Too often, women view maternity leave as the beginning of their lives as mothers, and the beginning of the end of their careers. Research tends to focus on the negative impact taking leave can have, and it's true: if you approach maternity leave as simply 'time out,' then it's unlikely to enhance your working life. Yet, we know from experience that the reverse can also be true. Maternity leave can give you the time and space to assess your priorities, develop new or existing skill-sets, and boost your profile. If you change your mindset about maternity leave, it can become an opportunity to make yourself stand out.
Many companies, including Netflix and Facebook, are working hard to destigmatize parental leave. Netflix offers unlimited paid parental leave for the first year following the birth or adoption of a child. Yet, men still aren't taking advantage of the leave available. According to Boston College research, men take only one day of leave for every month that mothers take, with 42% of fathers returning to work after one week, and 81% heading back to the office after two weeks. Gradually, a change in attitudes towards parental leave will give more men confidence to take leave without fearing negative consequences. This will have positive knock-on effects for working-mothers, and facilitate the building of a culture which supports families with two working parents; a Swedish study found a mother's income went up 7 percent for every month a partner took off after a child was born.
Taking leave can make you more creative, energised and efficient. An increasing number of women are starting new businesses while on leave. There are currently 300,000 'mumpreneurs' working in the UK. The shift in public attitudes towards part-time work contributes to the parallel shift in ideas about parental leave, as more and more people are realising that clocking more hours in the office does not necessarily equate to success. Indeed, taking parental leave may be crucial to sustainable working-motherhood. A study from the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, found that women who had taken advantage of New Jersey's paid-family-leave policy were far more likely than mothers who had chosen not to take leave to be working nine to 12 months after the birth of their child.
If you want to take advantage of your maternity leave, it's important to plan ahead and get organised:
1. Before you go on leave:
- Establish clear goals. Suggest a performance review, and look over it when you return as a working mother to ensure you set objectives and maintain momentum.
- Decide in advance whether you want to be part of any team-training days or other office initiatives. The government allows 10 paid 'Keeping in Touch' (KIT) days for mothers on maternity-leave to come into the office.
2. While you're on leave:
- You have the opportunity to step away from the business and look at it with fresh eyes: What are the gaps? What could be done differently? What quick wins are there for you on your return? Instead of worrying about your absence from the office, reframe any anxiety as a sign of your commitment to your job. Embrace the opportunity to highlight how important you are to your company's success.
- Being absent from the office doesn't have to mean feeling disconnected. Use social media to keep up with important contacts and stay engaged.
- Boost your profile: What are your goals? Who needs to know? What concrete steps can you take to establishing a connection? Use your network to ensure that you have champions in place when you return to work, who are confident in your abilities and will put you forward for opportunities.
- Do your research, identify role-models and find inspiration wherever you can. Ann Cairns, president of international markets at MasterCard, was promoted while on maternity leave, and has taken an active role in sponsoring and supporting other women who don't want to sacrifice either family or career. If you adopt a growth mind-set, and see your career as a continuous learning curve, having a baby is another experience: It will allow you to hone your existing skills (like time management) and build confidence in your ability to adapt, be flexible, and meet new challenges.