Working Parents

How To Return To An Ambitious Career After Maternity Leave

How to return to an ambitious career after maternity leave. Tips from Leaders Plus Fellows & Mentors

Returning from maternity, or any kind of parental leave, can be daunting. It’s likely to always be a transformative experience, but it doesn’t have to be a negative one.

Before leave, as an ambitious parent, you may have been free to work long hours to get demanding jobs done and ensure you were visible for any and all promotion opportunities.

On your return, priorities have changed. Demands on your personal time are urgent and unrelenting.

You may have lost your sense of self and are grappling with a new identity amid feelings of exhaustion and guilt.

When your circumstances have changed but your ambition hasn’t, it can be frustrating to hear assumptions made about you and your desired career progression.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of our Fellows say that being a parent has made them a better leader, they just need the right support.

We spoke with a number of Leaders Plus Fellows, from both our Cross-Sector Fellowships and NHS Fellowships, who have successfully navigated the return to work transition. We’ve collated their advice below, with links to some additional resources that might help you.

If you find this useful, please share it with another working parent who might benefit.

How to decide what your work/ life split will look like on your return, and how to advocate for what you need

Before you go on leave
  • Have honest conversations before you go on maternity leave about what you want to happen on your return and make a plan. Make it clear to your manager and team that your goals have not changed and you still want to be considered for roles, even while on leave. Don’t be shy about asking for things face to face – research shows you’re more likely to get a yes than a no!
  • Learn from others – take ideas from your Leaders plus cohort or other working parents you know. (These discussions sparked the idea of compressed hours for one panellist.)
  • Empower your team whilst you’re on maternity leave, and then when you return you can be better placed for a promotion if that’s what you want. (Verena talked about how she did this in an episode of Big Careers, Small Children.)
  • Set boundaries for yourself. If you know you’ll be tempted to check emails to stay in the loop, give just small number of people that you respect your personal phone number when on leave and know they will only contact you when absolutely necessary. (Use our Setting Boundaries Workbook to help you.)
  • There is no right or wrong duration of maternity leave -you need to do what works for your family and situation. Don’t decide based on what you think others think!
  • Likewise, there’s no right or wrong type of leave. Shared parental leave can have great benefits. Be a trailblazer!
When you’re thinking about returning to work
  • Know that things will evolve -what works today might not work in 5 months time. Don’t be afraid to make changes if something is not working.
  • Recognise niggles that don’t feel right and you think you might regret, both at home and at work. Do what is right for you.
  • Try to embrace it if you have a desire to change roles after maternity leave as it can be a great time for change.
  • Don’t be afraid to be the first person to do something and break barriers.
  • Do not feel that you are being difficult or needy when asking for what works for you. You are being neither. Don’t be afraid to utilise occupational health or similar for support in making your working environment work for you.
  • Download our free Return To Work checklist, packed with lots of helpful tips on what to think about before you schedule your return, key questions to ask your line manager (including how best to frame any flexible working requests), and common pitfalls to avoid when returning.
  • If you’re thinking about returning to work in some kind of flexible working set up, use our Negotiating Flexible Working Guide, created especially for senior leaders, for a solid, step-by-step process for making a successful flexible working request in a senior role.

How to manage your workload if you’re coming back to reduced/ compressed hours

  • Ruthless prioritisation is needed!
  • Have a hard stop – remember there is always more to do than can be done. That realisation is freeing and forces prioritisation.
  • Set boundaries by using your calendar – be transparent about the times you won’t be working and don’t feel like you need to compromise them. Put it in your out of office in order to manage people’s expectations that you won’t reply immediately. If you’re comfortable, and it is important to you, you could offer a solution e.g. “I can’t stay late tonight but I could on Thursday….”. But don’t feel pressured to do this, only offer it on your own terms. (Here’s a link to the Setting Boundaries Workbook again)

  • Remember that as a leader you are paid to think, so make sure you have time to do that in your day.
  • Remember it is ok to ask for help! Sometimes it’s the people you think will be difficult who are the most supportive. Negotiate for what you need – be courageous and just ask, don’t apologise!
  • Get the result you want: face to face, speak to someone supportive and ask for tips, use your informal network before conversations with line managers. Look for people at work who seem like they do this easily and ask for tips. It gets easier!
  • Try to get home life set up in the best way to enable you to be free to be your best at work.
    Think as practically as you can. Are you able to choose a childcare setting that’s closer to home, or offers wraparound care, so your working days can be stretched? Could you alternate with your partner, if you have one, so one of you starts early in the morning and does pick up, while the other starts work after drop-off and finishes later?
  • Listen to success stories from senior leaders who are working less than five days a week. In their Big Careers, Small children episodes, our guests share important tips with Verena for properly resizing jobs so you don’t end up doing the same amount of work for less pay.

How to manage feeling like you’re not good enough at your job on your return

  • Remember that returning to work is not about ability -you know you have the ability or you wouldn’t have succeeded in the job before leave – now it is about freeing yourself and giving yourself the chance to thrive. Don’t succumb to your fears and negative thoughts -remember your capabilities.
  • Be aware that you may be being missed out for opportunities because your manager is trying to ease you in gently. Speak up! Don’t expect people to read your mind. Be honest with your line manager and schedule meetings with people to catch up.
  • Give yourself grace and celebrate small wins. In her conversation with Verena, Tobi Asare suggested that everyone should have a success log, something like an excel spreadsheet where you note all positive feedback and tangible business results that you have contributed to. If you don’t have one already, now is a great time to start one.
  • Remember ‘It’s not of my business what other people think of me.’ Try not to spend time justifying your worth in a way you never felt compelled to do before you went on leave. Your skills haven’t changed, and it is wasted energy worrying whether people view you in the same way when you have no power to change it. Focus on what you can achieve.
  • Being a parent makes you a better leader -don’t forget that.
  • Think back to what you bring to the table and why you got that role. You need to be in an organisation that recognises what you bring. Firstly know your worth and don’t accept any situation where the people do not celebrate that.
  • Be reassured that most people go through a confidence dip. Ask your network to remind you what your gifts are and why you got to where you were. Talk to colleagues that can offer you support (those that have been there).
  • Often people’s assumptions/negative comments about your return to work are usually a reflection on them and their experience not you, so try to let it wash over you (unless it is discriminatory, in which case, of course, speak out).

How to manage feelings of guilt at leaving your child after a long period of exclusive caregiving

  • Draw on your resilience and know your child is resilient too! They may surprise you and handle the transition far better than you expect.
  • Every child is different and don’t beat yourself up if unexpected things happen. E.g. your easy going child actually takes a long time to settle at nursery.
  • Consider using annual leave accrued to stagger return before being full time. Even if it’s a difficult conversation -use negotiation skills to find something that works.
  • Another option might be to start your childcare arrangement a few weeks before you return to work, so you’re around to help ease the transition if your child needs you.

How to survive the really tough times you might experience as a working parent 

  • Don’t take your health for granted. Invest in your physical, mental and emotional well being. Put quality time aside for these elements, it is so important.
  • There will be times when everything falls apart and you have to operate in survival mode. Don’t be afraid to let your network know that you need support.
  • Remember ‘this time will pass’ when things are tough. Especially remember this when children are sick!
  • If you are in a partner relationship make sure childcare know both of your numbers. It’s important that you are able to eliminate sources of microstress wherever possible, so sharing the load and passing it between you when you or your partner has e.g. an important meeting or presentation to prepare for is critical. (See our tips for Managing Microstress as a Working Parent)
  • Ask your childcare setting what their policy is on sickness and find the right one for you. E.g. will they send them home if they have a teething temperature? Some offer more flexibility than others, and it’s important that you’re comfortable that they will handle situations in the way you want.

Key things our panellists have learned from the Leaders Plus Fellowships

  • Allow yourself the time and space to think about what you want and where you want to get to. Protect that time, even if just 10 mins a week.
  • Vision setting is so important. Having a North star helps you to understand the foundations you need to out in place now.
  • Mindset – change the way you look at the challenge and view it within the bigger picture.
  • Set boundaries and promote yourself. Be specific about what you want family life to be like -not just your career – they need to work together for you to achieve what you want.

Are you a parent returning to work after maternity leave?

Are you looking for support to progress your career while raising children?

Join other parents like you on our Cross-Sector Fellowship, register your interest below to be the first to know when applications open for 2024.

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We love to partner with employers, big or small, that share our vision for radical change.

Together we can support leaders with babies and young children to continue to thrive in their careers, regardless of their gender.

If you are supporting a working parent/s on their return from maternity or any other parental leave, please do reach out and find out more about sponsoring places on our upcoming Fellowship.

By partnering with Leaders Plus we can help you to retain talent by offering extensive support to working parents at a critical point in their lives when they are most likely to drop out of the talent pipeline.

There are a number of different partnership options available and we offer a range of attractive benefits for employers. Please get in touch to find out more.

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