CREATE THE POST-MATERNITY LEAVE ONRAMP THAT WORKS FOR YOU
One of the most challenging times for mothers in the workplace are the days, the weeks, and even the months that follow their maternity leave. The vast majority of leaves are way too short and, as a result, women are often forced to place their babies in the care of others, often before both mother and baby are ready. Between lack of sleep, the challenges of trying to pump breast milk at work, and their newfound feelings of attachment, a mother’s commitment to work can be tenuous at this time.
The best way to solve this is to create the onramp that works for you. For some women this means getting right back in. For others, this means extending their maternity leaves. For still others, this means working a reduced schedule for a few months until they feel fully ready.
A number of the women I interviewed had negotiated a flexible onramp schedule. They worked three days a week at first, then four, then eventually five. Their reduced work schedule often didn’t last more than three months, so within the year they were back to being all-in.
Smart companies already offer transitional onramping to their new mothers. Traci Armstrong, senior vice president, global director of talent acquisition, at GTB, an advertising agency headquartered in Detroit, said, “The cost of replacing a valuable employee is far greater than the few months it can take to transition a new mother back in. It is such an obvious win for all. It’s good for the mom and good for the business.”
But most companies aren’t this forward thinking yet. As a result, most women are afraid to ask for what they want and need now that their life has changed. It takes confidence to ask for what you want.
In their book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance What Women Should Know, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote, “We might like to believe that keeping our noses to the grindstone, focusing on every detail, and doing everything perfectly are the materials that build a career … It’s confidence that sways people.”244
During my interviews, I learned that confidence in their abilities and an understanding of their value to their employers were essential to the women who had successfully navigated the work-life conundrum In fact, for those who wanted a flexible schedule, having confidence made all of the difference.
Why? Because they knew if their current company wasn’t a good fit, there would be another one that was. As a result, they went into their negotiations with the goal of finding a mutually beneficial solution, one that worked both for them and their employers. Their confidence in their value infused the discussion and enabled them to secure the onramping situation that met their needs. But confidence is elusive and hard to have if you are worried you might lose your job or, as in my case, the company has not offered flexible solutions before.
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When my first maternity leave was nearing its end, I asked to meet with the head of my division. I told him I wanted to figure out a way to work a reduced schedule so I could have Fridays off with my son. I offered to reduce my salary by one-fifth or to work longer hours on the four workdays. I promised this would not be a long-term arrangement; rather, I would keep this schedule until my son’s first birthday when we could evaluate its pros and cons.
It was a bold move, as the company had never had someone in management who worked an untraditional schedule. But that leader was willing to take a risk. Together, we decided a forty-hour, four-day workweek was best for the company and for me. I spent the next year enjoying Fridays with my son and continuing to offer value to my company.
How did I get the courage to make the ask? Quite simply, my baby gave it to me. Watching him fight for his life made me realize I had to fight for ours. I didn’t go into that meeting making demands. I went in fully understanding it was a negotiation. And to find a solution that would work, both I and my employer had to be committed to creating a solution that worked for both of us.
In preparation for asking for what I wanted, I took a page out of Professor Amy Cuddy’s playbook on power poses (this, of course, was decades before Amy presented her famous TED Talk on the topic of body language). I wrote what I was going to say and practiced in front of the mirror. I wanted to show I was confident in myself and to make sure my delivery didn’t reveal my inner doubt about the validity of my request.
Each woman’s script will be different, but here’s what one who successfully negotiated a parttime schedule said to her employer:
I am a committed employee who has repeatedly delivered results. I would like to continue bringing my talents to bear at this company. In order for me to do so, I temporarily need a flexible schedule. Let’s discuss how we can make this a win for everyone.
Figure out what you want and need. Practice your script and then make the ask. I’ve said it before: You can’t get what you want unless you ask.
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