through the experience to know that it can be fraught with difficulty; from the lack of support offered in the lead-up to handing over responsibilities, to the financial support available through the leave period, and of course the process of re-engagement at the other end, with all the complexities that come along the way.

It’s exhausting as it sounds…

But here’s some of what I’ve taken away:
1. Be proactive in planning parental leave

Consider the actual mechanics of the leave period. It made me feel incredibly valued and supported to have Reinventure proactively research comparative parental leave plans, as well as collaborating with me on the structure and process.
2. Make space for new ideas and inspiration

Perhaps most important was taking a mental break to return with fresh ideas and perspectives, rather than trying to step back into the same slipstream. Simon and Danny encouraged me to actually take this time to evolve my role and work. I found myself creatively inspired and full of potential for what I could do and started to map out where I thought I could make the biggest contribution (somewhat throttled time-wise, but doubling down on ambition).

3. Find opportunities to re-engage gradually

Another priority was to make sure the readjustment period didn’t feel like a huge shock or stress, as it might when you spend such a long period of time focused on nothing but your baby. I wanted to make sure I could stay as engaged as possible (and legally allowed) while on parental leave, and re-enter gradually. So I attended a few meetings and a team strategy day towards the end of the year. We also travelled as a family to Melbourne so I could attend the FinTech Australia annual conference as another way of getting up-to-speed on updates in the industry. I am now convinced babies are fantastic ice-breakers!

I know my scenario probably sounds like a dream and not everyone’s work is as flexible. And I do feel incredibly lucky to have spent a wonderful six months one on one with my baby boy while being able to keep a toe in the water at work. I’m also the first to admit I am incredibly lucky, able to structure my working week to have two days in the office (with Louie in day-care, which he loves) and another working from home. Louie is also welcome in the office whenever I need and I can work remotely.

But as any parent knows, it isn’t always a dream with best laid plans at the mercy of tiny humans and no amount of pre-planning results in perfect execution.

A lot of how I got through comes down to my approach to the early days of the journey, and the encouragement I was given to not just lean in, but to “level up” on my goals and ambitions for my return.

Reinventure is backed by Westpac, which has committed $100m to the group.

Lauren is a community strategist and disruptive innovation specialist passionate about the development and application of new business models, corporate social innovation, impact investment and fostering entrepreneurial capacity, particularly in women. As Head of Venture Community at Reinventure, Lauren focuses on strengthening collaboration across the portfolio, deepening connections with strategic investor Westpac, and building networks in the broader FinTech and startup ecosystem, both in Australia and globally. Prior to this role, Lauren co-founded Collaborative Lab with author Rachel Botsman and is also co-founder of Common Room co-working space. She is the curator of the Sydney Global Shapers, a community of the World Economic Forum, and act as an Ambassador for B Lab ANZ. She’s also a registered yoga teacher!

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