Managing maternity leave successfully – PR Week

On 16 January 2017 I became the first woman to join the UK board of The Specialist Works. The very next day I announced I was three months pregnant.

This was my moment. I’d made it to the board. I’d been rewarded for all my hard work. I was going to be a mum. I was about to “have it all”.

Did I feel empowered? Not one bit.

The night before I told my boss, I was a knot of sleepless anxiety. I thought he and the board would be annoyed. I was letting everyone down.

Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and took a moment to enjoy their real heartfelt congratulations. They genuinely couldn’t have been happier for me.  Buoyed and supported, I worked hard right up until my maternity leave and left feeling ready for the next adventure.

The first few months of maternity leave I was in my baby bubble, but then started really looking forward to returning to the office. I’d been keeping in touch with work, helping on the odd pitch and joining board meetings on video calls with my daughter on my lap.

I was also lucky enough to meet an incredible mum on the “baby group circuit” who mentors women in the workplace and took her advice about how to return from parental leave – creating my plan of boundaries, nice-to-haves and red lines – everything from not missing bedtime two nights in a row to having regular meals out with my husband, all while being seen to be contributing successfully at work.

It felt good to have a plan. After all, I’m a planner by trade. I’d put the work in, done the planning, this was going to be OK… right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The workplace I returned to had changed. There had been a management buyout. My maternity cover had left early, leaving my team under-managed. An imaginary white board marked “Verity’s new responsibilities” had been added to without a sense of central oversight. I picked up six jobs’ worth of responsibility on my return.

After four months back at work I was feeling burnt out, overwhelmed and anxious. Somehow my boundaries had evaporated and I was telling my new boss that I felt like a failure.

I’m grateful that I was given the space to redefine my role and refine my new responsibilities and finally put in place those boundaries that I had so very carefully planned pre-return and eventually, eight months in, things got better.

But it broke me. And when I was preparing for maternity leave the second time I knew it needed to be different.

I sat down with my manager and had a really important conversation about me, not my job. What I liked, what I didn’t. What I want to do more of, what less. Not about a specific job or role or preferred line management, as in a fast-growth business these things change, and quickly. This document was then left in the business as a sense check in my absence and something to help me pick back up from where I left off, when I was ready.

And this time it worked. I’ve come back to a new, bigger role that suits me perfectly. My transition was smooth and I was able to hit my stride sooner. Win win.

I learnt that when going through this process there are five important things to help you and others in your business approach when returning from parental leave.

Open up the conversation

The anxiety I felt ahead of telling my colleagues I was pregnant was entirely unnecessary. But as family life was never talked about and there was no other woman on the board, I didn’t see it was do-able, I didn’t see it was OK. I’m really open about family life, I have pictures of my kids behind me when I work from home, I talk about the juggle and my maternity leave journey publicly. It’s visible and intentional.

Let yourself go on a journey

Don’t commit to what you want from work before you’ve been on parental leave. One because legally, you don’t have to. Secondly because your emotions and priorities change and it’s different for everyone; comparisons don’t help. So let yourself go on your journey. If you committed to something you no longer want it can make the journey harder than it needs to be and you may end up with obligations you feel forced to keep.

Map what success looks like to you

Now that you are balancing a whole new area of your life, it is key that you consider what success will look like moving forward, personally, professionally and as a parent. I encourage anyone to complete this exercise, physically writing it down. It helps to see it laid out.

Whatever success looks like to you, communicate this to your manager and come up with a method that ensures balance. I decided that a four-day working week works for me and this means I can manage my workload through the week and spend Friday at home with my young family.

Plan for change

While it is important to plan ahead you need to allow yourself to be flexible. Assume work will change, so focus on you. What you like and how you can add value. It helps to maintain communication with your manager but only do this when you’re ready. I went off the radar and firmly into the baby bubble for three months; it was what I needed. Ongoing, balance will be something you need to feel your way through as boundaries flex. Sometimes work will be prioritised, sometimes motherhood. And that’s ok.

Share your experience to help others

Do something to make the process easier for the next person. It’s not an easy phase to navigate but if we help and support each other it will make a real difference.

Verity Brown is managing director of The Specialist Works 

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