by Jen Murtagh, Certified Leadership Coach
I’ve worked with hundreds of women over the course of my 20-year career, and one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced has been navigating maternity leave. They’ve struggled with questions such as, When should I tell my employer? How should I tell them? What will happen to my role? and How do I 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. I felt lonely, isolated, unsupported and totally 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 based on what I wanted to do, rather than what I felt I “should” do. To help you navigate the shift, here are five quick tips based on my own learnings:
1) Don’t start planning your exit before you get pregnant.
Many women choose to hold themselves back because they are considering getting pregnant. 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 even get pregnant. If you are eager to keep building your career then I would encourage you to not take your foot off the gas.
There is a chance it may actually take you more time than you anticipate before you actually get pregnant. Research will also show that women on average lose two to three years of promotability once they announce they are pregnant. It is a rarity that employers promote a woman who is pregnant. 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 that you will be promoted during your first 6-9 months back.
2) Don’t apologize for getting pregnant.
I’ve worked with and mentored women who have told me that they felt bad about getting pregnant because the timing wasn’t right for work, or they had just taken on a new project and felt they were letting their employer down. Please do not apologize for getting pregnant – ever. This is a time in your life when you are creating life and need to relinquish any and all guilt about the impact that might have on your work. 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 that you are pregnant.
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. When I announced my pregnancy 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, the 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, a continued lack of sleep and the new routine of dropping my daughter off at daycare crying presented new challenges for me. 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 about 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 long 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 in before you go on maternity leave and add your name to a variety of waitlists as soon as possible.
Jen Murtagh coaches female leaders to live + lead bravely so they can create meaningful impact and design a life they love (without burning out in the process). Find her on social @jenmurtaghcoaching.