Have you ever done the work of planning for your own maternity leave? Or seen a colleague go through that process? If so, you know this is not a project for the lazy or faint of heart.
For things to go smoothly, you’ll need to plan for every aspect of the transition. This includes identifying colleagues for hand-offs. Putting these people in touch with those people. Preparing a leave memo. Creating “how to” guides. All while not knowing exactly when the hand-off will occur.
This all sounds like the “normal” work of getting ready to have a baby, right?
I’m here to argue we shouldn’t be taking all this effort for granted.
Listen to this true story. A friend of mine (Counsel at a large law firm) once told me about a male colleague of hers. He had recently taken a month-long paternity leave. Good on him, right?
Here’s what it looked like on the ground, though. One day he showed up at work, as usual. The next day, he didn’t. And his message to his colleagues was: “My wife just had a baby. I will be out for the next four weeks.” No advance notice that his wife was even pregnant. No handoffs. No transitions. Nothing.
His colleagues were floundering. Struggling. And angry.
This scenario inevitably won’t play out exactly the same way for a woman, given that she brings evidence to work daily (unless she is adopting a baby) of her impending arrival. But it does highlight for me the immense value of the work new parents do to prepare their teams for their departure. When the planning and the effort don’t happen, things go awry.
Am I saying all men plan poorly for their leaves, or that all women plan well? Absolutely not. (I also acknowledge the cultural problems inherent in a workplace that may not even tolerate discussion of a potential paternity leave.) What I’m saying is that we need to recognize this effort as real work in our workplaces. And we need to give our colleagues credit for it.
What I’m also saying is that planning for parental leave (and yes, often, it is maternity leave) does seem to be one of those tasks that falls into the “helping” category of work Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant dubbed “office housework” in their famous NY Times piece, Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee.
Sandberg and Grant write,
“This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it. In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player.”
Preparing for a maternity leave is indeed one of those administrative-type, project management activities. It is so critical to the success of a team. But it often doesn’t “earn” women much of anything.
3 Concrete Things We Can Do to Make Women’s Efforts Less Invisible
I’m all about making change, not just complaining about the status quo. Here are three things you can do in your own workplaces to highlight and appreciate the value of these maternity leave planning efforts:
- Plan Leave & Return Into Work Goals: If if’s goal-setting time of year, and you know you’ll be on leave, considering making a “well-planned parental leave and return” one of your work goals. If you manage someone who will be going on leave, encourage her or him to do the same. Things that are valued get evaluated. And using goal-setting is a great way to kick off the process of recognizing the effort that will be involved in a smooth transition.
As Sandberg and Grant say in their article, we first need to acknowledge the “office housework” imbalance and then correct it. “Most organizations regularly assess individual accomplishments,” they write. “Why not track acts of helping as well?”
- Take (and Give!) Credit at Evaluation Time for a Well-Planned Parental Leave and Return: If you recently went on leave, think back to all that planning you did to make the transition successful. Or, if your direct report went on leave, ask her to spell out all the steps she took to make the hand-offs go smoothly. Then take credit at annual review time. For all of these efforts. Or give credit, if you’re the manager.
When I went on maternity leave with my second child, my then-manager encouraged me to write about my leave and return efforts in my “I love me” memo for my year-end review year. A working mother herself, she knew the work I had done to prepare everyone for my leave was real and valuable. And I’m grateful to her for pointing that out to me.
- TALK About This Concept – Including to the Men in Your Offices!: Even if you’re not currently pregnant or don’t have a direct report who is, you can still elevate this topic in your own social circles and offices. Just like the “amplification” strategy White House staffers used to repeat women’s key points made in meetings while giving credit to the author, you can help “amplify” your team’s awareness of new working moms’ efforts.
“Wow, [so-and-so] really put a ton of effort into making sure she was prepared for her leave,” you might observe out loud to your company’s leadership. “She is really dedicated to making sure our team runs smoothly.” A few words can go a long way.
“Instead of quieting down,” say Sandberg and Grant, “men can use their voices to draw attention to women’s contributions. Men can also step up by doing their share of support work and mentoring.”
Research shows that “teams with greater helping behavior attain greater profits, sales, quality, effectiveness, revenue and customer satisfaction.” So yes, let’s encourage everyone – men and women – to engage in the planning required to help teams to succeed and thrive in the face of parental leaves.
That terms like the “mental load” and “office housework” are becoming more mainstream means we finally have the vocabulary to talk about this “traditionally” women’s work that has gone unnoticed for too long. Let’s add “taking credit for a well-planned leave and return” into the conversation, too.
If you need more help navigating the transition back to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.