How a parental leave improved my television career

After taking a five-month work leave to care for his infant daughter, Ian returned to his job with a newfound confidence.

Ian Mendes 0

Ian, more relaxed and comfortable on live TV, interviewing World Series MVP Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.

First of all this week, I’d like to thank everyone who wrote kind words to me via Twitter, Facebook and on this website regarding my latest piece on Elissa. It was a tough one to write for me personally but, at the same time, it was also satisfying to be able to author such a positive story.

I also mentioned at the end of that blog post that I’d like to spend the month of April writing about how Elissa’s brain surgery has helped alter my perspective on life and fatherhood. This week, I’d like to tackle how her health concerns — and a subsequent parental leave — made me a better television reporter.

I’m writing this week’s post from midtown Manhattan, where I’m all set to start my coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I’ve been working as a television reporter for 10 years now and when I first started at Sportsnet, I would have been terrified at the thought of covering a major event at Madison Square Garden.

I started this job in January of 2002, with virtually no television experience, save for some shaky demo tapes from journalism school — which hopefully have been destroyed by my loyal classmates. While I was good at putting together stories when I first started at Sportsnet, I used to get very nervous when I was told I would be going “live” before an event. My palms would get sweaty, my heart would race and my mind would be completely terrorized at the thought of being on live television.

My worst moment came when covering a tennis event in Montreal in the summer of 2002. I became so nervous while on television, that I completely forgot the name of the female tennis player I was trying to mention. So for about 20 seconds I stood there, stammering and looking panicked on live television — unable to remember the name of Henrietta Nagyova. (Ironically, now I’ll never forget her name). Mercifully, the producers in Toronto threw to some interview clips and bailed me out of the situation.

In short, however, I was awful on live television.

And more experience in the situation didn’t seem to help me out either, as I continued to fumble and bumble my way through live hits in my first two years at the network. I used to write down every single word I wanted to say and try to memorize it before going live. So when the anchor from Toronto would throw to me, I would simply try and regurgitate the information that was perilously stored in my brain.

I was a ball of nerves and I just couldn’t seem to handle the pressure of going on live television. If I found out I was going live the next day, I had a hard time sleeping that night because my mind was so preoccupied with how I was going to handle the situation.

And then just two days after the Ottawa Senators lost a Game 7 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in April 2004, we got the news that changed our lives. As I mentioned in last week’s post, we discovered that our child had a major birth defect and we had our lives turned upside down. So when Elissa was seven months old in the winter of 2005, I made a radical decision: I was going to take an extended parental leave.

As luck would have it, the NHL was going through a prolonged labour dispute that ended up cancelling the hockey season. It was terrible news in the world of hockey, but it turned out to be a lifesaver for me. I approached Sportsnet with the idea of me taking five months off work to look after our baby. I remember the surprise in Scott Morrison’s voice when he took my phone call, because I think I had to be the first man in television network history to ask for a five-month parental leave. Scott — who was so supportive of us during our difficult pregnancy — was completely open to the idea.
So for five months — from February until July — I traded in my microphone for a Baby Bjorn. Sonia went back to work three days a week and I became the primary caregiver for a seven-month-old child. About two weeks into my parental leave, Elissa had a shunt malfunction and had to go back for a second operation because the cyst had re-grown inside her brain.

Following the procedure, I spent hours a day with Elissa, watching her every move. I was in charge of feeding her, changing her diaper, making sure her nap schedule was adhered to and ensuring that she was fully recovered from her surgery. I was putting on puppet shows and mixing baby formula at a time in my life when I was so pre-occupied with my career.

And this is where I believe a radical shift happened in my career.

The term “pressure” became completely re-defined for me. Was it more pressure watching a child go through multiple brain operations — or was it more stressful to remember the name of a tennis player while on live television?

My concept of pressure and what’s important completely changed in those five months, as I was forced to look after an infant baby who had just undergone another major surgery. The real pressure in life is being a parent and a primary caregiver; it’s not about a television job. Quite frankly, live television is child’s play compared to looking after a child for eight hours.  

Those five months on parental leave sailed by and I returned to Sportsnet just in time to cover the end of the NHL lockout. I was back at work — but this time with a completely different attitude and approach.

I was sent away to cover playoff baseball — a series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros in October 2005. Before every game of that series, I would go live into our newscast. And I remember a completely different feeling when that red light came on the camera and I was standing on the field in St. Louis to open up that series. I was so much more calm, relaxed and prepared for the task at hand. I even had a number of our producers comment to me on how much more comfortable and polished I looked on live television when that assignment was over.

Nowadays, I completely look forward to live television and thrive on the excitement and energy it brings. I’m no longer a ball of nerves who can’t sleep the night before broadcasting a game. In fact, I take such extended naps on a game day, that Sonia often has to wake me up and say, “It’s 4:45 p.m. and you’d better get going.” So I’ll have to jump through a quick shower, put on my suit and head to the rink because I’m going live at 6 p.m. But as I’m driving, I am no longer meticulously trying to memorize any notes for what I’m about to say on the air. I’m completely calm and relaxed because there really isn’t any pressure when it comes to live television.

The NHL appears headed for another labour shutdown this fall and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there is another work stoppage. And if that’s the case, I’m wondering if I can take another parental leave and try and convince the suits at Sportsnet that it’s actually a career-builder.

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