How to Turn Your Maternity Leave Into a Leadership Opportunity
A lot of women are nervous to tell their boss they’re expecting, worrying taking maternity leave will somehow hurt their career. You might fear that your boss and colleagues will no longer think of you as competent and ambitious, and that whatever momentum your career has gathered will suddenly take a dive.
There are, sadly, people in the workplace who discriminate against pregnant women (despite it being illegal). A viral tweet back in 2014 reported an overheard conversation between IBM-hiring managers about not wanting to hire young women, because they’ll just “get themselves pregnant, again and again and again.” More recently, in a 2018 segment of Full Frontal, Samantha Bee slammed workplace culture for ongoing pregnancy discrimination.
But there’s some good news! You can take control of your situation by learning about your rights and what you’re legally entitled to under the US Family / Medical Leave Act (FMLA). You can also encourage your local congressional representative to support a paid family leave policy in the US (which most other industrialized countries offer), which will enable more parents to take the time they need to care for a new baby.
The even better news? You can do something about how your maternity leave impacts your career. In fact, you can turn it to your advantage. How? By creating a detailed maternity leave plan, you can use your leave as an opportunity to show professionalism, leadership, foresight and accountability.
A maternity leave plan is a document you create in collaboration with your boss that precisely lays out your leave and return dates, the projects you will complete before you leave, your critical responsibilities that need covering while you’re out and your recommendations for who should cover them. It’s of course incredibly helpful for your boss and team members, but what does preparing a maternity leave plan do for you?
Most Americans don’t even take all of their vacation days for fear they’ll lose a grip on their workload, so the prospect of a two- or three-month maternity leave can feel overwhelming. Creating a maternity leave plan will give you more control over your work situation by taking the guesswork out of preparing for this transition. If you can do that, you’ll be able to relax and focus on you and your baby while you’re home rather than worry about work.
He or she might have some anxiety about your leave and how your work is going to be covered, so if you take the initiative of anticipating what’s needed, you show yourself to be a strategic thinker who cares about the success of the department while you’re away. By documenting all that needs to be covered and best practices for how, you’ll be removing much of the stress that besets many bosses when an employee announces their pregnancy.
People may feel awkward asking you how long of a leave you intend to take or when you’re due—and you certainly don’t want people guessing based on the size of your belly! Presenting a plan will put it all out there in black and white.
Within your maternity leave plan, provide a list of projects you will complete by the time you leave, a list of those that are ongoing and all of your responsibilities that need to be covered. Especially in a large company, it’s not always clear what each employee handles. Documenting those responsibilities is a great way to show how productive and important you are to the organization.
If you plan to assign some of your responsibilities to those who report to you, frame it as a development opportunity. If they perform well while you’re out, they’ll better position themselves for a future promotion by expanding their expertise. If you’re clear about your expectations and give them good training, it can be a win-win situation for everyone. Part of how a leader is evaluated is based on how well they develop and advance their team.
I worked at a school where the head of my department took THREE DAYS for her maternity leave. It set a terrible precedent for the women who worked there. Is that what we were all supposed to do to be taken seriously? Yikes! Preparing your department by creating a comprehensive maternity leave plan means you can take your full leave without creating chaos, and proves to other women that they can do the same. Also, encouraging fathers and non-birthgiving parents to take parental leave will make your company stand out as a family-friendly place, in addition to helping to lessen the burden on women in the long run. By doing so, you set the tone for a healthy work/life balance. Ultimately, the more parents’ needs are respected, the more employees will choose to return after their babies are born, which boosts morale and reduces the cost of hiring and training new employees.
Robyn Stein DeLuca, PhD, is a health psychologist and postpartum consultant who helps women and their managers navigate the transition to working parenthood with presentations, online courses and private coaching. If taking the chaos out of maternity leave and returning with confidence sounds good to you, check out Dr. DeLuca’s website at momsbacktobusiness.com. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Published May 2019