Having a child is life-changing stuff in and of itself. Figuring out how to make motherhood work – including how to plan for maternity leave – with your career is a whole new ball game.
One of my clients, a woman who works in an executive capacity within an organization, recently asked me if I had any advice on how to plan for maternity leave.
Because I left law before we knew we were pregnant (we actually found out we were expecting just five days after I left my firm (!)), I don’t have “how to plan for maternity leave” advice that’s relevant to most of my clients. So, I crowd-sourced the request, asking the women on my email list and on Instagram for their input.
And wow, did you ladies deliver. I want to thank those who contributed. You reminded me yet again how fortunate I am to get to do what I do and be surrounded by such incredible, generous women.
Below are strategies shared by these women to help you plan for maternity leave – and be better able to enjoy it. As you read, feel free to throw your own tips into the comments as this is one of those topics where the more strategies we can collect, the more likely someone will find something that makes sense for them.
I wrote this with the aim of it helping all moms, including those who adopt, use a surrogate, or deliver their own child. That said, I’m sure there’s stuff I’m missing on all fronts, so, again, please feel free to comment below to help other soon-to-be-mothers in a similar situation to yours.
How to Plan for Maternity Leave Strategy 1: Try to Prepare for a Big Mental Shift – At Least Logistically
Before we get into the tactical strategies (and there are many of those coming your way), we need first to address a major mental shift that many women go through and struggle with.
Before we have kids, we often have the mental and physical ability to be relatively flexible with our lives and work. I know that before I had my daughter, my default was to put the needs of colleagues, clients, and work above my own needs because I usually could. Physically, I was capable. Logistically and emotionally, I had bandwidth. My default was to accommodate whenever I could.
I’m not saying that this has to change once you have kids in the long term if you don’t want it to. If your partner is taking the lead on childcare or you have other childcare arrangements, and you want to continue to have the flexibility to give it your all at work, terrific and more power to you!
However, regardless of how you want to handle it in the long term, it’s likely going to have to be different in the short term.
The first three months
For at least the first three months of your child’s life, plan to have to put your health and the health of your baby before anything else. (And, in full transparency, my daughter’s refusal to sleep through the night until she was 12 months old forced to me to take this approach for a year. I share just to give some context and to let you know you aren’t alone if it takes you longer.)
However you decide to proceed with your life with kids and work is totally your prerogative.
That said, as you prepare for maternity leave, acknowledge that you don’t know how you will feel when you actually go through it (even if this isn’t your first child) and assume that you will have to put the physical and mental health of yourself and your child before anything else at least for a period of time. Plan for it.
Putting this in the context of preparing for maternity leave, Dr. Leslie Craig, M.D., a Reproductive Psychiatrist, explains,
“[W]omen should put their health and that of their infant above everything else.
”Women are far too likely to compromise when numerous demands are made on their time and talents… [In addition,] I’m afraid that women are also aware, consciously or not, of resentment, tension and the possibility of retaliation by coworkers for any undue burden they perceive by having to cover for birthing colleagues…
“[As a result, women tend to] proceed with extreme care and consideration, so as not to inconvenience or upset anyone by their absence.”
Dr. Craig makes numerous recommendations to clients to help them avoid the pitfalls of this “extreme care and consideration” approach, which she has generously shared with us. Her advice will appear throughout this article.
One of her suggestions is to ask yourself, “What would a man preparing for heart surgery do?” Dr. Craig suspects men are more likely than women to simply notify work of the upcoming surgery and recovery time, let others handle alerting others of the absence and need for coverage, and disappear when the time comes. She suggests women find a middle ground approach to maternity leave – not the male notify-and-disappear approach, but also not the “extreme caution” approach that fails to give due consideration to mother and baby health (and sanity!).
In my personal experience, this mental shift is really difficult to comprehend until you’re going through it, and I’m not sure it can be fully anticipated and accommodated beforehand. So, since we can’t always prepare for it mentally, let’s prepare for it logistically. Enter the more tactical strategies…
How to Plan for Maternity Leave Strategy 2: Prepare to Stop Working (Or At Least Transition Most Work) At Least Two Weeks Before The Baby’s Due Date
As we all know, without knowing when your baby will actually be born (e.g., three weeks early or a week late), planning everything from your work departure to your parents coming into town to help is a challenge.
That said, on the work front, most women I spoke with advised having everything prepared for your departure from work two weeks before your baby’s due date.
Dr. Craig recommends stopping work entirely two weeks before the baby’s due date. In addition to the chance that you, the birth mom, or surrogate may go into labor early, this also gives you time to prepare for the baby coming – both mentally, sleep-wise, and logistically (e.g., buying those unbelievably tiny diapers!).
That said, if you have limited time for leave, leaving two weeks early can be tough if you deliver a week or more late (very common, especially for first kiddos). If you need to work up until your delivery, see Strategy #6 below, which is about still having your work transitioned 2-4 weeks before your due date so that you’re playing more of a support role in those last couple of weeks (good both for you and to give the people covering for you a test run before you’re gone).
Kate Kelly, who worked in finance when she took two maternity leaves (and now creates gorgeous designs and artwork here), said,
“[D]on’t be like me and say you’ll work until your due date [because babies] can come early [and you’ll want to] budget in transition time… [and] [e]ven if your baby doesn’t come early, that transition time will pay off so you can work out kinks before you leave.”
Along these lines, Kate also recommends deciding on a date after which time you do not take on any new matters. The timing may vary by industry, but consider declining new work 2-3 months before your due date so as to not make your departure any more complicated.
How to Plan for Maternity Leave Strategy 3: Plan to Ease Back Into Work
When planning your leave, it’s important to have a rough understanding of how long you’ll be out and what your return will look like.
Many women recommend easing back into work if that is an option.
Maggie, a mom of two who works in wealth management, elaborated that if you can, start back “two days the first week, three or four the next, and then full time if that’s what you are returning to.”
Ashley Distler, a Senior Director of Product Management, noted,
“I was incredibly lucky to have a boss that proactively planned a glide path back into full-time work with me. We talked about focusing on things that allowed me to have flexibility to work in the evenings after my LO went to bed. My advice is to have this conversation with your superior before you leave. It’s been so helpful to be able to slowly get back into the swing of things. We set 30- and 60-day goals and then plan to check in on those goals and how things are going to me at that time.”
Similarly, Cheryl Dawson, a leadership coach, said her employer had a not-widely-known policy that allowed nursing mothers to reenter work gradually, so consider speaking with HR about those types of policies (and perhaps doing your own research).
In terms of what reentry may actually work, Ashley shared,
“I exchanged a few texts with my boss during my leave about when I would return (I eventually took the full 12 weeks) and set up two 30-minute phone calls two and three weeks out from my return. I made it clear I would continue to need to nurse/pump and made sure that time was reserved in my calendar. I made sure to set up childcare schedules with my husband (who also works from home) and one day a week we have one of the grandmothers come over during the day. COVID has been a blessing because I’ve been able to work from home and I don’t have to worry about daycare, etc.!”
As you return, it seems smart to also make it clear that you won’t reclaim any point-person role for at least two weeks. Give yourself the time to get caught up on email and project/case context and status before you take the lead on any project.
How to Plan for Maternity Leave Strategy 4: Plan to Be Completely Uninvolved During Maternity Leave
Dr. Craig – along with every other woman who contributed advice – recommends against remaining involved in any capacity at work during leave. No email. No calls. No meetings.
As Dr. Craig points out, “It is not fair or appropriate to the woman or the workplace.”
While Dr. Craig and I both hope you’ll do this for yourself, our culture, unfortunately, fosters a narrative that prevents many women from putting themselves before others, including work. If you struggle to do so, you’re not alone. However, also know this:
As Dr. Craig noted, it is not fair to your work or colleagues for you to try to keep a foot (or even a toe) in at work during your leave. It’s confusing to your colleagues, who aren’t sure who’s in charge of certain projects, whether they need your input on certain decisions, and whether it’s appropriate for them to reach out to you (and you want it to be very clear that it is not appropriate for them to reach out to you).
It’s cleaner and simpler for everyone if you’re completely uninvolved. Prepare to leave, and then really do it. As Maggie, who works in wealth management, advised, when you make it clear you’re unavailable and who is available regarding certain matters, it “gives people comfort or at least clarity.”
From a logistical perspective, to make this happen, create and distribute a Maternity Leave Plan, which we’ll get into in way more detail about below in Strategy #5.
In addition, pick one person who is allowed to get in touch with you during your leave in case of an emergency and/or to coordinate your return. Ashley prepared her boss to be her only point of contact while she was on leave. She shared,
“I told him I would not be available until I let him know I was ready to come back (I didn’t know if I wanted to take the full 12 weeks or not).”
Ashley shared that during her leave, she tried not to look at email, though she did “listen to audiobooks and read industry articles, etc.” when she was able to. Ashley’s approach seems like a great way to keep yourself up-to-date with industry happenings and strategies if you want to, while also not confusing your team about whether you’re available/in charge of actual work projects or not.
How to Plan for Maternity Leave Strategy 5: Start a Maternity Leave Plan Document As Soon As Possible
To fully disconnect on leave, it’s important that you feel like you’ve left behind all of the knowledge and information that your colleagues may need to be able to cover for you.
Enter, a Maternity Leave Plan. Let’s talk about how to create this document and then distribute it to your team.
Creating Your Maternity Leave Plan
Ashley recommends starting a “maternity plan document” as soon as you can – i.e., the moment you find out you’re pregnant.
In the beginning, she recommends just dumping thoughts into it. Keep “a list of job duties, projects and ‘other duties as assigned’ in the document.” For each, “[d]ecide who would be your #2 or find one if you’re the only person” involved in that project/task. Ashley notes, “[y]ou can do this without telling anyone you are pregnant.” It’s a terrific way to corral your thoughts and start creating a rough game plan for how this may all play out while you’re out on leave.
Similarly, Ashley recommends you start “documenting your process/knowledge” for certain workflows, tasks or projects if you don’t already have those in place. She recommends keeping them in a location that others can access (e.g., a shared drive, Dropbox, OneDrive). If you can, additionally hyperlink to those documents within your Maternity Leave Plan.
Eventually, as recommended by Liz, an attorney, make sure your Maternity Leave Plan includes all relevant contact information, status reports, and upcoming action items for each matter/client/project.
As you create this document and consider workflow processes, Ashley encourages you to think through what your team needs will be and whether there are any management gaps that may result from your absence. If so, hold discussions with your boss to figure out whether someone on the team or elsewhere in the company can step into that manager role while you’re out.
Once you have a draft Maternity Leave Plan complete, Moira, a VP of Business Development, recommends having a colleague read through the document to point out where they have questions and/or what needs more elaboration. This is a really smart move as we often are a little too far into our projects to understand what may not be obvious to someone without inside information. (Moira noted that she delivered a month early, so she was glad she started that process early!)
On a separate but related note, Moira also encourages women to make sure their files and documents are easily accessible. While some organizations have good file sharing systems in place, others don’t. To ensure you’re left in peace on your leave, Moira recommends making sure all of your documents and files are in a spot that people can access (e.g., Sharepoint, OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive) and labeled in an easy-to-decipher way (e.g., YYYY-MM-DD Client – Topic format). As she learned the hard way, this will up the chance no one bugs you while on leave because they can’t find a document that’s buried in their inbox!
Distributing Your Maternity Leave Plan
Once your plan is ready for showtime, we need to make sure it gets into the relevant people’s hands.
If you know or suspect your boss may want to review the document before you distribute it to others, send her/him the document and/or set up a meeting to review it before further distribution.
Ashley then recommends emailing all relevant people a link to your Maternity Leave Plan document two weeks before your leave date (for clarity’s sake, if you plan to leave two weeks before your due date, you’d email the document four weeks before your due date).
Maggie, the wealth management consultant, recommends that you additionally add you Maternity Leave Plan to the file for each of your matters/projects, if such files exist, so that it’s readily available to anyone working on the matter (not just those you email it to). This helps if your employer assigns someone else to the project while you’re on leave.
Maternity Leave Strategy 6: Have Everything Documented and Transitioned 2-4 Weeks Before Your Due Date
Whether you’re starting your leave two weeks before your due date or on the day of your delivery, it’s smart to transition work off your plate 2-4 weeks before your due date.
Ashley brilliantly recommends,
“[P]lan to have everything documented and pseudo transitioned a month before [your due date]. Not only will this be great if you deliver early, others will get to ‘practice’ being on point before you’re out! I sent out an email to all relevant people with a link to my maternity plan document that outlined all of my hand-offs and links to relevant knowledge documents about 2 weeks in advance of my leave date.”
Similarly, around this time or earlier, inform any clients about the transition. As Liz, the attorney, shared, give clients clear expectations about who is filling in for you and arrange a complimentary introduction.
In addition, in that final month, Maggie recommends making sure you copy a team member (or more) on every email you send to ensure others are completely in the loop on new developments. Kate, the designer who worked in finance during her two kiddos’ births, recommended including the phrase “as I’m going out on leave soon, I’ve copied my backup/transition colleague Jane…” to clarify and remind people of why additional people are on the email given that others may forget about your upcoming leave.
All that said, know that if you deliver significantly early or get a call that you have been selected by a birth mother who delivered yesterday (like an incredible story from one of you amazing women!), all will be okay. At the end of the day, medical and family emergencies happen all the time and companies cover and adapt. Do your best to prepare and know that sometimes we can’t plan for the unexpected – and that is okay.
Maternity Leave Strategy 7: Take a Recently-New Mom Colleague Out for Coffee
Whether you take them out for coffee or set up a virtual coffee chat, reach out to another recently-new mom at your company (if there is one) to ask them about their experience and advice. While the advice generously shared by the women in this article is gold, you will discover company-specific information and processes by talking to others in your company.
Before the coffee/call, think through questions you want to ask them, including how certain superiors handle maternity leave, the return, pumping rooms and storage, how people receive early departures from work to meet daycare pick-up times, and more.
Strategy 8: Figure Out Pumping Logistics Before You Leave
If you plan to breastfeed and/or pump when you return to work, many women strongly advise that you figure out how that works before your maternity leave. As Kate shared, some companies have nursing rooms you need to reserve ahead of time. You’ll want to figure out how to book the rooms before you leave and how far out in advance you can do so so that that doesn’t stress you out when you’re returning to work.
If you find out nursing rooms start booking up, e.g., two months beforehand, consider setting a calendar event to book nursing rooms every week starting a little over two months before you return to work. If you can access to do this by yourself on leave, great. If not, contact HR to figure out how to get your times reserved while you’re out so you’re set when you return.
Along these lines, consider booking a call with your HR department to learn about this stuff when you feel comfortable telling people you’re pregnant. Similarly, make sure you have HR’s contact information easily accessible while on leave should something come up.
Strategy 9: Plan to Have Childcare Help During Your Leave
I cannot say this enough: Get some childcare help before you return to work.
I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: childcare help is not just for time you spend working.
With my first child, I didn’t get help until my daughter was six months old. I didn’t have family nearby and didn’t feel justified in paying for childcare help until I was ready to work. That was a mistake. With my second due in August, I plan to hire childcare help within the first month or two.
If this is your first child, the shift from having time-freedom during life before your child to have no real time-freedom with a baby can be jarring. Getting even a couple of hours of help a couple of times a week can give you some breathing space to nap, shower, and, once you feel comfortable, run an errand, go for a walk on your own, or grab coffee with a friend. It’s important for your sanity, and I cannot recommend it enough.
If this is your second (or later) child, I hear you can be even more sleep-deprived than with your first as having your first prevents you from “sleeping when the baby sleeps” (ah, joy – can’t wait!). Childcare help can be huge in helping you get the rest you need, shower, etc. In addition, childcare for your baby can give you that precious one-on-one time with your first child, which may help you mentally and help with any behavior issues the first child goes through with the addition of another family member.
In addition, Dr. Craig points out, childcare help before returning to work “affords everyone the opportunity to try out the routine before it has to work for real.”
Similarly, Maggie advised,
“[T]ry to overlap with your childcare for a day or two or week if you can. It gives you time to get to know the nanny or get your routine down for daycare drop-off without the stress of work. Also, in a non-covid world, it gives you a minute to go get a pedicure! And your hair done! (Or whatever else you like to do)”
I love Maggie’s point. After weeks of sleep deprivation, too few showers, and putting yourself last, don’t underestimate the power of getting a haircut to make you feel more like yourself before returning to work.
In short: whether you hire help or line up consistent family help, think it through and start lining it up now before the baby comes.
Strategy 10: Start Looking at Daycares Now (Even If You’re Going the Nanny Route)
Before having my daughter, I had no idea how hard it would be to get a kid into daycare, especially if they’re under two years old. Especially when kids are under two, there are just not that many daycares – and you’ll additionally want to screen them, further whittling your options down.
I recommend starting the daycare-touring process as soon as you know you’re pregnant or at least around 12 weeks when you feel a little more comfortable in the pregnancy. At least in my neck of the woods, if you like a daycare after touring it, you typically just fill out some paperwork and put down a deposit (usually $40-100) to save a spot on a waitlist. When you get a call about the waitlist, they often let you decline the open spot and still stay on the list for the next open spot, meaning you have flexibility about when you actually send your child to daycare once you’re on the list. I recommend joining 2-3 waitlists.
I also recommend doing this even if you plan on going the nanny route for a while. First, you may change your mind later. Second, even if you employ a nanny for, e.g., a year, you’ll likely eventually want to have your kid get more social interaction in a daycare scenario. If you join the waitlists now, you’ll have more options down the road.
Strategy 11: Address any Postpartum Health Concerns Before Returning to Work
Dr. Craig advises,
“Be sure to address any and all postpartum health concerns before returning to work. Returning too soon never goes well.”
Dr. Craig shares that one in eight women experience postpartum depression. Often, she explains, women seek help, start psychotherapy, medication or both, and then “feel pressure to return to work before their symptoms are remitted.”
These pressures can be financial, work-related, due to a lack of understanding from their spouse, or because of personal concerns. In addition, Dr. Craig explains, some women “have a lot of their identity wrapped up in their careers and are eager to return to what feels like ‘normal’ only to find that they are too sleep-deprived, depressed, anxious, worried about their baby, etc. to function properly.”
Because of this, in addition to the negative mental and physical health impact, a too-early return can actually result in you performing poorly or “not as you were remembered” – thus jeopardizing your career progression and causing more harm than good.
As a result, if you suspect you may have postpartum depression, seek help from a professional and discuss your work-return timeline with your medical professional before making any decision.
Strategy 12: When You Return, Be Patient & Don’t Make Any Quick Decisions
Reentry to work can be quite jarring for many moms. When I first started at my firm in Boston, I got to watch 4-5 women return from maternity leave during my first year. I recall the frustration they felt at having their commutes pushed into rush-hour times because of daycare/nanny hours, causing them to spend hours in their cars – not billing, but also not being with their child. I remember how hard finding time to pump was and how much they struggled to leave work early to get home in time to see their kids. All that said, I also remember the vast majority of them saying they were so glad they stuck it out about six months into their return.
So, how do you make the “sticking it out” not only bearable but more enjoyable?
Cheryl, the leadership coach, recommends returning to work with lower expectations of your work capacity. She explained,
“I had a newborn, I was pumping multiple times per day at work, and I was getting very little sleep. I simply could not work the way I had pre-baby. I learned to prioritize and congratulate myself for what I did do (which was still great!).”
Similarly, be patient and hold off on making any major decisions. Maggie advised to,
“give yourself a month back before you make any decisions (e.g., asking for flex time or part time). You’ll have a better sense by then what you might need instead of just reacting in a knee jerk way to the feeling that this is so impossible.”
In short, anticipate that work won’t feel normal when you return, and give yourself the breathing space and patience to find your new normal.
Strategy 13: Learn from A Woman Who’s The Expert
Know that there are women and groups ready to support you through this whole transition.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, a partner at a DC law firm and mother of two, runs a company called Mindful Return, co-hosts the Parents at Work podcast, and authored the book Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.
In addition to her own experience as a working mother, Lori has made a study of how to prepare for, enjoy and return from maternity leave feeling confident and calm. She runs a four-week program that serves women at all stages of having children – i.e., expecting moms, moms on leave, and moms who recently returned to work. You can learn more about her program here (not an affiliate link – I’m just a big fan of what she’s doing and think it seems like an amazing program).
A Final Bonus Tip
If you’ve read anything else on my site, you know I’m a huge fan of leveraging a digital calendar to manage your time and to-do’s to give you a lot more clarity.
Along those lines, I encourage you to identify which of these strategies you want to follow and help Future You bring them to life by plotting out the logistics in your calendar.
For example, once you have your due date, plot out when your ideal departure date is. From there, calendar when you want your Maternity Plan Document to be done and when you’ll start transitioning to a support role on your current projects. Also, block time each week from here on out to update your Maternity Plan Document.
Similarly, block time to start doing daycare research in your area and asking friends for their recommendations. Block time, e.g., every other week to keep the search going so it doesn’t fall through the cracks.
Leveraging your calendar in this way will help you actually take action on these strategies to bring them to life. If you like this approach, you’ll love my eight-week time management program, which you can learn more about here.
I also want to note that this article is the result of the incredible, generous advice from the women in this community. For me, it reiterates the value of learning this type of stuff in a group setting. If you’d like to learn how to manage everything on your plate (personal and professional) with less stress and more calm clarity using realistic time management strategies in a group program, I highly encourage you to check out my eight-week Bright Method time management program here. The women I work with are incredible and generous with their knowledge and life experiences, and I can’t tell you how valuable and fun the programs are because of that.
And if you want more guidance on preparing for your baby more broadly as a working mom (think: gear and ), check out this article by Catherine Brown, a woman who writes on all things working mom in a similarly practical way that I love.
Most importantly, I wish you all the best with your maternity leave and return. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, and please share your experience, tips, and strategies below.
Thanks for being here!