Essential reading for expectant Mums in the run-up to Maternity Leave
Your due date is approaching and you’re excited at the idea of finishing up work, meeting your new baby and having a number of months at home. Thoughts of planning the nursery, the pram, the anticipation of that ‘out of office’ time are very present. You’re likely tired and feel like focusing on the impending arrival and adventure ahead.
Less documented and spoken about, you may well also be concerned about what impact maternity leave might have on your career. Some women feel quite anxious about the career impact. This can even dilute how much they enjoy the different stages of both pregnancy and maternity leave and how well they look after themselves.
As part of this phase, expectant mums show up in different ways at work as they prepare for maternity leave. It’s important to bring conscious awareness to what this means for you. Based on the hundreds of women who have been through Clearbird’s Back to Work Programmes, I see three categories of how maternity leave is approached.
- The ‘Push Yourself to the Max’ Model
Some mums-to-be will work incredibly hard and put in long hours right up until the end to keep building credit and reputation. Bucks in the bank if you will, to keep their career on track.
In the Irish and British cultures, mums-to-be push themselves to the limit in order to have more time with baby on the other side. Compare this to France, for example, where pregnant workers often finish one month early to focus on minding themselves physically and mentally. Or Romania, where the finish date is 42 days before the due date. I find this a fascinating study on the cultural variances around how we manage maternity leave at a policy level and the expectation that policies put on women in the run-up to maternity leave.
2. The ‘Check Out Before you Log Out’ Approach
We’re all motivated by different factors and some women will disappointingly start to check out a few months before maternity leave – or even as soon as they know they are pregnant. They may wonder ‘What’s the point in getting involved in a new project or even completing their performance reviews before finishing up?’ Sheryl Sandberg called out this phenomenon and women have been encouraged to ‘lean in’ ever since.
For some mums-to-be, the focus can shift to purely tying up loose ends, handover and just getting to the last day. If this resonates with you – beware! How well and completely you finish up impacts how well you come back to work after maternity leave. Imagine a thread between finishing and returning from maternity leave. They’re not two disjointed events.
3. ‘The Put Under the Radar‘ Cohort
In contrast to those unwittingly putting themselves under the radar, others can be put under the radar – consciously or unconsciously – and advised to ‘take it easy’. Expectant mums can be excluded and, in a sense, written off due to their imminent departure. Sometimes this is by a well-intentioned manager or colleague who is merely looking out for their well-being.
Often, it’s based on a conscious or unconscious exclusionary behaviour ‘Sure they’ll be gone soon so what’s the point in getting them involved?’ Work can be re-directed to others and while mum-to-be might welcome this approach in the moment, it can have a longer-term career impact. It’s important to keep your eye on the long game, however unenticing that might be when you’re pregnant.
Indeed, the prospect of being put under the radar is one of the factors influencing many women who are choosing to tell their managers or HR manager as late as possible in the pregnancy – to push back the potential impact that their ‘good news’ will have on their reputation and career. And now with increased working from home, many women find themselves being able to push back the news later as the bump is not visible. I’m not sure what that says about society and organisational culture but it doesn’t sit well in the spirit of diversity and inclusion.
The Essential Nature of Conscious Awareness
All of these are, however, very human reactions – both on the part of expectant mums and managers. As long as we bring awareness to the various dynamics at play, women can bring conscious awareness to the choices that are being made and how they are showing up. Managers too, for that matter.
A case for healthy balance can be made, moving away from polarised behaviours. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Don’t switch off too early mentally and emotionally as well as literally because it can be detrimental to your career. And equally, don’t work yourself into the ground trying to prove just how good you are. Your colleagues and manager likely know just how good you are.
Focus on How to Finish up Well before Maternity Leave
The most common and understandable misconceptions for mums-to-be are that:
- The handover planning is the responsibility of their manager (followed by frustration when it’s left until the eleventh hour);
- A conversation about career expectations or aspirations is too awkward or not appropriate to have; and
- Their manager will take the lead on any important communications during maternity leave.
Not so! Those last few weeks before finishing up for maternity leave are critical to set yourself up for a smooth transition back to work afterwards.
It’s important to recognise that it’s hard for managers too. Maybe they don’t quite know what to say, are scared of saying the wrong thing or are just in denial that you’re off for an extended period and/or concerned about the impact of your absence on the business. All of these are human responses but require a conscious awareness. Far too often, a gap in communication is left unfilled, a timely handover isn’t planned and frustrations and challenges arise on return.
Your Pre-Maternity Leave Checklist
- Take charge of the handover plan. Put a date in the diary with your manager for one month before you are due to go on leave.
- Communicate with all stakeholders. While the focus is usually on your line manager, who are the other stakeholders that you need to plan a check-in with?
- Complete your performance review. Make sure it doesn’t get lost in the handover and that you put a stake in the ground around your achievements to date this year.
- Specify your preferred communications while on leave. Discuss how you would like to stay in contact, e.g. via a personal email address, and what communication you would like during your leave, e.g. team events or job opportunities. Remember that managers and HR can’t impose communications so you need to be clear about your preferences.
- Arrange a meeting with your manager one month before you return to work. This can give you time and information to prepare for reentering the workplace. Ask for an update on any changes and discuss your expected role and responsibilities on your return.
When things change and problems arise, this can usually be traced back to the unsaid within the psychological contract (unwritten mutual beliefs, assumptions and expectations between employers and employees).
Out of hundreds of participants on Clearbird’s Back to Work Programmes, 8 out of 10 admit to looking forward to resuming their careers after enjoying maternity leave. They’re ready to reclaim their professional selves and use the skills and strengths developed throughout their careers.
The bottom line is…don’t take your eye off your longer game. Don’t assume you won’t be able for more responsibility. And don’t disregard your return from maternity leave, in all of the excitement of finishing up before it. Take the reins. Be present. Own it.
Clearbird’s suite of Back to Work from Maternity Leave, New Parents and Inclusive Leadership Programmes support diversity and inclusion thinking and strategy.
We help females returning to the workplace to feel empowered, re-focused, confident and re-energised. We support new dads/parents who are also thinking about what this new phase means for them and enable this important conversation to take place. We support, guide and challenge managers in successfully managing these key life transition points – with an eye on retaining and developing female talent.
If organisationally and societally, we’re serious about Feeding the Female Leadership Pipeline and retaining and growing our female talent, supporting parents in this life transition to manage the mid-career phase is critical to every organisation’s diversity and inclusion agenda.
Our sessions are incredibly effective in bridging the communication gap, bringing a wider perspective and providing practical strategies to enable the important and honest conversations.
Contact us to find out more about our Group Programmes and 1:1 Maternity Coaching Services.