I like to describe myself as a recovering workaholic. There was a time when I was consistently working 12 – 16 hour days. I was wearing multiple hats, getting good recognition for my hard work, and loving every second of it. But… those kinds of hours simply aren’t sustainable. My personal life, relationships, happiness and health began to suffer. I made a decision to put boundaries around my work and personal spheres. Yes, there are times when an imperative project has to get done and extra hours are needed, but I think it’s important not to let those long hours become the norm. If you’re not your best self, you’re not the best spouse, friend or employee you can be. So it benefits everyone when you establish boundaries.
I give you this background because I was initially terrified of taking maternity leave. I rarely take a vacation, let alone six weeks out of the office! From hearing stories of other new moms in the workforce, I’d developed a fear of being seen as uncommitted, incompetent, or creating a burden for my coworkers. Luckily I had a tremendous work environment (true life – not a sponsored comment ;-)) and they made it easy to step away and transition back.
While we’re legally protected, I think new moms are justified in having these fears. Research shows patterns of workplace gender bias, particularly toward new moms, are a real thing. (Soap box: I think every woman and every man who has a wife, daughter or sister should read Lean In. The research in that book is eye opening. The first step toward change is acknowledging there’s an issue! Even if you don’t see it in your life personally, keep your eyes peeled so you can make a positive change for others!)
But we’re not helpless. We can take steps to mitigate these fears (and sometimes realities) in the workforce. Below are the five things that helped me to feel comfortable stepping away from work and truly enjoy my time with baby.
- Draft a detailed instruction guide for your absence.
Some responsibilities may need to continue while you are out of the office… but baby isn’t going to wait until you have everything perfectly transitioned to make an appearance.I recommend creating an instruction guide that is clear enough anyone can pick it up and continue with your responsibilities. Some people are afraid this will impact your job security. I disagree – you are still a unique asset to your company. Creating a guide for your coworkers demonstrates you care about the progress of your team and the company. Plus, you don’t want to spend your first weeks back cleaning up messes because no one knew how to continue your work!
I’ve put together a template to help you get started. Download the PDF Maternity Leave Template now or have an editable Word template emailed to you. I recommend wrapping this up at least six weeks before your due date, because baby literally has a mind of his own!
- Transition responsibilities before your leave starts.
With your instruction guide in place, start to meet with those who will be covering for you and walk them through the responsibilities. The work should transition immediately following the meeting. This allows your coworker to try out the task and encounter any stumbling blocks or questions while you’re still around to help.As you transition, introduce your coworker to the stakeholders, vendors and employees who will be interacting with them. This will ensure everyone’s aware of the change.
I recommend scheduling transition meetings in order of difficulty level and impact of the responsibility. If you don’t get a chance to train on the easier tasks, it won’t be the end of the world because your instructions are probably sufficient anyway.
- Unplug and enjoy.
Most maternity laws and policies will protect you from having to check your work phone and email while you’re out. But, you may work in an environment that wants you to check in or you may personally want to stay connected to avoid feeling inundated upon your return.My advice? Unplug and give someone your personal contact information in the event the sky falls without you (and no offense, but it probably won’t). Enjoy the time with baby. And if you’re like me and baby has an unexpected medical challenge, you’re going to be in survival mode and won’t be able to do anything extra (seriously, taking a shower could become a near-impossible challenge).
On that note, I’d recommend taking the full 12 weeks of leave. I took six, but it took us until the ninth week to discover my son’s allergy issues. Until we got him on a hypoallergenic formula, he was only sleeping in 15 – 30 minute increments, then would be awake for an hour and a half at a time. It took me nodding off at the wheel twice to realize I was in over my head (thank you guardian angel for keeping me safe…).
If you have an easy baby, six weeks may be fine. But you don’t know the hand you’re going to be dealt and you’re not going to regret the extra time with you little one!
- Ease your way into childcare.
Whether you opted for a family member, a nanny or daycare to watch baby, it will be helpful to ease your way into it. This may sound cold, but dropping Ilyas off at daycare wasn’t as hard emotionally as I thought it would be. Yes, I did cry quite a bit. But I knew he was in good hands and was so exhausted that I mostly felt relieved to step away for a minute.The bigger challenge for us was figuring out some sort of routine. Since baby didn’t follow much of a sleep schedule, determining which feeding we needed to stay awake after in order to get out the door on time was hard. I wish we’d done at least one trial week without the pressure of actually having to get to work between 8 – 9.
- Thank your coworkers!
Regardless of the legal protection of your job, your coworkers likely had to pull some extra weight while you were out of the office. They probably also put your mind at ease knowing your customers and responsibilities were being covered. Find a way to thank them! It doesn’t have to be anything big, just show your appreciation.My love language is gift giving and my son was born the day before Thanksgiving, so I felt best giving those who were taking the bulk of my work a slightly nicer Christmas gift, along with a thoughtful card.
Congratulations and enjoy parenthood! It will expand your heart, shift your priorities and give you a new lens on life. I’m sure none of my employers, past or present, would be offended when I say being a mother is the most rewarding job I’ve ever held.
Have you been on parental leave? What other tips do you have for expecting parents?