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Coming back after having a baby is a time fraught with anxiety for many women. Women who return to work quickly tend to breastfeed less, experience more physical and emotional challenges, and feel more anxious than women who can take more time off to care for their newborn. Balancing career and earning needs with parenting decisions is more difficult for new mothers than new fathers, a fact that hasn’t changed much over time.
A 2012 study of over 2,800 American women found that 25 percent returned to work just two weeks after giving birth. Women with degrees were able to take more time off, according to the survey. Eighty percent of women with degrees took six or more weeks off after giving birth. Women with more education and more earning power are more likely to have paid maternity leave, according to the study. More than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners received paid family leave, compared to 1 in 20 in the bottom quartile. A recent U.K. survey found that 85 percent of working mothers felt that having children made it harder to advance their careers.
I recently spoke with a Danish author now living in Austin, Texas, about how to stay relevant to your company and network while taking maternity leave.
Soulaima Gourani is a consultant, trainer, and author of several books on careers and success. She’s half Danish, half Moroccan, and has been recognized as one of the 20 most business-minded people in Nordic countries and named among the European ‘Inspiring Fifty’ list of inspiring role models. She’s worked in multi-national companies such as Hewlett-Packard and the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group and holds an MBA from the Copenhagen Business School, where she taught supply chain management.
Scandinavian countries famously offer more workplace benefits and more work/life balance than the U.S., which has no national parental leave policy. In Denmark, women and men are offer a year of paid parental leave after the birth of a child. Gourani surprised me by advising emphatically that women not take advantage of the year-long leave. “Most women feel bypassed and left out when they come back to work. In a year, a lot of things will have happened in your job and in the world. Your company and your network may forget you.”
She recommends that women drop the idea that maternity leave is an all or nothing proposition. Consider negotiating a part-time schedule that allows you to ease back into your role. And don’t forget that there are ways to remain connected while taking time off if you do decide on a long absence.
- First, she says, before your maternity leave, keep taking on exciting assignments and show eagerness, passion and diligence. You may be tired, and maybe a bit sick. She suggests trying to minimize talk about your pregnancy in the office. Make sure people know that you are still capable of giving your full attention to the job.
- Gourani’s suggestions for the time you are on maternity leave include updating and optimizing your LinkedIn profile and reading and reading and staying updated on your industry (things you may have struggled to find time for when working.) Attend one or two coffee dates a week with people from your network (bring the little one), and check in on your e-mails. Visit the office once a month (sometimes without the little one, she suggests, so your colleagues see you in both your roles: mother and professional.)
- When you come back from maternity leave, take a good look at the organizational chart. Look for new hires or new faces on teams. Budget some time for catching up with colleagues and meeting new people who make have come aboard during your absence. Rebuilding your internal network is essential to getting back up to speed.
Be patient with yourself if it takes you time to adjust. You may be feeling emotional about leaving your child, so give yourself some private time to master your emotions if you need to. You may be feeling fuzzy from sleep deprivation or the physical effects of childbirth, so put some systems in place to double check your work and your decisions.
The decision when, or whether, to return to work is a very personal and emotional one for most women. If you can find a way to return that works for you and your family, you’re more likely to retain your earning power and promotion potential. It may be difficult to return now, but many women find it even more difficult to come back after an absence of several years.