I will never forget the day I had to tell my boss I was pregnant. Thirty-six years old and in my second week as editor of More! magazine. I'd always intended to have children at some point, but as for planning how the one I had on the way was going to fit into my career, my head was so deeply in the sand I could almost see Australia.
At that age I was happy just to be pregnant, but Mother Nature's timing was far from ideal. As the bump started to show I fretted over how to find the right words to deliver the news. How could I tell my new boss that their latest recruit came with a Mini Me? And what would my future career look like? Would they hold onto my job, and be flexible about my return to work? My dad thought not. "Congratulations - but your career's over," he told me.
The stress of keeping it a secret at work became too much. Marching into the office of a fellow editor who'd recently had a baby, I shut the door and, to her alarm, burst into tears. It really did seem like the end of the world.
Hopefully most women plan their maternity a little better, but the fear of how it will affect their career is pretty universal. If you've worked for years in a job you love, trained hard and climbed the career ladder, the thought of giving it all up - or at least losing some of your hard-fought-for position - is agony. Yet missing the chance to have children, if they're part of your life plan, is not an option. What if you genuinely want to 'have it all'?
The way to prevent motherhood destroying your career is to plan way ahead, according to Caroline Flanagan, who runs Babyproof Your Life (www.babyproofyourlife.com), a consultancy for women who want to take control of their careers by paving the way for maternity long before they actually conceive. "The ideal is to think about this stuff much earlier on - the later it is the harder it becomes to shore up your career so it's not going to suffer when you're a mum and can't put in the same hours in the same way. Clients come to me in their mid 20s when they're not immediately thinking of starting a family but know they will in the future. They've seen older women work hard to build impressive careers only to have them fall apart when they have children. My clients are determined to avoid this fate".
Caroline is passionate about empowering women to make themselves vital to their employers and their industry, so they don't end up getting sidelined on returning to work. "I help women look at how they can build their career and prove their worth long before they get pregnant so that any employer would give their right arm to keep them, even on a flexible basis. Doing the hardcore work in your career upfront gives you the kind of influence and leverage to get what you want and need when the moment comes to have children - or to be so well-connected and valued in your industry that you won't struggle to find an equivalent position elsewhere where the terms suit you better".
This stuff really matters. According to a recent survey by Mumsnet and executive search firm Ridgeway Partners 55% of working mums have experienced a decline in wages since returning to the workplace, with nearly half (47%) receiving a substantial reduction of 40% or more. While some cuts can be attributed to reduced working hours, a quarter (26%) of those whose hours hadn't changed reported a drop in salary. Unsurprisingly Mumsnet chose to put the issue of maternity leave high on the agenda at Bumpfest, their event for mothers to be.
So how can pregnant staff sugar the pill? "One of the key things when breaking the news to your employer is to go in there with a strategy," says Caroline. "It seems obvious but so few do. When you announce it, the very next thing to say is 'I've been thinking about maternity and what that would mean to you, and here are some ideas,' so you actually take some responsibility for the impact your absence will have".
Increasingly this strategy involves finding your own maternity cover. Paul Jenkins, MD of maternitycover.com says "We have more and more women approaching us months before they go on maternity leave, even before they've told their bosses that they're pregnant. Mums-to-be can be a real asset in finding their own replacement. They phone us to find out how arranging maternity cover through us would work and what the fee would be, so they have the information ready to present to their employers". Of course not all employers will go for this option, but showing you are keen to help them fill the void you'll leave while at home with your new-born will demonstrate that you're well worth hanging onto.
Thankfully my dad was wrong about my career being over, and nowadays there are plenty of women whose career profile has gone from strength to strength post-children. But it certainly pays to have a plan.