In my interviews I learned that rather than follow an outdated model that gives them little chance to bond with their new babies, many smart, modern women are arranging for and taking longer maternity leaves. Yes, they are ambitious and committed to their careers, but they also want to spend those first precious months with their children. If they find the company isn’t as supportive of them and their careers when they return, these women feel empowered to move on to companies that offer more inclusive cultures.
Consider Vidya Peters. Perhaps it was because she is from India and her husband is from the Netherlands, but there was never a doubt in her mind that she would take a six-month leave after her first child was born in the spring of 2011. Vidya loved her job in marketing at Intuit, a financial services software company, but she wanted as much time as she could afford to be with her newborn. When her friends worried she might be sending her employer the wrong message, she told them that was ridiculous.
“I was very pragmatic about it,” Vidya told me. “Because I work in the state of California, I knew my job was protected. They couldn’t fire me, so why wouldn’t I take as long a leave as I could? That time gave me a great chance to step back and consider what I wanted as a mother and as a professional.”
What Vidya realized she wanted was a new, more challenging opportunity. While she was on leave, she learned that a job as a group marketing manager was opening in a different division at Intuit. It was a more senior role, but she thought it couldn’t hurt to interview for the job; at the very least, she would be able to show her company she was still committed to her career.
“I realized all they could say was no, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring,” Vidya said.
It worked. She came back from maternity leave to a promotion and more pay. Even though Vidya took a longer-than-standard leave, she was still able to signal to her company that she was passionate about her career by actively engaging in her own professional advancement.
A few years later, Vidya became pregnant with her second child. Again, she took a six-month leave. And again, she was promoted when she came back. When Vidya returned to work, she moved over to be director of marketing for a key product line, a job with increased influence, responsibility, and exposure.
Vidya stayed in that job until she was recruited by another company for an even more senior role. Today, she is the vice president of corporate marketing at MuleSoft. Her new bosses don’t care how long she took off for maternity leave. It’s likely they don’t even know. What they care about is how she is performing now.
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Like Vidya, I too took a longer-than-standard leave after my first child was born. It was a risk. The longest leave anyone had taken at my company was three months, and even that was frowned upon. Six weeks was standard, shorter was even better.
But I had preemie baby who needed round-the-clock care. The idea that I would return to work after only six weeks was completely beyond consideration. During those first few months of his life, my baby needed me, and because of that, I was willing to risk everything.
While I had originally told my employer I would return three months after my son was born, I asked for an additional month (unpaid). To my relief the company agreed. That “extended” leave was essential for me as a mother and as a professional. My son grew quickly and by the end of my four-month maternity leave, he was on track with babies his age who had been born full-term I was confident he would not only survive, but thrive.
I believed I would, too, professionally. While I was on leave, I kept the communication lines open with my manager regarding my dreams and wishes. She understood what I wanted and worked with me to make sure I could accomplish my goals. Like Carolyn and Vidya, when I returned to work, I was promoted to the next level and placed on one of the company’s flagship brands. Sadly, my bosses were two men who held deep biases against mothers who worked outside the home. Because I knew the value of my human capital, I knew working for them was not a good use of my time and effort. So I left and found a new job making more money and working for a more supportive boss.
“I would encourage every woman to take as much maternity leave as they can afford and as they are allowed by law. If your company doesn’t like it, then take your leave and find a new company where the culture is a better fit for you and your family,” Vidya told me.
I couldn’t agree more. Your maternity leave is a necessary time for you to heal from pregnancy and birth, a critical time for you to bond with your new baby, and an important time for you to adjust to your new role as a mother. For many it may be the only pause you will get, so take as long as you can. You won’t regret it.
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