Once it was assumed that working women would quit working when they
started their family. Today, thankfully, women have more choices. They are
free to enjoy time with their baby and then return to their job or career
when the time is right. But sorting out all the choices about pregnancy
and maternity leave can be confusing.
The No. 1 consideration is maternity leave. How long can it be? When will
it begin? What kind of options are there for flexibility? How much leave
can I afford?
"The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that does not guarantee
paid maternity leave," says Nataly Kogan, co-founder and CEO of
WorkItMom.com. "So many moms worry about how long they can take off and
how long they can afford to take off. Many large companies offer at least
four to six weeks of paid leave, but in many situations, moms have to
cobble together vacation time, disability and use their Family Leave to
take off several months for maternity leave."
It's important not to assume anything. To make informed decisions, find
out your company's policies early. Kogan believes communication is key.
"Moms should make sure they understand exactly how long they will have for
maternity leave and how much of it will be paid," she says. "HR
departments are the place to go for this type of information, but most
moms we've talked with say talking to a colleague at your company who has
gone through this process already is the best way to get all the details."
Covering All Your Bases
Once you know your options, plan your time off. Decide whether to work
until delivery or whether to take time off before the birth. Help your
employer decide who will take over your responsibilities while you are
gone, or whether you will do some work from home. And plan for the
"[Women] often don't think about if something unexpected happens, like if
they have a complication and their doctor orders bed rest for the last
month of pregnancy," says Nora Plesent, founder of Lexolution, a
Washington, D.C., company that helps create flexible work environments and
opportunities for lawyers, particularly women.
Early deliveries can also derail a well-laid plan. "Because both my
pregnancies ended up being complicated by pregnancy-induced hypertension,
I left pretty suddenly and quite early: both babies were born at 35
weeks," says Michelle Branco, of Mississauga, Ontario. "So unfortunately,
I had very little chance to plan ahead."
How long - or short - maternity leave will be is another important
decision. "Women often don't think about how easy or hard it is to stay
home," Plesent says. "Or they just determine while on maternity leave that
they want to stay out longer or come back slowly, such as one or two days
a week for the first month."
Judy Jackson, a Florida fire marshal and arson investigator when she
became pregnant, planned her leave carefully. "I had saved up a tremendous
amount of sick leave time and vacation time," Jackson says. "I trained
others to do a lot of my work while I was gone but still was available for
the tough stuff and consulting. At the end of my pregnancy I was bed
ridden but continued to work from home - a courier would bring work to me
and take it back to the fire department."
Discuss options like these ahead of time so everyone knows your
intentions. Plesent suggests being honest with yourself and your employer.
"One thing women do is push themselves in one way or the other," she says.
"They feel guilty about not going back to work or about going back to
Keeping Your Foot in the Door
One of the biggest worries for career women contemplating maternity leave
is how it will affect their job. Will they lose touch with their career?
Will their boss forget they exist or give their job to someone else?
"The key is to keep your career alive in small ways that bolster your
knowledge and self-confidence and keep you connected with the workplace
but don't overwhelm your with unreasonable demands on your time, energy or
focus and that allow you ample time to adjust to and enjoy your new role
as a mother," says Dr. Rachelle Canter, author of Make the Right Career
Move (Wiley, 2007).
Jackson followed this advice. "I was still connected to work and knew what
was going on," she says. "I received all kinds of mail and reports and
newsletters and magazines, etc., that were job-related and even attended a
couple of classes."
Dr. Canter, who has 20 plus years of career coaching experience, offers
these concrete steps to staying connected to your job:
Have a bi-weekly conversation with a colleague about current projects and
challenges. Set aside five to 10 minutes a week to brainstorm ideas for
these projects or overcome challenges. If appropriate, e-mail your boss
with your ideas.
You could even volunteer to do a bit of online research for him or her
(everyone loves a volunteer).
Write an article for a trade magazine to increase your visibility.
Read a book or trade magazine in your field to keep abreast of the latest
ideas and developments.
Update your LinkedIn profile; invite people to join your LinkedIn network
Update your resume step-by-step, which will not only give you an
up-to-date record of your (quantified) accomplishments and contributions,
but will bolster your self-confidence, something that will help you as you
move back into the work world.
Most experts and moms warn, though, not to shortchange your time at home
with too many worries about the office. "You'll be surprised at how
quickly you are forgotten, but also at how quickly you're right back in
the thick of it when you come back," Branco says. "On the other hand,
those sleep-deprived, diaper-changing, nursing marathon days are more
fleeting than you can ever imagine when you are in the middle of them. The
best thing you can do for your career is to return to it with no regrets
that you missed a snuggle because you were checking e-mail."
Plesent agrees. "The more you can be with the baby during maternity leave,
the more you will be able to have your head in the workplace again once
that time comes," she says.
Above all, try to avoid looking back with regret at the time you took off
to be with your baby. Katie Rosin, a publicist/marketing consultant from
New York, suggests moms take time to enjoy changing the dirty diapers, but
also says, "don't feel guilty for going back to work. If it will keep you
sane and feeling self-assured then do it."
Do your best, but don't be too concerned for the future of your career.
"For new moms, during and following maternity leave, [any] crisis of
confidence is even more pronounced because they are often tired, frazzled
and vulnerable to all the media and well-intentioned, but wrong-headed,
folks who tell them that motherhood interferes with having a rewarding
career," Dr. Canter says. "This is only true if you believe the hype and
give up on your career."