My first child was born in January 2021. In October 2021, I returned to work part time after ~9 months of parental leave. In this post, I want to share my experience of returning to work. I hope this might help potential parents to think about what working might ideally look like for them if/when they have a baby.
A few caveats:
- Context matters a lot. I’m the main carer for my child, though I’m not a single parent, I took 9 months off work completely, and then went back to work 0.5FTE. Independently of my own salary I am financially well-off, and I have a strong EA network.
- I’m particularly mindful that if I had had less money, some of the choices I made wouldn’t have been available to me.
- Parental preference matters a lot. For basically all of the below I can imagine great parents having different preferences to me.
- Age. My child is 1 year old and I have no idea what things are like with older children (or multiple children).
What follows are the main things I notice about my own experience of returning to work. I’ve put the points in rough chronological order. As I want to convey the texture of my experiences, not just factual points, I’ve gone into a fair bit of detail. I suggest you skim the headings, and read those which sound interesting/relevant to you.
I found it hard to predict when I’d want to return to work
- Before I had a baby, I guessed I would want to take 6 months off.
- Once the baby arrived, I thought maybe I would never go back to work. I found looking after him very fulfilling, and the horizons of my world contracted. I knew that x-risk was still a thing, but it seemed very far away and a bit unreal. I cared a lot more about caring for my family than about saving the world, and also had a much clearer sense of how to do the former than the latter.
- When my baby was around 7 months old, I relatively suddenly started to want to work again.
- This change happened over about 2 weeks.
- Partly this was triggered by me having a few conversations with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. They had interesting things to say about their work and the world, and I wanted to have that too.
- The experience was a bit like part of my brain turning back on. Suddenly I was interested in something beyond my family, and had ideas and thoughts and questions again.
- This change roughly coincided with my baby sleeping a bit better at night. It’s plausible to me that really-sleep-deprived-me doesn’t have the capacity to think about much, and only-mildly-sleep-deprived-me does.
See this post for another parent who found it hard to predict when they’d want to return.
Switching jobs was easier than I expected
Before having a baby, I worked as a project manager at a research organisation. Originally I planned to return to this job, but when it came to it, changes at the organisation made me think that I’d find the work too stressful. So unexpectedly I found myself looking for work after a 9 month break.
There were things about this that I expected to be hard:
- It was difficult to make progress finding work before I had childcare, but I also wanted to have work so I could pay for the childcare.
- I hadn’t been thinking about work stuff for a long time, and I was out of the loop in terms of what others were working on and excited about.
- Relative to pre-baby-me, I felt much less risk tolerant in a few different ways:
- I had less emotional bandwidth for work, as
- Having a child contributed to me wanting to buy a house. Having a permanent salary is useful for getting a mortgage, so I suddenly found I had new preferences about how I was paid.
- I wanted to switch career path, or at least try out different kinds of work. I didn’t have strong track record in the things I wanted to try out.
But I actually found it surprisingly easy to find work opportunities. Obviously some of this will be specific to me, but I think there are also some general points:
- ~All of the serious options I had came through people I knew, rather than public job advertisements.
- There are funds who are interested in helping EAs to find good work.
NB while I did have some opportunities that involved a permanent salary, but they tended to be less flexible and higher stress roles. In the end, I decided I cared more short term about the kind of work than about getting a mortgage.
I found it harder to find childcare than a job
I found a job faster than I found childcare, which surprised me.
I think the main challenges with finding childcare were:
- Uncertainty about when I wanted to return to work: by the time I had a sense of this, it was too late for some options.
- I needed child-free time in order to find childcare (emails, forms, advertising) - but I needed childcare to get child-free time. This made the process slower and more stressful.
- Genuinely limited supply of childcare.
I imagine childcare options vary quite a lot by location, but for context, this is what we found in Oxford:
- My impression is that you want to be on the waiting list a bare minimum of 6 months in advance, but ideally 1-2 years (more for some places). I think we started looking around 3-4 months in advance, which wasn’t early enough.
- One nursery was able to take the baby when we wanted childcare, but we didn’t think it was great.
- We found a nursery very close to our house which we think is great, but they don’t have spaces at the moment.
- It took us maybe 3 months to find a nanny we were happy with. It felt very time pressured, and we used lots of different means in parallel to maximise the chance of finding someone, but we ended up getting someone to start at roughly the time we wanted. Probably a month earlier would have been better, but we probably couldn’t have known this in advance.
- I thought that the question to ask was something like ‘what am I looking for in a nanny’. I think the real question turned out to be more like ‘can I find someone I feel comfortable with, who is available for the times I want’. I didn’t need to spend time working out how to differentiate between good and outstanding, just between workable and not workable.
- To be clear, I think my nanny is great. But she wasn’t up against other very plausible candidates.
- We used three different agencies to help us find a nanny, but ended up finding one through our own advertising. The agencies seemed pretty incompetent and gave us very few candidates, though this may have been because we were looking for a part time nanny, and agencies get paid in relation to whatever the nanny’s salary is.
NB I expect it would have been considerably quicker and easier to find a nanny if we had been willing to pay more money. We wanted someone to do 18 hours/week for 40 weeks a year plus holiday. That’s not enough for most sorts of people, but we weren’t willing to pay for double the hours we wanted.
Figuring out the boundaries between work and being with my baby is hard
Let’s say I have a work call I want to do. I have childcare in the mornings only, but I can take calls in the afternoon while I take my baby for a walk. For me, the trade off here feels quite complicated:
- Calling in the morning increases the quality of the call time (no potentially fussy baby, I can check things online or write in docs during the call). It also increases the quality of the time I spend with my baby in the afternoon.
- But the morning is also the only time I can do desk work, which doesn’t work on a walk with a baby. So calling in the afternoon maximises how much time I can spend doing desk work.
There are other factors to consider too:
- Which calls are actually work calls? Calling my mentor seems like a work call. What if it’s a call with someone 80k has introduced me to? Or a chat with a friend who has overlapping research interests to me?
- My baby’s afternoon nap is the only chance I have to nap during the day, but it’s timing is a bit unpredictable. Scheduling an afternoon call might mean that I don’t get to nap.
- The afternoon is the easiest time for me to see my friends, call my family, go to the swings with my baby, cook for dinner parties in the evening etc. If I arrange lots of afternoon work calls, it’ll be hard for me to do these things.
That’s a lot of things to think about when scheduling a call. Some reflections:
- Often it’s not actually worth working out the optimal time for the call, and I just give the person I’m scheduling with options and let them decide.
- Overall I think 0.5FTE was the right balance for me, and plan to continue at this level.
- Work time, baby time and leisure time all feel very precious to me, and I think my difficulty around the boundaries reflects genuine uncertainty in me about my preferences.
- Another way of looking at this sort of thing is that change of routine is often disruptive, and it takes time to get into new rhythms and habits that work well for you. Starting work again was a big change for me, and it doesn’t surprise me that settling wasn’t always straightforward.
- After some months of working, I already have much more aligned intuitions about my boundaries and what I want. Usually I don’t have to think much or at all about when I want to do something, as by now I’ve worked out general policies which work for me and reflect my preferences.
My anxiety levels went up when I returned to work
After a few months back at work, I suddenly noticed that I was much more anxious than I had been while looking after my baby full-time. While on parental leave, I often felt very serene and present, and my days were often very joyful. (There were really difficult times as well.) On returning to work, I found that I spent much more of my time worrying and planning, and that I was less aware of my body, my baby, and the wonderful things about my life.
I’m not surprised by this:
- When looking after my baby full-time, my goals felt simple and harmonious: the thing I was trying to do with my life was care for my child. When I started work, my goals became a lot more complex. This meant more decisions, and harder decisions. I’ve always found that decisions make me anxious, as I have hang-ups around being a good person, and often get triggered around decisions (‘there’s a virtuous option, and if I don’t pick it I’ll be a bad person’).
- I’ve previously found that big changes in routine (e.g. the start of the pandemic) make me more anxious.
- I’ve previously found that being my own manager makes me more anxious, when I worked as a freelance translator. I did have a mentor when I returned to work, but that’s a bit different from a manager, and also the stakes feel higher now that I’m trying to do useful work, rather than just good work.
I still feel more anxious than before, but things have improved. Things that helped me:
- Noticing that I felt more anxious. This reduced my meta anxiety (‘oh no, I feel anxious again, I shouldn’t feel anxious, I need to do something about it’) a lot. Relatedly, it made it easier for me to feel compassionate towards myself and cut myself some slack (‘yes, this is actually quite a hard thing. It’s not surprising that I find it tough sometimes’).
- Putting a higher premium on the things that have helped me deal with anxiety in the past (in my case, sleep, exercise, meditation and journaling).
- Time passing:
- To some extent, I think emotions just pass by themselves.
- Time has also given me the opportunity to adjust to the changes in my life, create new routines (and thus reduce the number of hard, triggering decisions), get clearer on my preferences etc.
For me, starting with an independent contributor role was a great first thing
I love working with people, but I also find organising, logistics, scheduling etc pretty stressful. Most work involving people means doing some of that stuff.
For me, returning first to an independent contributor role, rather than managing or coordinating people/projects, was a really great way to start work. I think there are a lot of overlapping things that were good for me about this:
- The boundaries I set around my work affected me much more than other people. This meant that I could concentrate on my own preferences, which I was confused about, without also trying to factor in the impact on others.
- I didn’t routinely have to be assertive about my boundaries. There were no time-sensitive emergencies that meant it would be ideal if I could work this afternoon, or take a call right now, or work late into the night.
- I only really had one work relationship, with my mentor. I’m giving a lot of my love to my child right now, so I don’t have a tonne of emotional availability for others, and this suited me well.
- I really was very flexible, and so if my child was teething or my nanny had covid or whatever, there wasn’t a huge impact on other people.
- I had uncertainty about how much work I wanted to do, and about what sort of work I wanted to do longer term. I didn’t really want to commit upfront to being a crucial part of a project, and then pull out. Pulling out of my independent contributor role would just have meant that my work didn’t happen, rather than meaning that the work of other people would also be negatively impacted.
The difference between my former job (project management) and my current work (independent research) is particularly stark on this dimension, but I wonder if a milder form of ‘start with more independent work’ could be a good fit for a lot of people, including without changing role.
I’m much less flexible about when I work than I was before having a baby
If I feel tired or sad today and want to take the morning off, I will not be able to make up that time some other day, as I don’t have childcare then. The work time will be gone. I’ve arranged my childcare for the times at which I am generally most productive, but locally I have to accept either losing work time or working inefficiently. I also find this makes it harder to act in full self-alignment: I’m more likely to force myself to work than I was before, as the costs of not doing so seem higher.
Another aspect of reduced flexibility is that it makes coordination with other people more difficult. I work part time, so I can’t offer people as many options for calls as before. This is especially tricky for calls across time zones: I work the mornings GMT, and there are people I want to talk with who aren’t awake then. At the moment, this means my options are:
- Don’t call them.
- Call them while I take my baby on a walk (means I can’t really do online stuff at the same time, baby might get fussy).
- Specially arrange for a baby-sitter or my parent-in-law to look after the baby while I do the call (needs lead time, not necessarily the place I most want to spend my capital with these people).
- Call them while my baby naps (unpredictable timing, it’s the only time in the day I can nap and I’m still quite sleep deprived).
- Call them once my baby has gone to bed (eats into scarce baby-free leisure time with my partner).
Obviously my preferences limit my options here: if these calls were a bigger part of my work, I might change my hours or arrange regular childcare for some afternoon times or something. I don’t mean to imply that this is an exhaustive list of the options the universe has provided me with: it’s just the list of options that feel plausible to me given my preferences.
For me, working from home has been good
I like working from home for a few reasons:
- It saves travel time. I only live 15 minutes’ walk from the office I could work in, but there and back that’s half an hour a day. I only have childcare for 4.5 hours each day, so I don’t really want to spend 10% of that time walking.
- I know if my baby is upset. I work upstairs, but I can still hear him crying.
- This can be a disadvantage, as it is distracting/upsetting, and often my knowing about it doesn’t change what I do.
- Overall I prefer it though:
- Occasionally I do want to come down and help
- Even if I don’t, I value the information I get about how he is, and I think it helps me look after him better in the afternoons
- Especially at the beginning, I would have been quite nervous and distracted working away from home. It’s reassuring to me to know that he’s only a few rooms away
A few things to note:
- I have a separate room where I can work. If I didn’t have this, I’d almost definitely choose an office over working from home.
- There have been times when my baby really didn’t like watching me leave. This applies whether you work from home or not, but if you work from home, it has implications for things like ‘I want to go downstairs and get a coffee’. This hasn’t been a big deal for me: when he’s like this, I only go down while he’s napping or on a walk. But I imagine some people would find this annoying, and some house geographies would make it harder.
Covid can be a big deal for childcare
A few examples (note that I live in the UK):
- I got a cough, and at the time that meant I had to self isolate. This meant my nanny couldn’t come, so I couldn’t work. It turned out not to be covid, but it took a few days to get a negative PCR result. So getting very minor infections can mean that you need to take time off work.
- My nanny got covid, and at the time that meant she needed to self-isolate for 10 days, unless she started to test negative on lateral flows. As it happened, she tested positive for the whole 10 days, even though by around day 5 she was feeling better. If she had continued to feel ill after day 10, she would obviously have taken more time off. I’m lucky: my parents-in-law live in town and are keen to help. If this weren’t the case, I would probably have taken two weeks off work.
- My partner got a positive cue test result. Technically at the time this didn’t mean I had to self isolate, but as we decided not to isolate from each other, I felt I should isolate from everyone else anyway. It’s unclear to me whether the rules on self isolation would have allowed our nanny to come into our house to look after our child: children didn’t need to self-isolate at the time, and we could have stayed upstairs. Even if we had decided the rules did allow this, there’s still the question of whether our nanny would have been comfortable with the exposure. As it turned out, our nanny had covid at this point anyway and was self-isolating, and my parent-in-law weren’t happy with the covid exposure. After one day off work, my partner got a negative PCR test, so this was a relatively minimal impact, but if he had actually had covid, it could have been another 10 days. (Or longer: assuming I caught covid from him, my 10 days of self-isolation would reset to 0 as soon as I started testing positive, and if I later got symptoms it would reset to 0 again.)
There are a few things to note about this:
- Covid makes it much more likely you’ll need to take time off work because of childcare.
- This can be quite a headache: you need to make judgement calls when it comes to interpreting the rules, timelines are uncertain, the risk tolerance of you/your main kind of childcare/any back-up childcare options will all come into play, and you’ll usually be trying to sort all of this out urgently the night before or the morning of a day you wanted to be working on.
- Obviously the impact of covid will depend on the country, the rules, and the rates of covid, so this may or may not be relevant to others in future.
Reflection: careers are long
When I first started wanting to return to work, and particularly when I realised that I wanted to find a new job and possibly career path, I worried that I had sort of ‘missed the boat’ by not getting onto a solid career path before having a child. I had the impression that standard career advice was to get well-established in your career before taking time off to have children. I was especially worried about my network and demonstrable skills atrophying, such that I ended up in 5 or 10 years without any opportunities for interesting or impactful work.
I now feel much more relaxed about this. Careers are long. If for the next decade or even two, my career moves more slowly because of the choices I make about children, there might still be decades of great work I can do after that. Some personal sources of inspiration in no particular order:
- Penelope Fitzgerald was in her 60s when she wrote her first novel. She later won the Booker Prize, and is held to be a great novelist by many.
- A family friend retired as a lawyer in his 50s, and began to write history books about Islam and the Arab world.
- My grandfather was a Classics professor. In his 80s and well after his retirement, he wrote an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
- The midwife who looked after me after I gave birth was a teacher until she had her first child. She was inspired by the experience, and retrained as a midwife. In my opinion, she is excellent at it.
- My mum took 11 years off work to raise me and my three sisters. She then started work in adult education and helped lots of very disadvantaged people learn to read and do maths.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and I may end up dissatisfied with my career options at some later point. Also, depending on your views on AI timelines and x-risk more generally, you may think that impactful work now is in expectation a lot more valuable than impactful work in a few decades time. Notwithstanding, I personally feel that I’ve made the right choices for me, and that I’ll still be able to do impactful things with my career.