maternity leave: somewhere between anxiety and bliss

For the second time during my career, I'm going on maternity leave. We have the opportunity, here in Canada, to take an entire year off of work and focus on building those special bonds linking a parent and their child, and to marvel at the baby’s progress – despite dirty diapers, sleepless nights and puddles of mashed carrots on the floor. It's truly a magical, wonderful experience. Nevertheless, the first time around, I worried about everything: would I be a good mother, how would my return to work go, would I feel lost and overwhelmed, would I need to demonstrate my skills all over again, would I fail the impossible work-family balance test? Thanks to age and experience, the whole process seems much less intimidating this time. I’ve learned to trust myself more as a Career Mom, and to share more of the parental space… with Career Dad.

avoid the ‘good mom vs good employee’ predicament 

Whatever they do, women often find themselves dealing with labels that stick to their persona and may undermine their self-fulfillment. If I take over a year of maternity leave, I run the risk of becoming, in the eyes of my colleagues and superiors, a-mom-and-nothing-else, with every cliché that entails: the woman who leaves the office at 3pm, spends an hour every morning going around the office, showing pictures of her offspring: are they ever cuuuuute!?, less interested in the development of her career and, accordingly… left out when it’s time to award promotions or give key assignments. Based on an Ipsos Mori study shared with The Guardian, nearly 3 out of 10 women (29%) believe taking maternity leave has a negative impact on their career.

On the other hand, if I choose to take a shorter maternity leave, I immediately become a bad mother, a career-oriented person who can’t leave their kid at daycare early enough to go and live up to their selfish professional ambitions. Wow. Taking an entire year to care for their child does not mean one is no longer interested in their job. Furthermore, considering an earlier return to work doesn’t mean a person plans to work 80 hours per week and print a picture of themselves on their 3 year old daughter’s fave pink sweater so she won’t forget what her mom looks like. You can be focused on both your role as a mother and your career. As for me, I’ve decided to take a 9 month maternity leave this time, because I feel comfortable with that period of time, but also because the last weeks will be… taken by my spouse, who will be happy to spend this precious time with his child. 

is paternity leave still taboo? 

The first time, my spouse took 5 weeks with me at the beginning, that’s all. This time, we are sharing parental leave, allowing him to spend a good two months alone with our new daughter. His employer has been supportive of this initiative, which really helps in making that choice. In a 2018 survey of 1,530 Canadian men aged 25-54 commissioned by the initiative, 73 percent of Canadian men say they believe men should take equal parental leaves as women. But what is holding them back? According to the same study, half of Canadian fathers or fathers-to-be didn't feel comfortable asking their managers for more time off, and 28 percent said they were afraid their co-workers would judge them. But paternity leave is a major step toward equity – dads who have experienced it have a better understanding of the constant care required by an infant and will remain more involved subsequently, the woman no longer being the only parent in charge of most aspects of family unit management – nor being the only one dealing with the effects of their absence from work on a career. 

staying connected with work during leave... or not? 

Again, it’s about personal choice. Some mothers on mat leave will prefer to have regular contact with their employer and co-workers, even taking part in certain professional events. Others will choose to focus exclusively on the child and not increase contacts with work – except for a few Instagram pics once in a while! However, beyond what happens during maternity leave, I think it’s even more important to address the before and the after. Taking time to participate in the selection of a replacement and their adequate training, preparing clear documents to ensure a smooth transition and going over ongoing projects with your manager and co-workers are all excellent ways to show you are committed to your work and organization – and to reduce ‘separation’ anxiety. 

I’ve had several conversations with my supervisor about ideas I would like the team to work on during my time away, and the paths I wish to take when I come back. Even though everything can change in the meantime, that allows me to show I care about my department’s, my team’s and my own professional evolution. I'm leaving with peace of mind, and whatever happens, I know I did things to meet both my need to spend quality time with my girls, and my desire to keep moving forward on the professional front. 

 

To all the mothers taking maternity leave for the first, second (third, fourth?) time, I hope you have the opportunity to make the right choices for you, in tune with your own needs and personal values. See you on Instagram (or not!) 

marie-noëlle morency

Marie-Noëlle is the head of communications for Randstad Canada. She's also the program lead and ideator for Randstad's Women Transforming the Workplace program. Her passion: crafting and telling stories that inform, stories that move, stories that make you think.