"Starting a new role after maternity leave is perfect timing. It's a clean slate."
Elsa Weatherley-Godard, is a Senior Legal Counsel with ENGIE. She started this full-time position right after her maternity leave, when her daughter, Skye, was nine months old. Previously an energy projects lawyer with Norton Rose Fulbright, while on maternity leave Elsa was invited to join ENGIE.
Elsa's partner, Carl, also works full-time as the General Counsel in a London ship-owning company. Elsa and Carl shared parental leave, with Elsa taking 8.5 months, and Carl taking 3.5 months to care for Skye. Carl's shared parental leave story is here.
Elsa took a 6-month coaching programme with me while she was on maternity leave. She generously shares her experience in this exclusive interview.
What did you learn during maternity leave and through our coaching?
As you can imagine, having a baby and the ensuing maternity leave was a transforming time. Everything changed, and I definitely learnt a lot about myself. If I had to categorise them into three main points, they would be:
1. What my (new) priorities are
I learnt to put myself and my wee family first. Before having a baby, I probably put work first too often and although I always made sure I made time for my husband and friends, I sometimes felt like I was being spread too thin in an attempt to get everything done and see everyone. After having Skye, I prioritised her and my husband 100% and felt a lot more 'present'.
During one session with Anya, we wrote down what is important to me for my family and the importance I attach to each value. Although it had always been in the back of my mind, it was really useful to see my list of priorities written down and to talk through each of them with Anya, explaining to her (and sometimes myself) why they are so important.
I realised that above all, I wanted to make sure that Skye grows up in a safe and happy environment. More so than having material things but not seeing her parents as much because we were busy working to afford those things. I wanted Skye to always feel safe to be herself at home. Now sometimes when I have to make a decision that will affect Skye, I think to myself "which one of these options will help her feel safe and happy" and often the answer becomes easier to see.
2. Life doesn't end when you become a parent
One thing I worried about when I was pregnant was not being able to see my friends once I had the baby and generally life-changing so much that it became unrecognisable.
The first few months were obviously quite full-on, and especially as I breastfed on demand, it was quite difficult to go out in the evenings for too long. What I hadn't realised was how willing friends were to adapt to my new normal. Instead of meeting in the centre of London after work, they would travel to my part of town so we could go out for dinner as soon as Skye was down and I could nip home if need be on short notice, or meet up for a picnic and a walk in a park over the weekend.
My life has actually remained very similar to what it was except that I perhaps go out less during the week and more noticeably, I want to go out less during the week. Coming home to a happy toddler in the evening is a new type of fun!
3. To let go
Being a solicitor means you have to be organised with your work and time. Although being organised with a baby is helpful, you might as well throw any schedules you have in mind out the window.
Trying to leave the house during the first few months was an introduction to the art of taking things as they come, but more than that, accepting that what works for your baby one day or week, will not work the next, and you just have to go with it. It was not like at work where if you found a solution to a problem on a project, that solution could be applied the next time.
With Skye, we were constantly having to adapt to her continuous changes. Things that calmed and soothed her one week seemed to irritate her the next. Some nights she would go to sleep easily and peacefully at 7pm, and then suddenly out of the blue she would need extra cuddles and comfort and we would simply take turns having dinner as the other sat and rocked her in our arms as she slept.
I am glad that we were both able to adapt to Skye's needs and not attempt to keep schedules or read up on how she was supposed to act and try to enforce anything. It has been nice living so flexibly.
You started a new job right after maternity leave. Tell us more about this decision.
During my maternity leave, ENGIE contacted me and asked if I would consider working for them. I had been on secondment with them in Brussels in 2018 which I had enjoyed a lot, and now a vacancy was opening up in the London office, which was perfect. They were very flexible with the start date, so Carl and I discussed when he would like to start his paternity leave, and I went back to work then.
Lots of women do not feel ready for a new challenging role after maternity leave. What made you feel like "I can do it!"?
In some ways, starting a new role after maternity leave is perfect timing. It's a clean slate. By starting a new role, I was able to establish what would be the new normal right from the get-go. If I had gone back to my old role, I am sure that people would have noticed a difference between now and the 'old Elsa' who perhaps would go to more client events in the evenings, always volunteer to travel abroad for work for long periods of time, happily work until midnight etc. Although I know that my employers would have appreciated the reason for these changes, it may have looked like I was less dedicated than I used to be.
By starting afresh, there was no comparison, and I was able to show that I was keen, while still being able to finish at a decent hour and go home to my family.
Many women report that by the time they come back to work, they feel as if they've fallen behind in professional skills. What is your take on this? Do you think that new mums develop skills that are useful in professional life?
This was definitely my fear as well. However, as soon as I started work, my fears fell away and things came back to me. New Mums definitely develop new skills such as multitasking, knowing to prioritise tasks and from what I have seen – working efficiently throughout the day to make sure they can get home at a reasonable time.
What advice would you have for women going back to work from maternity leave?
One thing I would say is not to worry. I was lucky that Carl would be taking over from me and so I didn't have to worry about how Skye would fare at nursery, but I did worry a lot about how she would cope with being breastfed less and how Carl would manage to get her down for naps. She coped brilliantly, and Carl got her down effortlessly.
I would also recommend spending time with Anya. Her coaching services are very helpful for preparation on going back to work, thinking about what is important in your personal life and making sure you take care of yourself too. Someone pointed out to me that a lot of attention is given to the mother while she is pregnant, but as soon as she gives birth, all professional help is directed to the welfare of the baby. While it is great that your baby is receiving so much help, it is so important to look after ourselves as Mums as well, both physically and mentally. Anya's coaching helped me a great deal in this regard.
When you returned to work, your partner Carl took 3.5 months of shared parental leave to stay with Skye. What was your experience of sharing parental leave? What positive change has it made to your family dynamics?
There are so many positives! As I mentioned above, the first positive was that I was able to go back to work knowing that our baby was still being taken care of by a parent. Going back to work is hard enough, and that definitely made it easier.
Secondly, Carl and Skye now have a very strong bond. Seeing Skye bond with Carl as her primary carer during those months was really great and proved that Dads are just important to the child as Mums are. Both Carl and I are back at work now, but Skye has a secure attachment to both of us, and I think that has helped her settle easily at nursery. The fact that we have both individually been primary carer means when we are with Skye during evenings, on weekends and holidays, Carl doesn't see parenting as my job with him as my helpful assistant. We are 100% co-parents.
Lastly, from a more selfish perspective, I am glad that Carl got an insight into what staying at home with a baby is like. I know he always appreciated that it can be tough, but I don't think he had quite realised how slow time can get, especially in the last hour before the other parent gets home. Or how long it takes to leave the house. Or the value of sitting a drinking a hot cup of coffee uninterrupted.
… and negative?
The only minor negative was that under the current government guidelines, we have a 'pot' of 12 months to share between us. So any time Carl takes is deducted from my maternity leave, and I had to go back to work after nine months. It wasn't a big negative though as it was a great nine months and I was more than happy for Carl to be able to experience parental leave too.
What advice would you have for couples on taking the shared parental leave?
Well done, great decision!
Advice for the parent taking over – don't worry if things seem hectic at first. It will take a week or two to find your own routine and balance, but things will quickly fall into place.
Lots of professional women are longing for more work-life balance. What advice would you have for anyone on finding balance?
Finding a work-life balance can be hard, and it often depends on the job you have or even your individual boss. I would advise you talk to Anya and spend time working on your goals and priorities to help steer your life onto a track you are happy with.
How did our coaching work help you in that phase?
During our coaching sessions, Anya and I worked on drawing a wheel of life which was a powerful tool to help me visualise the important areas of my life and what was off balance and needed more attention. It also worked as a birds-eye view which was easy to refer back to.
We also spoke a lot about my personal and family values. As I mentioned above, this helped me focus on what is important to me and when I make parenting decisions. I now ask myself which of the options would result in Skye being safe and happy.
Lastly, we also did an exercise which involved me visualising my 'captain' and my future. I won't go into the details here as it will be much more useful to do the exercise properly with Anya, but I found the exercise useful to determine whether I thought my life was going in the right direction, and if not, what needed to change.
Both you and Carl are in full-time jobs, treasure family time and exercise daily. How do you manage to fit it in without grandparents' support nearby?
With difficulty! But it is possible.
We have had to trial and error a few routines and keep communication lines open. We have now realised that Carl is more of a morning person than I am (and gets ready quicker), so he takes Skye to nursery in the morning while I get ready. I then pick her up in the evening as I have more flexibility with work at that time.
We both also realise the importance of being able to exercise and to go out, so we make sure the other takes time for themselves to take an evening here and there to see friends or do group activities with friends during the day on weekends.
And how did you manage during the Covid-19 lockdown?
Lockdown has been hard on so many people. We have been fortunate as we can easily work from home, and it did not affect our work at all. What did affect our work was having Skye at home with us when nurseries shut. Luckily our employers were quite understanding, and we worked around it.
We were fortunate enough to be visiting family in Scotland when the lockdown was announced, and so we had more space. I would take Skye in the morning while Carl worked, she would then (ideally) nap an hour or two over lunch, and then Carl would take her in the afternoon while I worked. Then we would both spend time with her over dinner and once she was asleep at around 7pm, we would both work into the evening, catching up on anything we had not got round to doing. Carl was even able to incorporate exercise into his afternoon Skye-time when we bought a child carrier and would take her on long walks on his back.
Doing this work routine for two months was fairly intense, but do-able.
Do you think the way we work is going to change in the wake of the lockdown? How might it impact working parents?
Absolutely. I understand that many companies have noticed how well their workforce is able to work from home and are looking to downsize office spaces and create more flexible working environments.
I imagine that this will benefit working parents who will enjoy the small but appreciable benefits of being able to put a load of washing on and hanging it up during the week, being home for when the children get back from school, getting life admin done during your lunch break or just not having to waste time commuting.
London is an amazing city and we have enjoyed living here so much, but one of the reasons for staying in zone 2 was to be close to the office. Now that there is no need to be in the office, and there is a chance that this will continue, we have re-evaluated our living arrangements and decided to move to Scotland (the family pic above is already taken in Scotland). Our employers are comfortable with this move as long as we are willing to come back to London regularly in accordance with business needs (such needs to be determined in the future when we know more about the 'new normal').
This is really exciting as we will move from a flat to a three-storey house (for less) and be close to family, the countryside and the sea. We will miss London, but during lockdown we saw how much Skye loved being out in the country. So we asked ourselves what would make Skye secure and happy and the answer was – the move. Thank you, Anya!
Elsa Weatherley-Godard did a 6-month coaching programme with me back in 2019. I am thrilled that she was so open in sharing her experience with my community of professional working parents in this exclusive interview. Thank you, Elsa!
Anya Smirnova is a transformational coach with a particular focus on working mothers.
Read more about Anya's coaching approach here.