Work / Life

The Joys and Challenges of Vanemapuhkus, the Estonian “Parental Vacation”

They call it a vacation.

The Estonian term vanemapuhkus literally translates, word for word, into “parental vacation”. Any parent who’s been on this so-called vacation knows that it’s almost always anything but. I’d describe it as a parental bootcamp. Vanemapuhkus is a test of resilience: it tests your ability to cope with routine while at the same time remaining prepared for any unexpected developments thrown at you. My own parental vacation has been a roller coaster of feelings: overwhelming feelings of love, joy and admiration that may at any moment be displaced by feelings of worry, loneliness and self-doubt. 

Estonia does undoubtedly have one of the world’s most generous family benefits acts. An expectant mother can stay at home for about two months before her due date, and after the baby is born the parental leave can last up to three years. Best of all: during 1.5 years the government continues to pay your regular salary. 

But even this shiny coin has two sides. On one hand it is incredibly rewarding to be present for every new development, to kiss away all boo-boos and to make sure your child knows you’re always—always—there for him. On the other hand, staying away from one’s so-called regular or real life for a year or two or three inevitably means putting yourself on hold. Sooner or later the question then becomes, “When do I want or get to be me again?

At the beginning of the vanemapuhkus with my third son, I promised myself that I would enjoy this wonderful change of pace, and to stay at home with him for as long as possible. I remember thinking that I’d happily use up the full three years of vacation granted to us by the Estonian government.

It’s also true that I’ve always enjoyed the delicate newborn stage; the  baby months that some moms find the hardest. This is  probably because all of my three boys have been solid sleepers, and so I’ve never had to struggle with sleep deprivation. 

The first one and a half years went by in the blink of an eye. I enjoyed a happy and peaceful sense of domestic bliss, everything swirling more or less around my youngest—my baby. The days passed and followed a solid, simple routine: feeding, changing nappies, play time, bath, lulling to sleep, feeding, changing nappies, play time, bath, lulling to sleep, and on and on and on… As the months passed there were some small changes and additions to this humdrum routine. But with each turn on that carousel, I imagined  my mental abilities melting away, bit by bit. Luckily, I had a very hands-on husband who happily took over the minute he came home from work (I should also note that I deeply  respect all the single parents out there, who are superheroes in my eyes!). But slowly, it dawned on me that something had to change. 

Maybe this realization will hit you like it did me, when for the 25,467th (or so) time I found myself telling my toddler not to open the kitchen drawer. Maybe it will be when you’re patiently trying to persuade him not to put the spoon into his diaper, or when you are wondering if it’s poop or chocolate on your couch and if you’re brave enough to do a smell and/or taste test. At one point I had to decide: It’s definitely time to be myself again; to start using the parts of my brain that had remained neglected for so long (between the poop tests and diaper incidents, perhaps).

But after I made the decision to start thinking about returning to my work-life, my mind started playing tricks on me. I had a very vivid dream—a nightmare, really—where I was sitting in the office, at my desk, hoping that no one would notice that I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I should be doing. Did I even have what it takes to be businesslike and efficient? On top of all that, in came anxiety and self-doubt: I had inner debates about whether I was abandoning my baby (well, a two-year-old, but who’s counting), while at the same time I felt a burning need to rejoin the workforce and be a part of a well-oiled machine again, one with the potential to make great things happen.

The latter urge was stronger so I plucked up my courage and wrote to Toggl HR to see if they even wanted me back. I closed my eyes, hid my head in the sand and waited. Tick-tock, tick-tock…  

“We are so happy to hear you want to come back!” came the response. Phew. Cue happy dance. Note to all the HR departments out there: Please take note. This is how you boost someone’s self-esteem and how to welcome back your colleague!

I’ve been back at work in Toggl’s support team for six months or so. I can no longer recognize the insecure, self-doubting person I described above. It is still a balancing act, bringing together work and family life, but at Toggl this has been made easier thanks to the fact that we can work from home and have flexible hours. I do rely heavily on time tracking, as I’ve found that it’s the best tool to maintain the ideal balance between my work and personal life. When you’re at home, it’s so easy to get carried away and work longer hours. The ticking timer reminds me to close the lid of my laptop at a sensible hour.

To all the employers who are wondering if it is worth the fuss to take back someone returning from a parental leave: It’s worth acknowledging that the returning person has just been through a bootcamp no fancy pancy agency could ever offer. He/she has likely mastered context switches and has become a smooth negotiator and a nimble adaptor to unexpected scenarios. And she has been trained by the best! To all returning moms and dads: Don’t be too hard on yourselves! It’s easy to succumb to feelings of guilt at not being the “best” parent while working full time. We’ve all felt it! But it all does get easier over time, especially when you get used to the tricky, never-ending balancing act between work and family life. 

July 7, 2020