When it comes to maternity leave and supporting parenthood, Europe is far and away the most generous. According to a report by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the top 10 countries with the most number of paid maternity leave days are all in Europe, with Estonia, Hungary and Bulgaria leading at 85, 72 and 65 weeks respectively.

However, it is a different story on this side of the world. In Hong Kong, where I am currently based, the standard is 10 weeks of paid maternity leaves. This became a bit of a problem when I, the Associate Director (AD) of Human Resources, Secretarial & Financial Services at Page Personnel Hong Kong, became a mother for the very first time 20 months ago.

Cloudy with a chance of anxiety

Whatever you have heard about being a parent, let alone a first-time parent, is all true. Learning basic parenting skills aside, in the first three months of my son’s birth, I was running on five hours of sleep every night (if that). I didn’t know when the day ended and the next one began. Everything blurred into one long stretch of endless, sleepless night.

The anxiety even followed me back to work. For one, I had to build trust with the helper that we hired. Being born and raised in the United Kingdom, we didn’t have a helper around the house, so handing my newborn son off to a stranger while I was at work, at least at the time, was difficult. And my parents and in-laws were halfway around the world, so the helper became the sole caretaker during working hours.

The hardest part about being an AD and a first-time mother, however, was the so-called ‘Mother’s Guilt’. While at work, I felt that I was not spending enough time with my newborn son. I missed his biggest milestones, like saying the first words or taking the first steps. When my son learnt a new trick or said a new word, it was because the helper was there to witness it — not me. I often felt guilty for not being there, and it was a period of much anxiety to say the least.

Flexibility and support

With that said, every bit of help went a long way, and I cannot emphasise enough just how much support I got from PageGroup. For example, different companies have different maternity-related policies. I was on maternity leave between February and September 2018 — a real luxury by Asia’s standards. And it’s not because I negotiated for it, either. I was offered to take six months off and told to return to work only when I was ready to do so.

Even after the baby was born, PageGroup was flexible with regard to work arrangements. For example, my son, now 20 months old, is an early riser, and I tend to come to the office early and leave a little earlier in the afternoon. This slight change in my daily schedule allows me to spend extra hours with my son, which I greatly appreciate. In fact, I was allowed to operate on shorter work weeks. The fact that the company was willing to accommodate such changes really helped me get back on my feet.

Natalie posing with her husband and son.

Striking a balance

One year on, despite the initial anxieties, things could not have gone any better from a work perspective. Having spent time away has helped me feel more energised about the road ahead. Moreover, it’s given me time to reflect and rethink my priorities, and I find myself worrying less about things that I cannot control.

For example, I schedule back-to-back meetings to maximise my time and boost productivity. A little mantra that I have developed for myself is this: if it isn’t going to kill me to send that email tomorrow, then do it tomorrow. The biggest learning curve these days is time management. It’s about finding time for work, time for the baby, and then time for your own sanity. Being away from my post also gave more junior managers on the team a chance to develop and grow. Admittedly, people often tell me that I don’t delegate enough work to others. So the maternity period gave me the opportunity to delegate work to my team, thus allowing them to make mistakes and step up to the challenge. Now that they are equipped with these newfound skills, I can channel my time into tasks that are less operational and more strategic for the business.

On a personal level, my son has finally developed a routine. I’ve even been able to carve out time for gym sessions three times a week — and the helper turned out to be absolutely invaluable. She is a big reason why I’ve been able to keep everything together.

The milestones ahead

Before giving birth, people asked if I was nervous about having the child. To be honest, what I am more worried about, even till this day, are the decisions I must make as a parent, and how they will impact my child in the years to come.

At the end of the day, those precious first milestones — first words, first walk — will not be coming back. However, I know that there will be other milestones ahead for me to witness for the first time. I must say, aside from my work as an AD, this job as a parent is already looking to be one of the most exciting career choices yet.

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