No one was more surprised than me at my reaction to going back to work after my second daughter was born. I had returned to a part-time role after my first daughter, and had assumed (wrongly) that all would be the same second time round. Except that it wasn’t. My emotions took over and took me by surprise. I cried when I left my girls with the nanny for a trial run. I found it extremely difficult to leave them and head off to work in the morning (who doesn’t)? But it was a work trip to New York after I had been back at work for 6 weeks that really did it.
In the days before children I’d have absolutely loved a business trip to the big apple. What a brilliant opportunity it would have been to develop my career and gain valuable experience! Instead, it was a logistical nightmare involving batch booking, nappy buying and writing of detailed schedules so that all would run smoothly in my absence. It was exhausting. During the trip I was miserable; ridden with guilt about leaving my children and quite frankly, a little bewildered at how to cope with juggling my career with my little family.
I sought out a career coach, and gradually summoned the courage to resign from my job and set up my own business. You see – I wanted to work. I needed that challenge and intellectual stimulation. But – I wanted it on my terms. I wanted to be able to choose what work I did, where and when I did it, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve been doing that now for almost five years.
So yesterday, when I read that Lady Barbara Judge, the first female chairman of the Institute of Directors said that taking a long maternity break is bad for women’s careers, I felt angry and disappointed. I honestly don’t believe that there is a perfect amount of time to take out when you have children. It is not for anyone to decide but the mother herself. No one knows how they are going to feel until the baby is born – or even until the time comes to start thinking about going back to work. Individual circumstances will, to some extent dictate what women can afford to do. Yet preparing to have a baby, getting ready to hit the ‘pause’ button on your career for a period of time, is not an easy task.
Most women will feel anxious and even scared about going on maternity leave, probably feeling concerned about the impact the time out of the office will have on their career. What will they miss out on? What about being promoted – will it take them longer to achieve their goals? Will they be able to return to the same role?
Yes, as Ben Black, director of My Family Care said, if you take a year out of work, you are a year behind when you come back. But anyone who takes a career break runs the risk of their role changing or disappearing on their return. And surely that risk still applies even if you don’t take a break from work? All of us who are in the corporate world know that it is unpredictable and constantly changing.
Rather than fuelling women’s anxieties about the negative impact of maternity leave on their career, we should be encouraging, supporting and enabling women to take the time that they need to recover from the birth, bond with their child and adjust to becoming a parent. However long that takes. Most women, myself included, will emphasise that those early days, weeks and months are precious and that you don’t get that time back.
Returning to work after maternity leave can be a complex and difficult transition to manage. Many women lack confidence and feel trepidation about how they are going to re-engage with their career and their role, and how they are going to juggle their different responsibilities. Coaching can help to build confidence and enable women to have the support they need as they find their way through becoming a parent and then adjusting to being a working parent. Coaching also supports organisations in their efforts to retain talented women.
So let’s not tell women what to do. Let them decide. Allow them to find their way through it, and discover for themselves what is the right amount of time to take out from their career as they give birth and learn how raise their children. No one knows how you are going to feel and like me, you may be surprised.