I know, I know…conventional wisdom says that maternity leave is a pause button. An exit ramp from leadership. And a hiatus from professional development. Unless of course, you’re a hard-driving, cold, uncaring mama, who only cares about work at the expense of her baby.
But after having had two amazing little boys and returning from maternity leave after each of them, I’m here to tell you that I think conventional wisdom has it all wrong. During my first maternity leave, I spent too much time worrying about what I had missed while I was gone, how I could possibly “catch up”, what I couldn’t do at work anymore (e.g., stay past 4:30pm), rather than all the things I could still do (e.g., work hard, think strategically, collaborate with colleagues, create new ideas…) – or all the skills I had gained or honed by becoming a mother (e.g., efficiency, negotiation skills, problem-solving, dealing with the unexpected).
But with the benefit of time, experience, and a second maternity leave, I have since come to view the leave and return experience as a chance to grow a career and develop some serious leadership muscles. All while being connected to and nurturing beautiful babies.
What I am not talking about here is working more hours or spinning your wheels worrying about work while tuning out your baby. What I am talking about is approaching your maternity leave and return in a mindful, thoughtful, and strategic way, so that you can grow in your career and focus on your baby in tandem.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare to go on leave:
Before Your Baby Arrives:
- How can I prepare my colleagues for my leave in a well-planned, thoughtful way? Who will take over what work, and do they have the resources they need to get the job done? Who needs to meet whom? Have I made the necessary introductions?
- What conversations should I have with my boss (and any direct reports), to set clear expectations about things like the length of my leave, who will cover what, how I will communicate while I’m out, and what work I expect to resume when I come back?
- Can I build planning-my-maternity-leave into my official goal-setting process, and be evaluated on it?
- Can I block times for pumping milk on my calendar now, so that I can carve out time in my day before other meetings get scheduled?
- Are there colleagues who recently gone on leave at my organization who can tell me about their experiences? What do I like about their approach? What do I dislike?
While You Are On Leave:
- What type of expectation did I set around office communication? Am I living up to that expectation? If not, how can I best communicate to change those expectations?
- Is it possible that not being in touch on substantive projects during my leave isin itself a strong leadership stance?
- 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?
When You Return:
- Is there work I want to or feel I should take back? Did my leave provide a growth opportunity for any colleagues, such that there are things I don’t need to take back – and where I can take a managerial or strategy role in instead? Can I continue to mentor these colleagues?
- During my annual review process, are there ways I can take credit for a well-planned and executed leave and return?
- Are there skills I am gaining as a parent that I can put to use in the office? How can I advertise this new skill set to my colleagues?
- How can I build a ritual into my day to preserve time (even just a few minutes) for myself and my own sanity? (Recently, I’ve taken to choosing a route from the metro to the office that includes a stop by a beautiful and calming fountain, where I can pause, breathe, and collect my thoughts for the day.)
As you approach your leave, take some time to think through and even write down answers to these questions. It may be obvious that having a baby and going on maternity leave will help you grow as a mother and a woman. But know that this experience can help you grow as an employee and creator of your own career as well.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, founder of Mindful Return and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course, is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys (ages 1 and 3) and is the Director of Hospital and GME Payment Policies at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Lori has been committed to promoting women’s equality and leadership throughout her career. Most recently, she founded both the Returning to Work Community (RWC) for mothers at AAMC who return to work from maternity leave and a D.C. Health Policy Lean in Circle. As an undergraduate at Princeton, she wrote her thesis on immigrant women in France who were victims of domestic violence. At Georgetown Law, she was the co-President of the Women’s Legal Alliance and represented clients through the Domestic Violence Clinic. In private practice, she was a member of her firm’s Women’s Initiative and a member of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia.
At the AAMC, Lori works on regulatory policy issues relating to graduate medical education reimbursement, hospital price transparency, and inpatient and outpatient hospital payment policies. Prior to joining the AAMC, Lori worked as a healthcare attorney at Vinson & Elkins, LLP and King & Spalding, LLP.