How maternity leave can be GOOD for your career (yes, really!)

by Mindful Return
Baby Yum Yum - how taking maternity leave can be good for your career
Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Lori Mihalich-Levin and Stormme Hobson

How many of us have bought into the narrative that parental leave (and specifically maternity leave) is a “pause button” or a “career detractor”?

It’s seen as an exit ramp from leadership and advancing your career. A hiatus from professional development. Unless, of course, you’re a hard-driving, cold, uncaring mama, who only cares about work at the expense of her baby. But after having had four amazing little boys between us and returning from maternity leave after each of them, we are here to tell you that we think conventional wisdom has it all wrong.

Why the way we think about maternity leave is all wrong: parenting is the perfect training ground for leadership skills

Lori says: During my first maternity leave, I spent far too much time worrying about what I had missed out on, how I could possibly “make it up”, about all the things I could no longer do at work (e.g., stay past 4:30pm), how people would perceive me and whether I could measure up to my pre-baby self.


Instead I should have been focused on all the things I could still do (e.g., work hard, add value, think strategically, collaborate with colleagues, create new ideas…) and all the new skills that I had gained or honed in becoming a mother (e.g., efficiency, negotiation skills, problem-solving, adaptability in dealing with the unexpected, greater empathy for a broader range of colleagues, advanced time management and prioritisation skills).

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Stormme says: I had a similar experience to Lori in discovering that parenthood was the perfect training ground for leadership skills. The truth is I was still that same hard-working person (albeit a lot more tired) that I had always been, I still added value in my organisation, and I still wanted to advance my career.

The only difference was that I now had additional priorities and responsibilities and that meant I could never go back to my “pre-baby self”. And that was ok. It didn’t make me less. It just made me “different”.

In fact, what I did not know then but certainly do know now, is that I was a better, stronger version of myself, who was just in the process of trying to navigate and integrate my new role as a mom with my existing career role. And as with any promotion; it takes time to “learn the ropes” and figure things out.

Why maternity leave can actually be GOOD for your career

With the benefit of time, experience, and a second maternity leave, I have since come to view the maternity leave and return to work experience as a chance to grow your career and develop some serious leadership muscles. All while still being connected to and raising two beautiful babies (or as they would say “big boys”).

We are not talking about working more hours or spinning your wheels worrying about work while tuning out your baby and prioritising your career over your family. What we are both talking about is approaching your maternity leave and return to work in a different way to what conventional wisdom would dictate… That means approaching maternity leave in a way that is mindful, thoughtful, and strategic, so that you can grow in your career and focus on your baby(ies) in tandem.

There are a number of things we wish we had done or thought about when it came to navigating and integrating our working parent roles into our existing career roles. To assist you in this process and share the things we wish we had known, we have set out some questions to ask yourself during the different stages of your maternity and return to work journey.

Baby Yum Yum - How maternity leave can be good for your career

Career advice: what to do & questions to ask BEFORE your baby arrives

How can I prepare my colleagues for my leave in a well-planned, thoughtful way? Who will take over what work, and do they have the resources they need to get the job done? Who needs to meet whom? Have I made the necessary introductions? How can I take ownership over this very personal process, as well as drive it in a way that highlights my ability to effectively manage work transitions?

What conversations should I have with my boss (and any direct reports), to set clear expectations about things like the length of my leave (for example, taking my full maternity leave, shortening or extending it), who will cover what, how I will communicate while I’m out, how much preparation I need to put into place to ensure I can be fully present during my maternity leave, trusting that my teammates have work covered, and what work I expect to resume when I come back?

Can I build planning-my-maternity-leave into my official goal-setting process, and be evaluated on it? Planning and effectively handling your maternity leave is no small feat! See it as an opportunity to highlight your skills (and receive recognition for this).

Are there colleagues who have recently gone on leave at my organisation who can share their experiences with me? What do I like about their approach? What do I dislike? What do I want my experience to look like?

Career advice: what to do & what questions to ask DURING your maternity leave:

What type of expectation did I set around office communication? Am I living up to that expectation? If not, how can I best communicate with my boss/team/organisation to change those expectations?

Is it possible that not being in touch on substantive projects during my leave is in itself a strong leadership stance? I am leading by example and showing that I support and value our employee’s family responsibilities and showing that I trust the people in my team who I handed work over to.

Toward the end of my leave, can I put meetings on the books with all my key stakeholders, during the first few weeks that I’m back, to have them fill me in on any key things I should know from my time away?

Baby Yum Yum - how taking maternity leave can be good for your career

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Career advice: what to do & questions to ask when you return from maternity leave:

What work do I want or feel that I should take back? Did my leave provide a growth opportunity for any colleagues, such that there are things that I don’t need to take back – and where I can take a managerial or strategy role instead? Can I continue to mentor these colleagues?

During my annual performance review process, are there ways I can take credit for a well-planned and executed maternity leave and return to work?

Are there skills that I have (and have gained as a parent) that I can put to use in the office? How can I advertise my new skillset to my colleagues?

Coming into the office and ticking off all your deliverables in an efficient manner in order to leave the office earlier to get home for bath time is an accomplishment. Likewise, getting someone at home to do bath-time, while you attend a work conference where you add value through your new “parent” skills of negotiation, prioritisation, inclusion, awareness and empathy etc, is extremely valuable.

Can I schedule times for pumping milk, doctor’s appointments, bath-time etc. in my calendar now, so that I can carve out time in my day before other meetings get scheduled?

How can I build a ritual into my day to preserve time (even just a few minutes) for myself and my own sanity? By way of example, on the days where I go into the office, I devote my commute home towards pure “me” (aka non-baby and work) time, by listening to my favourite podcasts or cheesy mixes of my favourite ‘90 and ‘00s songs.

Conclusion

As you approach your maternity leave, take some time to think through and even write down answers to these questions. It may be obvious that having a baby and going on maternity leave will help you grow as a mother and as a woman. But know that this experience can also help you grow as an employee, a leader and a creator of your own career as well. You’ve got this!

Find out more about the Mindful Return South-Africa, E-Course and Related Support for Working Parents HERE

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