I remember feeling a slight sense of dread at the thought of telling my boss I was pregnant. I was a woman in her late 30s, fairly recently married, we'd just moved slightly further out of London for more space less rat race, so it was hardly going to be a great surprise. But I was working for a large international bank at the time and I was worried I'd be marginalised or pigeon-holed for the next 6 months. Once I was on maternity, I'd basically be invisible or forgotten.
I talked to colleagues I knew who'd recently come back from maternity leave and was offered some "maternity coaching" which I thought sounded like a good idea. A lot of what she told me was sensible and rational, and some of it was downright bonkers. But they were suggestions not instructions, and I have to say in some instances it probably served me well.
What I do know is that by starting to prepare for my return before I had left, I was showing my employer commitment and committing in some way to myself, that the career I'd built over almost 20 years wasn't going to go down the pan.
Buy yourself a maternity suit jacket, it hides the bump for longer
I was never sure why I would want to hide the bump, was I embarrassing? Was it going to be like walking into the office with a black eye after the Christmas party? I'm also not sure even a tent would have hidden my bump once I'd gone beyond the second trimester! I have an abhorrence of work suits at the best of times, they are made for men and I don't agree that women need to be or look like men to be taken seriously at work. But the thought of forking out £189 on something from Isabella Oliver in an attempt to "hide the bump" was ridiculous to me. As I was soon to discover, if they didn't spot the bump, they sure as hell would spot the inflatable ankles! But it might just work for you, so I'm passing on her words.
Tell them you're thinking of only taking "about 6 months" off
Her rationale was that people (men) can cope with the concept of you being out of the office for up to 6 months, it's the kind of length of time people (men) might take on sabbatical, they'll know you're still around and keep things going with you in mind, especially if you use the odd keep in touch day. But mention a year, and they'll pretty much think of you as having left, it'll be down to you to build things up again when you get back. The interesting thing is by saying "about 6 months" you keep the door open to start conversations any time from 6 months. I actually took off 8 months but then took onboard another piece of advice.
While you're on maternity leave you accrue holiday, so consider using a day a week when you come back
So if you're entitled to 25 days a year annual leave, plus bank holidays, most people just bolt on the 30 days to the end of their year's maternity leave and get paid for five or six weeks before they come back. But say you come back after 8 months, if you come back on 3, 4 or 5 days a week, you might want to take one or two days a week from your accrued holiday so that you can ease yourself back into work while you and your little one are acclimatising to the change. Your employer may look more favourably on the fact you are returning sooner than the year, you allow yourself to get back into your routine, and best of all you show them the job can be done on less than 5 days a week. You never know, they may then go for a more permanent arrangement like that.
Keep in touch with your team and your boss
Keep In Touch Days are a funny idea. You pop in for a day, you're paid for your time, but you can't really do anything meaningful. Chances are you're still chronically sleep deprived, you rock up and spend most of the day worrying about whether you've left enough food/ milk/ nappies and then you're gone again. I know plenty of women who've been invited in for a strategy planning session for the coming year, but they've spent the last 6 months planning a strategy just to get out the house for half an hour to Monkey Music. Your contribution isn't exactly firing on all cylinders. But don't under-estimate the value of your personal networks at work. Just keeping in touch with colleagues on a personal level, through Facebook or whatever it may be. And obviously, not just sharing baby photos. If you read something about your company or related to your job, let them know. It all just helps them to keep you in mind.
Help them recruit your maternity cover
Last piece of advice, very important. In my experience, most companies under-estimate the amount of time it takes to hire someone. They may even assume they can cover your work while you're on mat leave. Highly unlikely. And what will happen is you'll disappear off, they'll either start thinking about your replacement too late, it'll take them much longer than they thought, you'll be gone, the new person will spend half their time reinventing your job, the whole thing will be a fiasco and will reflect badly on you. Suggest they start exploring options immediately, offer to work with HR to manage the selection process, and ensure you have time for a smooth handover. It will make things so much easier when you come back and you may even get some credit for not leaving them in the dwang.
So whether you think this is sound advice or utterly bananas, the message is PLAN YOUR MATERNITY LEAVE AND PLAN YOUR RETURN.
In between the NCT classes and trawling JoJo Maman Bebe, make time to think about your job. You have no idea how you'll feel after your baby is born, but plan your return and you'll have one thing less to worry about.
Founder of Careering into Motherhood