Managing a Maternity Leave
"There is something I need to tell you…"
It was the conversation I had been dreading for two weeks, ever since I discovered that I was pregnant with my second child. It was only eight months since I had become the director of student development at a community college and a pregnancy had not been part of my plan for the first year in a new job. I sat in front of my boss, fighting off a wave of first-trimester nausea, and apologetically announced that I was pregnant and due smack in the middle of the spring semester. I realize that a pregnancy isn’t something one should have to apologize for. However, as a manager, I’ve been on the other side of this conversation and know that while I’ve always been happy for my expecting staff member, I’ve also been keenly aware that their absence on maternity leave means that there is work that either isn’t going to be done or will need to be done by someone else.
My boss took the news well, insisting that I didn’t need to apologize and offering the usual congratulations. Soon, though, she got to the big question, the one that I would have to answer over and over for the next seven months: What are you going to do about maternity leave?
I knew what I what my institution allowed, which was to use any combination of accrued leave time and unpaid time, and that I was entitled to use the 12 weeks mandated by the Family Medical Leave Act. But I also knew that what was I was allowed to do and what I realistically needed to do in order to not lose ground on the projects I’d already invested so much time in were not necessarily the same thing. I needed to figure out how to take a maternity leave that would give me time to recover from childbirth and to bond with my new baby but that would also allow me to maintain my professional sanity. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t stop caring about work while I was on leave and would want to continue to be part of several exciting initiatives my institution was beginning that directly related to the work of the areas I supervise. I also knew, having had a child before, that I needed to try to keep my expectations for what can be accomplished while caring for a small child realistic.
I also realized that, unlike a faculty member for whom usually a substitute is found to teach her classes, there wouldn’t be an interim replacement for me. My work, which includes supervising 30 staff members in multiple departments, would have to be divvied up between my assistant, my boss, another administrator and one of my senior staff members, all of whom already had plenty of their own work to do. While I trusted all of these people, I also realized that there were certain projects, such as completing the hiring process for four additional full-time employees, that I just didn’t want to delegate
I began the process of planning for my leave by first figuring out what my priorities were: 1) A healthy baby whose needs were being met 2) Keep the big projects moving forward 3) Pay enough attention to the small stuff to not feel totally overwhelmed when I got back to work. I also, as many women do, had to consider the financial ramifications of my maternity leave. When I took my position, I foolishly declined the opportunity to purchase short-term disability coverage, which would have provided a good portion of my salary once my vacation and sick leave were exhausted (a piece of advice to all women of childbearing years: be ye not so stupid. Always take the extra coverage). I grabbed my calculator and figured out that if I didn’t take any vacation time and only the occasional sick day, I would have enough accrued leave to cover about four or five weeks of maternity leave.
I couldn’t stand the thought of returning to work only five weeks after the birth but knew that my family couldn’t afford for me to be without a paycheck for more than a couple of weeks, so I informed my boss that I’d take six full weeks off and return for half days for a week or two and would continue to maintain my involvement on some projects we both agreed were key to the success of my department. I opted not to dwell too much on the fact that I’d likely be working for free by the end of my leave time.
As time for my leave grew closer, I took care of practical things like taking myself off distribution lists and setting up systems to try to manage e-mail (I calculated that I’d be likely to receive 2,000-3,000 e-mails in my absence. The thought of coming back to an inbox bursting at the seams was deeply discouraging). I created daily, weekly and monthly task lists for the people who were going to fill in for me. I arranged child care to be able to come back to campus for several strategic planning meetings that I didn’t want to miss.
I also worked to try to establish boundaries and to manage the expectations of my staff and other administrators. While I would be available while I was on leave, it would by e-mail rather than phone (an e-mail has never woken a sleeping baby). I would respond to questions but maybe not the same day, which had been the standard to which I usually try to hold myself. I wanted updates on the major work of my departments but didn’t need daily updates. I didn’t want know that person X was bickering with person Y again or that person Z had been 10 minutes late four days in a row. I wanted to stay in the loop enough to be ready to be a part of the conversation when I got back. I would continue to work hard and to care about my work but it would be kept in balance with the needs of my family.
Eventually my daughter arrived, and after a few days focused just on recovery and figuring out how to adjust to having a newborn as well as my four-year-old at home, I began to ease into my maternity leave routine. I set reasonable goals for myself: respond to, file or delete 20-40 e-mails per day, check in with my assistant every few days, respond to requests from my boss or other senior officials within a day or two. Some days the stars would align and both of my children would nap at the same time and I’d get several hours of quality work done. Other days were marked by a child (and, occasionally, parent) melting down, blown-out diapers and missed naps. There were days when I didn’t shower, let alone compose a thoughtful and articulate response to an e-mail. On more than one occasion I may have lamented that I didn’t live in Canada or some other country with longer and more generous maternal leave policies. My planning wasn’t always perfect and there may have been a few things that slipped through the cracks, but when I returned to work it only took a few days to get my e-mail inbox under control and for my calendar to fill again with meetings.
It felt in some ways like I’d never been gone. For a woman in an administrative position who finds that having a child has done nothing to curb her desire to stay on the administrative track this might be the best possible professional outcome for a maternity leave.
I’ve been back to work for several weeks now and recently spoke to a colleague at another institution who just announced her pregnancy. I found myself wanting to give her my top three pieces of advice as she plans for her eventual leave:
1. While you absolutely have the right to take maternity leave, the truth is that your absence will create additional work for someone. Doing what you can to ease that burden by planning in advance, finishing projects and being available for questions while you are gone will make people much happier to see you when you get back. Do you have to be available? No. Is deciding not to be available wise? Probably not.
2. Babies come on their own schedule, so begin planning for your leave as soon as you know you are pregnant. You might not have all your loose ends tied up if you go early, but some planning is always better than none.
3. There are still people who will call your maternity leave a "vacation." These are people who’ve never had babies. Ignore them.
Wendy Robinson is director of student development at the Ankeny campus of Des Moines Area Community College.