Maternity leave is one of the greatest opportunities we can have for our work and career. I truly believe that we are the lucky ones. Without maternity leave, we may never have seen the career changes which produced Net-a-porter, Funky Giraffe Bibs or Ewan the Sheep.
A different type of break
It gives us the opportunity to stop, re-start, re-shape and try new things in a way that we would never be able to otherwise. Once emerged from the overwhelm of a new baby, we have the time, headspace and distance from our ‘old’ lives to ponder what the future may hold. It is a unique opportunity – quite a different flavour from a sabbatical or gap year.
Personally, sabbaticals have meant travelling – escaping the daily grind of city living and stretching my wings. Coursing along well-trodden backpacking paths, taking in waterfalls, temples and too much beer with contemporaries met in a selection of variable quality budget accommodation. Real life and work a distant concept. Despite best intentions, I have never come back from a trip like that with any sort of clarity on what purpose or career path I’d really like to be pursuing. My returns have generally been accompanied by a good selection of street-seller tat to distribute amongst my poor relatives, a few new experiences (paragliding is not one I’ll be repeating) and too-tight trousers from excessive booze and chips.
Extended breaks from work were the dreamy fantasy, occupying my thoughts whilst looking out the window from an open-plan office space. I lived for holidays and took a few sabbaticals which was generally where I longed to be, in the absence of any real resonance with my work. I desperately wanted to find something more meaningful but didn’t really know how, what or where. When we get on a career path, it can be very difficult to break away from that and get the headspace to figure out what makes us tick.
Maternity leave has some similar elements – without a doubt some of the same boxes are ticked – “new experiences”, “meeting new people”, “challenge”, “daunting”, “too-tight trousers”. And then a whole lot more – “amazement at depth of emotion”, “overwhelm”, “developing a whole new raft of skills all under the header of ‘childcare’”, “stamina”. It’s the complete opposite of escapism – it’s grounding, self-sacrifice, and there’s no job title or façade to hide behind. Your new-found friends see you in your unrefined, sleep-deprived glory. You’re all on the same journey together. We become vulnerable, over-wrought, chaotic and weeping – with everything adorned with bodily fluids. We love more than we’ve ever done before and we wonder in amazement how such a tiny person can rule our lives so completely.
And when we start to emerge from the baby-craziness we start to think about work, career, earning and everything inbetween. And we really start to think about what work means to us and how it fits into our lives. There’s a seriously big stake in the ground – our children – and suddenly we’re forced to think about what we’re prepared to do, and not prepared to do.
Unearthing Your Priorities
What became really clear is just how important working and earning is to me. By the time my son was 9 months old, my brain was looking to occupy itself with other things. All sorts of crafty projects started to happen (home-made Christmas stockings?!) and I was starting to feel antsy. By the time he was a year old, I was really hungry to go back to work – who knew I loved work that much?! And the useful thing about adding kids into the mix is it really makes you justify why you want to go back to work. You really distil the value of work to you, and get down to the essence of what you need from work.
And it’s not as simple as ‘to work or not to work’ – we have to define the levels within that. Am I prepared to work 5 days a week? If not, then how many? Am I prepared to have my child at nursery 10 hours a day? If not, then how many? Am I prepared to take a pay cut? Am I prepared to give up my international role for something closer to home? What support do I need and am I prepared to put that in place?
Given we are choosing to spend time away from our children, it really has to become worthwhile, and that’s when our priorities are forced to bubble to the surface. For some of us, it’s paying the mortgage, for others it’s self-esteem and contentment or being a role model to our children. Whatever our reason, maternity leave makes us evaluate and understand what makes us tick and what it is we need or want from our working life. We discard the unnecessary, become infinitely more efficient and make it count. And all this is incredibly valuable for getting us to a place of contentment and purpose. Because even if we end up in a circumstance we don’t like, we’re pretty clear on why we have to do it – you may have a boss from hell, but you need to pay the mortgage and that clear purpose makes it easier.
A Wealth of Opportunity
Maternity leave really gives us the freedom to explore:
- You can’t help but prioritise what is important for you (ie your values) as there is not room for everything
- You’re mixing with people who are going through the same conundrum so there’s no shortage of community, inspiration and networking
- In many cases, we’ve survived a year with very little pay, so we know it can be done which takes away an element of pressure
- It can give you (a little!) time to reconnect with hobbies or passions that you once had
- You get some distance from the city grind which can often make it easier to see options
- Your expectations change and a wider number of options can emerge
A Chance for Review
Many mums go through big career/ work re-thinks around this time as we truly evaluate what’s important for us. It can be exciting, overwhelming and terrifying all at the same time. It’s hard to know what all the options are out there and starting new things can seem daunting, especially if we feel “out of the loop” after an extended break. So, how should you approach figuring out your next move?
Get in touch with your values.
What is important to you? What are the uncompromisable and what are you prepared to flex on? Focus on yourself, and then bring in the needs of the family. Many of us find it hard to put ourselves first but it’s important that you have an understanding of what’s going to get you excited, motivated and energised – if you’re satisfied and happy, it will undoubtedly make you a better parent.
Reflect on what has really excited you in the past. A great exercise, particularly if you’re unsure of what it is you are looking for, and if you feel a bit lost after a year or more of dedication to your little one(s). What work, hobby and play situations did you really love, get excited or feel passionate about? Take a note of what it was about these things that got you going.
Draw the future. A great exercise to get you to really step into what you would like life to be like in a few years. Pick a time, say 5 years from now, and draw, annotate and express the life you dream of. Get down to the detail of the size of house, how many bedrooms, what type of dog, do you drive an Audi or a Honda, who lives there with you, what is your day to day life like – do you go into an office; are you picking the kids up from school; do you have clients?
Explore options and get inspired. Get out there and meet people who are doing what you think you might want to do. Whether it be a property magnate, kids entertainer or successful law career, find the opportunity to meet someone who is doing it already and have a conversation about it.
Start to draw up a plan. You can either amend what’s there, or start again. Bring together a summary of the points above – by now you should have an idea of your top 5 values. What would it take to get you to be feeling more aligned with these values? Is it the case of going back to your previous work situation with some changes, or is it time for a complete change?
Chunk your timeline into 3-6 month blocks. There are so many unknowns at this stage in our life and it’s new territory. How will we really feel about going back to work, how will our children adapt to a new routine, how will the new lifestyle fit with the family, etc? So whichever direction you choose, review again in 3-6 months and adjust if necessary. Sometimes the childcare option doesn’t suit, or the new working pattern is unrealistic. Review regularly with yourself, your boss, your husband, your childcare and continue to have conversations along the way as to how it’s working. If it’s not working, change it.
Remember that change takes a long time
If you have strong entrepreneurial ambition and are desperate to set up on your own, don’t feel disappointed if the easiest thing to do is to put go back to your previous situation for the time being. You’ll have a new awareness of what you’re getting out of it which gives you a new appreciation. I was the happiest person in the office after my return to work – earning and working aside, I just loved the social contact beside the coffee machine, getting up and out of the house to catch an early train and having half an hour to read (each way) in the morning. These are all valid, important aspects to going back to work and can energise, refresh and boost you, which makes you a more relaxed and present parent on your days with the kids.
So enjoy the opportunities maternity leave can bring. Embrace the time away from the old routine and take time to explore the art of the possible. Some of the best businesses and career decisions have been born from the new networks, opportunity and headspace we get during this time. This is your opportunity for a bit of reinvention, so put yourself in the driving seat and brace yourself for the adventure up ahead!