There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to maternity leave. On one end of the spectrum there are the women who are back in the coalface on day three post natal; on the other are women whose experience results in a drastic overhaul of work-life priorities.
In between there are women whose period of stay-at-home motherhood sparks a business idea which throws them a career curveball, and those for whom the challenges of life with baby mean there’s no headspace for anything else. Whatever the experience, there’s always a lesson. We round up what successful businesswomen have taken from theirs.
“Ditch the guilt!”
Karren Brady CBE, Vice Chairman of West Ham United Football Club and everywoman Award winner famously took just three days maternity leave after the birth of her first child, returning to the office to fire a wayward manager – a “hard-core” decision she came to deeply regret, later labelling it “shameful”.
But in her book, Strong Woman and in subsequent interviews she speaks about the need to let go of guilt around being a working mother – whether that’s being with the children when work calls, or being at work and leaving the children in the care of another: “Feelings of guilt can creep in. My children and my work are the two most important things in my life. Finding that balance is very important. There are times when you have to make very difficult choices: weigh up the nativity play versus the board meeting. You won’t be at everything, but I always say that my children are healthy, intelligent, well mannered, bright, opinionated and well educated and that’s not because the nanny drove them to school in the morning. It’s because of the time that I’ve spent with them, the times that I’ve talked to them, nurtured them and shown them how to express opinions.”
She’s also a firm advocate of taking a moment to appreciate yourself and your role as working mother: “Being a housewife and being a mother is one of the most underappreciated yet most important jobs that you can do. Unlike at work, where there’s someone to pat you on the back, to give you a pay rise and to make you feel worthwhile, when you’re at home, there’s no one to do that.”
“Plan while they sleep!”
For some women, corporate hours make it almost impossible to turn a business idea into a thriving entrepreneurial reality. Which is why so many women are taking a ‘power maternity leave’ whereby the hours spent while baby is sleeping are devoted to laying the groundwork for a new future career – often a home business which, further down the track, will give the new mother a flexible schedule and an understanding boss – herself.
Dr Jennifer Gardner (Founder Healthy Kids Company), a paediatrician, used her maternity leave to bring to life an idea that had been kicking around for years – an organisation educating parents on the importance of nutrition in childhood: “Maternity leave was actually a great time to start working on it. I knew I was eventually going to return to full-time work as a paediatrician, but while my son was sleeping, I had the free hours necessary to build my website,” she says. “Starting a company to educate families had always been a passion of mine, but prior to maternity leave, I didn’t really have the time to devote to my idea.”
“Build a robust support system”
“When you’re a new mother, it feels like everyone wants a piece of you — literally, figuratively, and emotionally,” writes Hilary Pearl,Harvard Business School graduate and former Pepsi executive, in a Harvard Business Review blog. “Add physiological changes, a lack of sleep, and hormonal fluctuations into that mix and it’s easy to understand why returning to work after maternity leave can be one of the most fraught, challenging, and stressful times in a woman’s life.”
To combat the effect that emotions can wreak on you during leave and on returning to work, Hilary advocates using the time before the birth to read up on post partum emotions: “Be well informed about [what might happen] so you don’t feel that your reactions are abnormal or that there is something defective or inadequate about you.”
She also encourages building support groups of women with whom you can share your fears and feelings, and making sure that work-life balance isn’t just about baby time and professional time but also includes ‘me time’: “Find even small ways to build your executive stamina through fitness, meditation, nutrition, hydration, and getting as much sleep and sunlight as you can. Take breaks when possible at home and at work to restore your energy and recharge your batteries.”
“If you’ve had two bouts of maternity leave in four years then when it comes to your performance review, your ‘highlights’ might go back a while and you’re automatically at a disadvantage, says O2’s HR Director Ann Pickering, whose own sense of disconnection during maternity leave has shaped her policy-making for women raising families alongside their work for the telecoms giant.
O2 has overhauled its recruitment and rewards system to ensure returning mothers get equal chances – and that the fast changing organisation is focused on staff member’s flexibility, attitude and behaviour, rather than a skillset which might be obsolete in a short time.
There are also communication structures in place to ensure that women remain connected throughout maternity leave: “They continue to fill in engagement surveys, they continue to have their laptops though they aren’t expected to work, babies come in for mad days of face painting and movies and big family days. I want people to bring themselves to work and for most people with families that means feeling free to ask for flexibility and to be able to relax back into work after a period of leave – not for altruistic reasons; it just makes good business sense.”
What I learned from my maternity leave – from the everywomanNetwork:
Taylor: “Having an “easy” baby meant I could use my nine month maternity leave to really evaluate my values and establish what I wanted from the rest of my career. I went back to my core passions and ended up changing careers to a field that was more in line with my earlier studies and would be more compatible with family life. Best decision I ever made.”
Alexandra: “Until I had children I’d always defined myself by my work. Maternity leave was a wake up call in priorities and productivity. Yes work is important, but it’s not who I am. I learned to make a very clear difference between who I am and what I do. That classification can really help when it comes to making difficult decisions.
Henri: “My career was always about perfectionism, and that extended into motherhood. But being perfect is exhausting. I learned that it was okay to dial down from ten out of ten to seven out of ten. I also learned to anticipate when something might not get delivered as brilliantly as I wanted it to be, and to cut myself some slack. If you’re not going to give yourself a break, who is?”