Sandra Fernandez Conde, mother to four-month-old Oliver, tells us how professional development whilst on parental leave is not exclusively for teachers: as a charity-sector employee with a history in Early Years, she is using her maternity leave as an opportunity to combine her professional development with valuable bonding time.

I often describe myself as ‘hyper’, as in having to be intellectually stimulated and physically active. I love reading, exercising, socialising and being challenged at work or anything I do. When I was expecting my first baby, I did wonder what it would be like to be at home looking after my little one. Would it be the gap in my career I feared it would be?

Having worked in Early Years education, and more specifically, having deep knowledge of infant development and parenting education, I know the importance of establishing secure attachments at an early age and how crucial it is for a baby to bond with his/her main caregivers, so my number one priority during maternity leave was and still is, strengthening the connection with my baby and embracing this new adventure with my partner as we see our son Oliver grow.

I then see this time on maternity leave as a ‘gain’ rather than a ‘gap’. I feel lucky to have financial support and the security of returning to a job after a year. In so many countries this simply doesn’t happen. Where I am originally from, Mexico, women return to work after 3 months of giving birth, often even sooner if the maternity leave kicked in because of a complicated pregnancy, so for me it is a privilege to now live in the UK where working rights for parents are way better. However, there are still other challenges for women and men who decide to take that time ‘off work’ as still, many perceive this time as a professional gap and possible hindrance to career progression. This shouldn’t be the case.

From any angle, I see a longer maternity and paternity leave as gain and not a gap. For the baby and hence for society as a whole, it means better foundations for the next generation. Individually for parents, it is a time to learn and juggle so many different and new tasks and to learn about life in its purest form, getting to experience unconditional love.

I recognise looking after babies and children is a job in itself, nothing like ‘time off’, so I totally disagree when people say: ‘oh, she doesn’t work, she looks after the children’. In a modern society, that statement undermines the role of parenthood, and it is as bad to say that about a mum or for a dad who looks after the children on a full-time basis. But that is a different debate…

What I wanted to share here is ways in which I have ended up satisfying my intellectual hyperactivity during my maternity leave (physically, it was enough going through childbirth, and then sleeping less let alone having the energy to feed and rock baby, and now carrying a baby who gets heavier by the minute!)

Last year I took a course in infant massage for children with special health care needs. Infant massage is a field that fascinates me as it has so many benefits and science behind it. Amidst being heavily pregnant and having a full-time job working for a charity, I couldn’t finish the qualification. I got given an extension and I was determined not to miss out the opportunity of gaining a certificate which would allow me to help babies in need.

With support from my amazing family, I managed to finish my cases studies. The families with whom I carried out my demo course allowed me to bring Oliver a couple of times when we met during the week; my sister in law accompanied me to the classes so she watched Oliver and I could teach without being distracted, and other classes were at the weekend so my husband spent time with our son at home and I could spend a few hours enjoying my teaching being worry-free. I now need to finish some written assignments but I am motivated to get them done. Having a goal which is just for my own satisfaction and development whilst being a mum as well, is quite fulfilling. Being a parent is often about giving, giving, and more giving so allowing yourself to do something you like, and if that means studying a bit, can make a huge positive difference in your state of mind and self-esteem. I go at a slower pace of course, and I just need to be kind with myself and not overdo it, but the little I read here and there to advance with my assignment, gives me a sense of accomplishment.

I also have taken advantage of free online courses offered by FutureLearn, and learned about first aid for babies and children and a course called ‘Babies in Mind’ tapping into mental health of families and young ones.

It turns out that the CPD I have carried out whilst on maternity leave it is actually related to babies! It’s a mere coincidence that I work in that field, but I believe that whatever the profession, parents need to be happy and fulfilled, as their children need the best version of their parents, so if, as a choice, mums or dads decide to do CPD during their maternity or paternity leave, that gain can only be a triple win! For the babies to have happier parents, for parents to feel empowered and for employers to have somebody great to hire.

I am sure that wherever I end up professionally now that I am a mother, I will work with different eyes, as if I had stronger lenses. As I work in education, my productivity at work can only be improved as I want the best education for my son so at work I will aim to benefit more children with a better education and in my teaching, I also feel inspired to improve every day.

Regardless of the profession, I wish maternity and paternity leave were not seen as gaps and rather, employers and society could value the fact that parents bring a very rich set of skills to any workplace, by the pure fact of being parents and all the expertise that comes with it. If they, as a bonus, achieved some official CPD during their leave, then that must be acknowledged and applauded.