A parent’s perspective on returning to work

Louise Astley
Managing Director

The term “career path” is an interesting one. Think of the last path you were on. Were you walking, strolling, or even ambling, perhaps? You were unlikely to be striding or sprinting. Not along a path, anyway.

For most of us in the creative industries that I come from, careers don’t typically amble along. We do our best to push forward, elbows out, rising upwards as fast and furiously as we can. So that part is a little confusing.

It’s the career’s capacity to meander that gives the metaphor its meaning. The ability to take the odd step sideways, or even backwards; to make a more meaningful jump forward once the time is right.

Having children can put a healthy switch back into anyone’s career path. Many feel this is a challenging time when difficult choices must be made. It is often perceived in negative terms, with a mother’s return to work associated with fear, memory loss and sponge brains. As if we have removed ourselves from the strategically complex, to the domestically mundane, and will struggle to ever return.

This shouldn’t be so. Because boy, you learn a lot. About yourself, about others — and most importantly for a designer — how the world really works. Removing yourself from professional life, never mind how varied our project work might be, to become simply a full time person again, can add more depth to our work than any form of ethnographic study or focus group ever will. And not solely a person, but one who is experiencing one of the most significant changes in life. Parenthood. It feels like almost overnight I have transformed from one kind of persona to another (yes, the one in the corner of the slide that looks a little frazzled, hair a mess). This happens to all of us at any juncture in life, but the pronouncement and rate of conversion is striking to me. How one person’s evaluation and perspective on the world can change so rapidly and dramatically due to one life event is a design challenge; and one I’m fascinated by.

During my year away from Smart, Monday to Friday was dominated by the demands of small children and a black Labrador retriever. Rarely was I able to think, never mind think straight. I felt like a walking edge case. Can I open this bag one handed while two small people abseil down my right side? Can I brake the buggy using my right elbow, while my three-year-old melts down on the kerb that our dog is currently fouling? Does this transportation route supply lifts, ramps, wide berth parking, and contactless payment? If not, I ain’t taking it. Please, Inclusive Design, please…what kind of super-product-service-experience exists to help me right now?

Never have I experienced design flaws in the acute way I do now. Never again will I work on a client’s project without putting my most sleep-deprived and child-weary self through the product or service experience we are helping them design. My new perspective adds a dimension that I couldn’t have anticipated, a valuable addition to the expertise cultivated directly from my working life in these creative fields.

Smart Design is actively promoting extended paid leave for parents in the US through Pledge Parental Leave. Not only are we looking out for the happiness of our babies, but we’re taking the same human-centered design lens to our working environment – supporting our dedicated designers, technologists, engineers and strategists that we call Smarties. In doing so, we enable them to make the choices that feel right for their own unique circumstances, as people as well as professionals – helping them navigate their career paths toward the achievement of both fulfillment and success.