I have worked with hundreds of women over the course of my 20-year career and navigating maternity leave has been one of the biggest challenges I have witnessed women struggle through. When to tell your employer? How to tell them? What happens to your role? How to move from being a “career woman” to a “mom”. I can admit, I had a major identity shift when I went on my first maternity leave and I felt lonely, isolated, unsupported, and cut off from work. I learned so much from my first maternity leave that when I went on my second, I made adjustments and brave decisions about what I wanted to do, rather than what I felt I “should” do. Here are five quick tips that may help you navigate through maternity leave, whether it be your first, second, third, or more (bless you!)
1. Avoid planning your exit before you find out you’re expecting
Many women choose to hold themselves back because they are considering having a baby. They opt out of applying for jobs, decline, or choose not to ask for promotions, pull back at work, and start to step out before they are even expecting. If you are eager to keep building your career then I would encourage you to not take your foot off the gas.
Research will also show that women on average lose two to three years of promotability once they announce they are expecting. It is a rarity that employers promote expectant mothers. Depending on how much time you take off, you also lose promotability while you are off on maternity leave, and finally, when you return – it’s unlikely you are being promoted in the first 6-9 months back.
2. Don’t apologize for deciding to have a baby
I have worked with and mentored women who would tell me how bad they felt about their decision to have a child because the timing wasn’t right for work or they had just taken on a new project and now felt they were letting their employer down. Please do not apologize for this ever. Your boss and company will figure it out, and you can help support that process too by thoughtfully considering how you want to transition from your role.
3. Have a plan in place when you inform your employer you are expecting
I got pregnant 3 months into being hired as an Executive Director where my predecessor had been in place for 30 years! I didn’t feel bad about it although the timing was far from ideal. I came to my board chair with my recommendations. I handed over a two-page framework that outlined when I was planning on going on maternity leave, my recommendations on what could work in my absence, and when I planned on returning. I also included my requests as to how involved I wanted to be while I was on maternity leave. By demonstrating that you have thoughtfully considered some solutions that may work while you are off, you are showing that you care about your position and the company at large. I offered to train my replacement before I went on maternity leave and volunteered to be part of the interview process. Ultimately, it is up to your employer how they transition your role but it never hurts to show you care enough to suggest a framework that may help while you are off.
4. Consider how you want to onboard upon your return
Some organizations have formal onboarding plans in place for women who are coming back from maternity leave but most do not. Depending on how long you take for your maternity leave, the company, your position, leadership and the culture could have had significant changes while you were gone. Walking in on day one with no prior knowledge on what has happened while you have been off can be overwhelming so I suggest reaching out to your direct report 4-6 weeks in advance of returning. This is completely up to you but in my experience and in working with women it has helped boost their confidence when returning. Many women I know have requested to be included in team meetings via conference calls or have simply had a meeting with their boss in advance of coming back to ensure they understood what they were walking back into.
Being on maternity leave seemed to slow my brain down. I remember endless days of talking in the third person and telling my babies “Mommy is doing this and mommy is doing that”. Having to transition from baby talk back to strategy discussions within a day was a big challenge. Never mind the hormones, continued lack of sleep, and the new routine of dropping my daughter off at daycare crying. As you go on maternity leave, I encourage you to think about how you want to transition back and what may work best for you.
5. Research childcare options before you go on maternity leave
One of the most challenging things in going back to work is finding childcare that you feel good about. Waitlists can be long, especially if you live in the city. I have spoken to a lot of women who leave this too late and then have to extend their maternity leave because they couldn’t find a suitable childcare option. Begin researching childcare in the area you live before you go on maternity leave and add your name to a variety of waitlists.