Part 2: Using Maternity Leave to Advance(!) Your Career (3-part series)
By Lori Mihalich-Levin
If you’re a brand new, career-driven mama, what should you do while you are out on maternity leave? (1) Love, love, love that baby; and (2) survive. That’s all.
But that doesn’t make for much of a blog post does it? And there are things you’ll want to be mindful of once the fog of the first few weeks has lifted. I’m glad you’re back for Part 2 of our 3-part series on using your maternity leave-and-return experience as an opportunity to advance your career and grow new skills and leadership muscles.
As with last time (read Part 1: What to Do While You’re Pregnant), I offer you questions to think through, to help you navigate that time when you are out of the office. Answering these questions for yourself and taking the actions they prompt will leave you feeling calmer about your bonding time with baby and more confident about your plans.
Here are some questions I challenge you to ask yourself while you’re home on leave:
Am I sticking to my office communication plan?
- What type of expectations did I set around communicating with those at work? For example, during my first maternity leave, I didn’t really check in with anyone until the last few weeks of leave, to confirm my phased-in return schedule. The second time I was on leave, I touched base weekly (after the first month) with one of my direct reports who was new and benefitted from some regular guidance.
- Am I living up to the expectations I set? If not, how can I best communicate to change those expectations?
- If I didn’t set any specific expectations around communication, do I need to give someone a heads up as to when I’ll be in touch?
- Is it possible that not being in touch on substantive projects during my leave is in itself a strong leadership stance?
Is my leave the right length?
- It’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about the length of the leave you planned until you’re in it. Is the leave I planned to take feeling way too short? If yes, can I negotiate to extend it? If it’s feeling too long, can I talk about going back a bit earlier? (This is, to be sure, a problem I – and I suspect many Americans – are unlikely to have.)
How will I reintegrate?
- Toward the end of my leave, can I put meetings on the books with my key office stakeholders for the first few weeks I’m back, to have them fill me in on the key things I should know from my time away?
Is my childcare plan on track?
- If I’m on daycare center waitlists, what can I do to improve my chances of getting a spot? (These may involve sending handwritten notes announcing your baby’s arrival and declaring your love for their center, or having your partner call to check in and let them know they’re still your first choice.)
- If I’m planning to have a nanny or au pair, do I have a plan to interview candidates?
- Do I have backup plans if my original childcare options fall through?
Can I get food and nourishment ready now for when I go back?
- Can I cook and freeze some meals for the adults in the house, to make dinner prep a bit easier upon my return?
- If I’m breastfeeding, can I freeze milk for my baby so I don’t have to worry as much about how much I pump every day? (Note that pumping to have extra is often easier in the mornings, when your supply is highest.)
Do I have a self-care plan?
- How am I taking care of myself? Yes, this may involve something as small as the now-not-so-simple bliss of daily showers. But taking care of mama is – even in small doses – absolutely critical to taking care of baby.
Do I have a community of other new mamas?
- Have I found a group of other women whose babies are right around the same age as mine?
- Can I talk to them about their own feelings about being on leave and returning to work?
Am I giving myself credit for those new parent skills I’m developing?
- Are you growing muscles around prioritizing? Delegating? Problem-solving? If so, take note. These skills are absolutely transferable at work, and when you return, you can let your supervisor and colleagues know you’re even more effective in these areas.
And finally, I urge you to throw all of your what-to-do-at-home-during-maternity-leave to-do lists out the window. Those dreams of organizing photos or cleaning out the garage can remain dreams for another day. As I said at the outset, the whole idea here is to survive and to let time stand still, as you cuddle and bond with that beautiful baby of yours.
Also in this series…
Part 1: What to Do While You’re Pregnant
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course (next session starts October 5), that helps women make the transition back to work after maternity leave. A health care lawyer, she is also mama to two beautiful red-headed boys (ages 2 and 4).