Staying on Top While You're Waiting to Pop
The Working Woman's Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave


Section: iParenting

Shannon McKelden

Once it was assumed that working women would quit working when they started their family. Today, thankfully, women have more choices. They are free to enjoy time with their baby and then return to their job or career when the time is right. But sorting out all the choices about pregnancy and maternity leave can be confusing.
The No. 1 consideration is maternity leave. How long can it be? When will it begin? What kind of options are there for flexibility? How much leave can I afford?
"The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave," says Nataly Kogan, co-founder and CEO of "So many moms worry about how long they can take off and how long they can afford to take off. Many large companies offer at least four to six weeks of paid leave, but in many situations, moms have to cobble together vacation time, disability and use their Family Leave to take off several months for maternity leave."
It's important not to assume anything. To make informed decisions, find out your company's policies early. Kogan believes communication is key. "Moms should make sure they understand exactly how long they will have for maternity leave and how much of it will be paid," she says. "HR departments are the place to go for this type of information, but most moms we've talked with say talking to a colleague at your company who has gone through this process already is the best way to get all the details."
Covering All Your Bases
Once you know your options, plan your time off. Decide whether to work until delivery or whether to take time off before the birth. Help your employer decide who will take over your responsibilities while you are gone, or whether you will do some work from home. And plan for the unplanned.
"[Women] often don't think about if something unexpected happens, like if they have a complication and their doctor orders bed rest for the last month of pregnancy," says Nora Plesent, founder of Lexolution, a Washington, D.C., company that helps create flexible work environments and opportunities for lawyers, particularly women.
Early deliveries can also derail a well-laid plan. "Because both my pregnancies ended up being complicated by pregnancy-induced hypertension, I left pretty suddenly and quite early: both babies were born at 35 weeks," says Michelle Branco, of Mississauga, Ontario. "So unfortunately, I had very little chance to plan ahead."
How long - or short - maternity leave will be is another important decision. "Women often don't think about how easy or hard it is to stay home," Plesent says. "Or they just determine while on maternity leave that they want to stay out longer or come back slowly, such as one or two days a week for the first month."
Judy Jackson, a Florida fire marshal and arson investigator when she became pregnant, planned her leave carefully. "I had saved up a tremendous amount of sick leave time and vacation time," Jackson says. "I trained others to do a lot of my work while I was gone but still was available for the tough stuff and consulting. At the end of my pregnancy I was bed ridden but continued to work from home - a courier would bring work to me and take it back to the fire department."
Discuss options like these ahead of time so everyone knows your intentions. Plesent suggests being honest with yourself and your employer. "One thing women do is push themselves in one way or the other," she says. "They feel guilty about not going back to work or about going back to work."
Keeping Your Foot in the Door
One of the biggest worries for career women contemplating maternity leave is how it will affect their job. Will they lose touch with their career? Will their boss forget they exist or give their job to someone else?
"The key is to keep your career alive in small ways that bolster your knowledge and self-confidence and keep you connected with the workplace but don't overwhelm your with unreasonable demands on your time, energy or focus and that allow you ample time to adjust to and enjoy your new role as a mother," says Dr. Rachelle Canter, author of Make the Right Career Move (Wiley, 2007).
Jackson followed this advice. "I was still connected to work and knew what was going on," she says. "I received all kinds of mail and reports and newsletters and magazines, etc., that were job-related and even attended a couple of classes."
Dr. Canter, who has 20 plus years of career coaching experience, offers these concrete steps to staying connected to your job:
Have a bi-weekly conversation with a colleague about current projects and challenges. Set aside five to 10 minutes a week to brainstorm ideas for these projects or overcome challenges. If appropriate, e-mail your boss with your ideas.
You could even volunteer to do a bit of online research for him or her (everyone loves a volunteer).
Write an article for a trade magazine to increase your visibility.
Read a book or trade magazine in your field to keep abreast of the latest ideas and developments.
Update your LinkedIn profile; invite people to join your LinkedIn network each week.
Update your resume step-by-step, which will not only give you an up-to-date record of your (quantified) accomplishments and contributions, but will bolster your self-confidence, something that will help you as you move back into the work world.
Most experts and moms warn, though, not to shortchange your time at home with too many worries about the office. "You'll be surprised at how quickly you are forgotten, but also at how quickly you're right back in the thick of it when you come back," Branco says. "On the other hand, those sleep-deprived, diaper-changing, nursing marathon days are more fleeting than you can ever imagine when you are in the middle of them. The best thing you can do for your career is to return to it with no regrets that you missed a snuggle because you were checking e-mail."
Plesent agrees. "The more you can be with the baby during maternity leave, the more you will be able to have your head in the workplace again once that time comes," she says.
Above all, try to avoid looking back with regret at the time you took off to be with your baby. Katie Rosin, a publicist/marketing consultant from New York, suggests moms take time to enjoy changing the dirty diapers, but also says, "don't feel guilty for going back to work. If it will keep you sane and feeling self-assured then do it."
Do your best, but don't be too concerned for the future of your career. "For new moms, during and following maternity leave, [any] crisis of confidence is even more pronounced because they are often tired, frazzled and vulnerable to all the media and well-intentioned, but wrong-headed, folks who tell them that motherhood interferes with having a rewarding career," Dr. Canter says. "This is only true if you believe the hype and give up on your career."
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