BBC's drama The Replacement was a disturbing exploration of maternity leave that tapped into the fears of many mothers-to-be but also raised a number of questions around our biases and assumptions that impending and new mothers are not to be trusted and start to unravel the moment the two blue lines appear.
Motherhood often comes when women are at the peak of their career, or certainly on an upward trajectory, so it can feel like bad timing with a foreboding sense of "I can't have both and be sane/happy/effective" (delete as feels appropriate to you).
But in my career helping to create an inclusive workforce, retain top talent and see more feminine leaders in our boardrooms, I support women and businesses through this transition and to think more positively about the options. Many women admit they feel vulnerable very quickly and end up second-guessing their emotions before, during and after their return. They are torn between their love for their work and their child and although thankfully most women are not unlucky enough to have a sinister replacement intent on undermining them at every opportunity or stealing their baby, the feelings of being replaced are not unusual.
When former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women" during a 2006 keynote address, she would've been good to add "especially during pregnancy and the maternity leave period."
Both Ellen and Paula displayed behaviour not recommended in business, from the apologetic nature of Ellen when she announced her pregnancy to Paula's premature and overly assertive direct contact with a key client before they were formally introduced. Ellen's reluctance to let go and embrace her pregnancy is not uncommon but it's not recommended. So what are the best ways to prepare for and execute your maternity leave so you and your cover work as a team and you return stronger, wiser and a greater asset to all?
1. Know the importance of workplace allies (and find yours, pre-and post-baby)
As highlighted by Everywoman, the importance of women's networks, as well as the necessity of sponsors, mentors and female role models in the business world cannot be underrated but having supportive allies to guide you through this specific transitional period is vital. Don't limit yourself only to women or mums in your company; find supportive allies in other networks, and don't seek only those who are super ambitious and returned to work quickly or those who took their full 12 months. Build a broader more diverse group of allies with differing positive perspectives, as there is no "one size fits all". Connect with new parents, with new dads and those in your industry or the business world at large who you respect and admire. Stay away from the naysayers and guilt shamers and if your company doesn't have a parents' network, start one up! Our soon-to-be-launched Parenting Project will provide inspiration and motivational guidance through diverse and relatable role models to challenge current thinking and personal bias around career advancement, leadership and becoming a parent.
2. Genuinely want your maternity cover to succeed (and help them however much you can)
This can be challenging but if you can see it as a time to help up-skill a colleague or someone new who has come in to support the growth of your role it will benefit you both. Yes, they might be better than you in some areas and more than likely do things differently - but in the same way you and your partner are unlikely to parent and care for your child in an identical way, you want to help each other come out as winners. Actively ask to be involved in the recruitment or cover of your position and understand their longer term plans outside of yours to see how you can work together, before, during and after their cover ends.
3. Use your KIT days
In a recent article Stylist's acting deputy editor, about to take her third maternity leave, shared the benefits of using her 10 'Keeping In Touch' days to "talk about the magazine's future, rather than fixating on what she was missing out on." A smart move and plays exactly into the bigger picture thinking that the pregnancy brain is capable of. Using KIT days for a specific project or for phasing back your return are also smart options but not using them at all or leaving them to your company to lead on without any input from you is not. There shouldn't be pressure to return but 6, 9 or 12 months out with nominal contact will leave you out of the loop regarding the direction your business is going in and may mean that you miss out on new opportunities come your return.
4. See Maternity Leave as time and space to tap into your creativity and ideas
There was uproar in the US when fictional novel "Meternity" by Meghan Foye, suggested mat leave was "time out" to reassess or do anything except care for your little one. Initially a newborn is all consuming but 3 to 6 months in there are windows or moments of time especially when feeding, when your mind can wander and be free to expand. When we allow this thinking, we can start to see new opportunities for growth or ways to do things differently. I love asking the question "if all the world was aligning for your success, what would you do?" Challenge yourself to think without limits and see what beautiful and bold ideas you come up with.
5. Feel confident and value the skills you had before alongside the new ones you have gained
The skills you had before you gave birth can never be taken away. Walk tall with the knowledge you created life in addition to your previous achievements. See your time on maternity leave as a time to grow personally and professionally - not a time when you return to "make up" something that's been lost. This subtle shift in perspective and mindset can totally change how you behave and others respond. I know women who have started businesses, created viable side projects and discovered an incredible inner strength and resilience they never knew they had, yet on their return to their workplace suddenly feel diminished and down on their confidence. It takes women, men and businesses as a whole to change the way we value parenthood, and particularly motherhood. Crazy makes good TV but let's not buy into it in real life.
If you or your business would like support or to get involved in The Parenting Project please go to www.lisabarnwell.co.uk