While You're Away
In an ideal world, you'd spend your entire maternity leave nestling with your newborn, immune to the worries of the workplace. But if you really love your job and want to keep it -- whether you're a nurse, an office manager, or a lawyer -- "it's smart to keep in touch with the office while you're on leave," says Cynthia Shapiro, a former human resources vice president and author of Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know -- and What to Do About Them (St. Martin's, 2005). "Maternity leave is an expensive proposition for a company. Showing that you're still interested in your job demonstrates that you're worth the investment." That doesn't mean, however, that you should be pounding away at the computer. Check in with weekly e-mails and calls, or meet coworkers for lunch.
What if you're not coming back to work? It's still wise to keep in touch, say experts. Today's financial realities mean that most women who become mothers will return to work at some point, says Lorenzen. And if you're not going back right away, an ongoing friendly relationship will keep you front-of-mind should other opportunities arise later. Employers, says Lorenzen, are finally becoming wise to the fact that women's careers can -- and should -- be fluid, and that experienced workers can return to the workplace in all kinds of capacities. "It's how valuable your employer thinks you are," she says. If a company has put time and money into training you -- whether you're a bigwig or an entry-level assistant -- they may be willing to work out a suitable arrangement with you.
Before you leave, you can agree upon how, and how often, you'll stay in contact with your workplace. For example, tell your boss you want to hear about projects you'll be working on when you return, but you don't need updates on things your replacement will do.
Back to Work -- or Not?
So you're not sure you will be going back? Think long and hard about it. Many variables will play into your decision -- from finances to hormones to career ambitions -- and you should weigh all of them when making your choice. While it's optimal to tell your manager before you give birth whether you'll be back, it's not always possible. It works both ways: Women who are sure they'll come back for financial reasons discover that the pull of full-time motherhood is too strong and find a way to budget. And moms who were positive they would embrace a world of Mommy & Me classes find they can't bear to be away from their office. Do the best you can before birth, but be honest if your circumstances change, says Lorenzen.
That said, don't leave your decision to the very last minute, and don't promise to come back if you know that you won't. "That only reinforces negative stereotypes that women are less serious about their jobs after they become mothers," says Jennifer Glass, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. "And it's those stereotypes that employers use against other women in future situations." In addition, says Shapiro, "You may have to pay back your maternity-leave benefits if you don't return to work after your leave ends."
Finally, never discount the power of intelligent negotiation. Two years ago, Sharon Anne Waldrop, a mom of four who had negotiated her own maternity leaves, was working as human resources manager for a university conference center near Los Angeles. "An employee was close to the end of her maternity leave. She had to work for financial reasons but was dreading being away from her baby for 40 hours a week." So Waldrop helped her find a workable solution. "Though there was no official policy, we presented her manager with a part-time schedule, which he agreed to as long as she could swing working full-time during their busy season." Where you may not have seen a solution before, one may exist. Ask. You never know.
Cynthia Shapiro, author of Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know and What to Do About Them (St. Martin's, 2005), offers the following tips on being professional while pregnant and postpartum.
- Wear professional-looking clothing before and after giving birth. "It communicates to your boss that you're not checking out just because you're expecting or a new mom," she says.
- Try to schedule doctor appointments and milk pumping on your lunch hour. "If you can't, keep your boss in the loop and create a plan to make up those lost hours."
- Stay focused. "Unfortunately, to most companies, having a pregnant or new-mom employee is risky and expensive," says Shapiro. You'll need to work twice as hard to prove you're engaged in your job -- not distracted by pregnancy and motherhood.
- Choose only one or two cute baby pictures for your desk. "If you plaster your desk with baby photos, your boss will wonder if your job is still a top priority."
Denise Schipani, a mother of two boys, is a writer living in Huntington, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2005.