Sue Unerman, the Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom, and Kathryn Jacob OBE, the Chief Executive at Pearl and Dean, together wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business. Each week they answer your work questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work and today they're tackling the very tricky topic of maternity leave...
Q: I’m just about to go on mat leave for the first time. Of course, I am really excited, but I have spent over a decade building my career. My mum didn’t go back to work after she had her children, and many of my friends have quit to look after their kids. I want to come back to work. Can you give me some advice about how to navigate this period of time and my return to work?
Sue: Congratulations, what a wonderful time. You’ve made me think back to when I went on my first mat leave over 20 years ago. And the truth is that I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me, how I would feel once the baby was born, and certainly no idea about what I would want to do professionally, although I was sure I wanted to return to my career after a break. So the first thing to say, perhaps it’s obvious, is don’t worry now about how you’re going to feel once the baby is born, because you can’t anticipate those feelings.
Kathryn: This is truly an individual experience. Everyone will have their own stories, just forge your own path. Is there a history of working mothers at your company? How have they found it? Can you use them as an informal network to keep you in touch/share the gossip? Buddy up with them if possible. If you are committed to coming back be clear about that and say that you are open to the occasional chat with your boss.
Sue: Everyone knows that this is a time of change, and no decent organisation wants to put too much pressure on you. However this might seem as though they are standing back and this can feel that it means that they aren’t bothered whether you come back or not. This really isn’t the case. The world of business will go on without you, it has to, but your value remains the same and it doesn’t mean that they won’t miss you.
Kathryn: Once you are back at work it can be a tricky time. You’ll have different pulls on your time. You can’t “cancel” an evening at home (once you’re a mum) in the way that you could now postpone a drink with friends because your boss wants to take you for a drink or to work late unexpectedly. You’d need to make proper childcare arrangements, but also you might well find that you just don’t want to miss bathtime and bedtime, and why should you?
Sue: I highly recommend having a chat with your boss if only to give yourself peace of mind. It’s possible that your boss has a full-time stay at home partner who didn’t return to work when their children were born. So they might not have any experience of what you’re about to go through. This doesn’t mean that they can’t empathise though. If this the case they might need reassurance actually from you that your career is important to you and be very happy to support you during this period.
Kathryn: On the other hand if you have an unsupportive boss, don’t feel alarmed. You have the law and the angels on your side and you will get through this. You need to be resolute and clear about what your rights and responsibilities are and under no circumstances should you feel that you should work a 22 hour day or take on all the rubbish jobs just to prove your worth. You were valuable to the company before you became pregnant and you are still valuable now.
Sue: You’re on the brink of a new adventure. One that may well involve not much sleep at points and a completely different level of busyness to anything that you have experienced before. Be open to all this change and enjoy. But you are not losing the old you. Everything you have built in terms of your career remains standing and the new experiences may change your priorities particularly in the short term but rest assured the world of work will be there for you after your break.
Kathryn: One woman we spoke to for our book “The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business” commented that she was apologetic and guilty when she went back to work after mat leave. She said “I’m more on the back foot, more grateful when I get a break or am given a step up”. You don’t have to be guilty. They employ you because you do a good job and that won’t change when you’re a mum.
Sue: Remember kids grow up very quickly, being the mum of a one year old is different from being the mum of a toddler which is very different from being the mum of a pre-teen. So whatever pressures the first few months of being back at work bring, they will change over time. Good luck and enjoy.