Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of Vogue, was brutally honest this weekend about the impact going on maternity leave can have on a woman's career (in an interview in The Times magazine).
I do think you have to accept there can be consequences from not being there. Office life has to go on. People don't just leave your job, your role, the you-ness of it, in aspic, waiting for you to come back and refill it
It was good to hear a successful woman speak about maternity leave in an honest way. This is one area where women can sometimes have quite mad expectations. Having a baby is truly transformative - you aren't the same person and everything changes. So why would you expect your work environment to stand still whilst you're gone? The reality is that new people will join, these people (not just young, feisty women by the way) will take on some of your role and there's likely to be some restructuring of your team in your absence. People aren't going to stand by your desk staring mournfully at your stapler until you return.
When I went away on maternity leave I felt anxious about what direction my career would take. I felt a certain level of defensiveness and didn't want anyone taking over my territory. I felt quite grumpy. I wanted to have a child, have a year off and pick up exactly where I'd left off.
But then once my daughter was born those concerns were blasted out of the water to be replaced by full-blown baby anxiety. Here was a tiny creature who didn't sleep, didn't eat enough and cried all the time. The only time I went on my laptop was to watch some really unhelpful video with a chirpy Mum explaining how easy it was to get your baby to 'latch on'.
Meanwhile back at work people were busy. They were furthering their careers and doing lots of stuff. They were writing presentations and staying late. They were coming up with new ideas that made their brains ache. Things were changing and shifting and no one had noticed my lonely stapler.
My own mother had a very different experience of maternity leave. For a start it was much shorter. When my sister was born (in the late eighties) my Mum went back to work after two weeks. She hadn't qualified for paid leave so had to leave my sister with a child-minder when she was tiny (my sister was tiny, not the child-minder). I don't remember Mum complaining about it (but she had a permanent frown on her face and didn't brush her hair for four years). And it was only when I had my own child that I realised how tough it must have been. She knew someone else would get her job unless she got back to work quick smart.
In contrast I took a year (Shulman apparently only took four months) but still didn't feel equipped to step back into the world of work. After a year! What a spoilt pig! But I'd now changed into this Mum person and wasn't sure what my working title was anymore. (I also think it never feels like the right time to come back whether you take two months or two years).
Those first few days and weeks were difficult. I faked a certain level of confidence and wore a pristine white shirt to give an impression of being on top of things. I was constantly worried that I would start singing 'One Little Duck Went Swimming One Day,' at an inopportune moment. I found it a challenge to make small talk as my brain was hardwired to talk about weaning, sleep patterns and box sets.
I also missed my daughter really badly.
When I returned everything had changed. There were lots of new faces and new roles and new systems. But I also found the changes quite liberating. For a start everyone knows how tough it can be being with a child all day. Even a child that you really love. The days are relentless and you look at the clock and then feel guilty. We in the Western world are spoilt (we have loads of gadgets and time-saving devices) but it's hard work nevertheless. Work felt liberating because it was a break from doing that stuff.
Pretty quickly I accepted that everything had changed. I found it invigorating to get involved in the things I wanted to be doing (rather than the things I'd landed up with). I started thinking about my role and what I wanted. Sure I had the odd pang when I thought about the past but the past was a different person doing a different job.
Two things shaped the fact that my experience was positive. My employer was fair. They didn't try and pull a fast one. But it was also my attitude - I accepted that taking a year off would have consequences. I tried to use these changes to my advantage.
And I haven't got it sussed completely and I have good and bad days but I think Shulman has a point. We need to accept that things will change and be flexible and realistic.
Time never stops but hopefully you can use it to your advantage.