Why Maternity Leave Should Be a 3-Part Plan
There are just so many things we wish people had told us about being third trimester pregnant at work. Like how you just have to get used to people staring at you. And, even occasionally (and totally inappropriately) touching your belly.
Or, how colleagues may suddenly start to exclude you from conversations and planning because…well, you’re going to be out.
Or, that no matter how valiant your intentions are, you should simply NOT plan to “be available” during leave - because you have no idea what kind of delivery, or child, you’re going to have.
Or, most especially, that you should probably work from home for a while before your due date.
There is just so much we wish we had known about going out on maternity leave during our pregnancies. So, Fairygodboss has developed a new email newsletter series, Pregnancy Week-By-Week at Work, to give women the inside scoop on what to expect at work during pregnancy through maternity leave and your return. The weekly e-newsletter will allow expecting moms to sign up online and enter their information, including their due date. Then, the Fairygodboss team will provide women with professional career advice and valuable insights on how to navigate their pregnancy within the workplace.
There are two reasons to create a maternity leave plan: (1) To give yourself clarity about your deadlines, what you need to hand over, and what needs covering while you’re out, and (2) To give your boss and colleagues the same information in a way that makes them feel good about your leave. To be clear, this isn’t something that necessarily makes sense for all jobs out there. If, for example, you’re a teacher or a nurse or a retail worker, your employer will simply find someone to cover for you. A “plan” is probably just a statement of when you plan on starting your leave and when you plan to return.
However, for many of us, a plan is a really considerate thing to do, even if it’s not required. Who knows? You can even score brownie points like Jewelyn Cosgrove. She kept her employer’s needs in mind when she created her plan. She says, “I didn’t over-ask, and I addressed obligations directly…When I presented it, I was open to discussing the details - particularly around coverage of my responsibilities.” To her surprise (but not ours), her employer “LOVED” her plan. Once you’ve decided to make a plan and share it, where do you start?
1. Partition your plan into two (or three) parts: Pre-Leave, During Leave, and After Leave
In order to give your plan the right structure, you should decide on the date you plan on starting your maternity leave and state when you will be returning. Even if you aren’t 100% sure about these dates, write something down that you think is reasonably safe. If you think your boss will be reasonably flexible about something like whether you start your leave at Week 40, these dates are still a helpful anchor for everyone else’s planning.
2. What To Put In Your Pre-Leave Plan
This portion of your maternity leave plan should itemize all your projects and deadlines. Ideally, you should label anything you will complete before your leave in a section that’s separate from anything that needs ongoing attention or work during your leave.
If you can assign an estimated completion date to anything you will finish before your maternity leave, your boss will appreciate the clarity. If you have direct reports, you should list who will be taking care of your responsibilities and projects, and when their coverage will begin (e.g. 2 weeks before your leave versus the day you leave).
For Allison Falender of Shell, she started training two direct reports for leave almost as soon as she announced her pregnancy. She told Harvard Business Review that “they might continue” with the role after she returns from leave.
3. Your Plan During Leave
This section of a maternity leave plan may not apply to you, but for women who intend to stay in touch or complete some part-time work during an extended leave may want to outline what exactly they plan on doing their leave. (Before you make firm commitments about working while you’re away, realize that maternity leave might be a more demanding gig than you anticipated. Some women have trouble just finding time to brush their teeth.)
Even if you do not plan on working through your leave, this is a good time to think about which of your colleagues (whether they are direct reports or not) may be covering for you and what they will be doing.
Amanda, a PR professional with a large team assigned her client responsibilities to her direct reports and had bi-weekly check-ins with them about any issues (time which they didn’t necessarily use, but was a placeholder to allow her team to feel comfortable checking in).
If you don’t have the ultimate authority to make decisions about who your work will go to, it can still be helpful for your manager to hear your suggestions for coverage (e.g. Jane can work on X for client Y). Your ideas will help your boss start making plans, even if s/he ultimately makes some different decisions.
On the other hand, if you have projects with imminent deadlines, you may want to make sure that someone is clearly taking over responsibility and knows the deadline. If you plan on transitioning back to the workplace by working part-time for a couple weeks rather than coming back full-throttle, you should state this clearly. Also, if you plan on checking in before your return, e.g. 1-2 weeks before you go back to work, be sure to make note of this.
4. What To Put In Your Post-Leave Plan
Regardless of whether you stick to it, you should have a date in mind and state it in your maternity leave plan. It will be a date that your boss and colleagues can put into their calendars and it will help them with staffing decisions.
At this point, you may or may not have a clear idea of where you will pick up on any long-term projects. If you do know certain things will come up (e.g. if you are an accountant returning before tax season), then this is a good place to detail how you will either be diving right in, or whether you will still share overlapping responsibility with a colleague who was covering for you while you were out for a few weeks.
For example, Jill Tempkin decided to let her co-workers finish up the work they started when they covered for her during her leave so that they could “hand it back in the same organized manner in which she’d given it to them.”
If you know right now that you will want a flexible or different schedule after your maternity leave, you should put this information in your plan (but don’t use the plan as the way you introduce this request; you should ask and negotiate for flexibility in a separate conversation). By including these logistical details, your plan becomes something you can bring your boss when you do have a meeting to discuss your request. Think of it as supporting collateral that shows you’ve really thought everything through in a way that makes it work for your employer.
Finally, don’t forget to share your plan! Once you show your boss and get their approval, share it with any team members or colleagues you think it will help. This can include people in different departments who you often interact with as well as your direct reports. In this situation, sharing really is caring!
We can’t promise to make the third trimester, delivery, maternity leave, or returning to work any more fun. But we do promise to make it easier. And less lonely. And maybe a little funnier.