How to Prepare for Maternity Leave

I'm no genius, but I'm going to assume that most people are not best friends with their bosses. Sure, they might like each other, but they're not going to be included in the wedding party. (They might be lucky to get an invite to the reception.)

Yet, when a woman finds out she's going to have a baby, the shortlist of people to tell inevitably includes the boss. Suddenly someone you don't want anywhere near your bedroom is the first to hear about your pregnancy.

But how do you handle the whole ordeal? From breaking the news to severing ties with the office while you're gone, you have a lot of issues to tackle in the nine months leading up to your leave.

If you're a colleague who's left behind during maternity leave, you've got your own set of issues to consider.

When you're the mother-to-be

First and foremost, you need to work on a timeline that's comfortable for you. If you found out you're pregnant yesterday, don't rush to tell the boss just because you feel obligated to. Have a game plan first. Let the news digest, tell family and friends, and then go to your boss with an idea of how you want to take leave.

Once you've done that, you need to have some conversations, not only with your superior but also with your colleagues and human resources.

Abby Carr, the managing director of BlissPR and also a mother of three, knows what full plates expectant moms have.

"For a lot of women who work, their identities are wrapped up in who they are at work, and so maternity leave brings up a lot of strong feelings around identity, loyalty, commitment [and] importance," Carr explains. "For better or worse, it's a great rehearsal for the realities of being a working mom! As one of my colleagues said, 'Welcome to the world of always letting someone down.'"

As Debbie Downer as that outlook appears, Carr has a point: Once you decide to have a child, you need to keep your focus on what you want because you'll be pulled in several different directions. Carr suggests you do the following:

  • Explain when you plan to return "Even if you aren't sure, make a specific plan so that they can know what to expect -- and then if you have to change later, you can change. Just don't leave your workplace with a vague 'I will see how I feel,'" Carr says.

  • Find out who's stepping in for you
    "With your supervisor, find out whom they plan to transition your work to, and make sure that you start to have hand-off meetings with that person up to a month ahead of time," Carr suggests. "Pregnancies are uncontrollable -- you may plan to work up until the last day, but your baby may decide otherwise."

  • Set limits of when or if you can be contacted while on leave
    Let everyone know under what circumstances they can or should contact you while on maternity leave.

"Even if you have every intention of staying in close contact with the workplace during your leave, give yourself the luxury of 'unplugging,'" Carr advises. "This is your child's only infancy; on the flip side, the workplace will be there when you return.

  • Know your rights and responsibilities
    "Make sure that you work out what your pay will be during your leave, and understand what portion of it will come from disability (state) and what will come from your employer. Plan your personal finances accordingly," Carr suggests.
    She also advises expectant mothers to be forthcoming with any development that occurs during the leave. Despite your intentions, if you decide that you'd prefer not to return to work, be considerate and give as much notice as you can. Waiting until the week (or day) before your expected return leaves everyone in a bind.

When your colleague is going on maternity leave

While a boss or co-worker is away on maternity leave, the team left behind often pitches in to help. Or perhaps just one person does. Either way, you're about to inherit new responsibilities.

Sure, you probably don't need one more item on your to-do list. But here's an opportunity to show that you're not only a team player but also someone who is reliable and can perform well under pressure. Once your new role expires and the new mother returns to work, you might return to your previous position, but the bosses will now know what you're capable of handling. That can pay off down the road.

Here are Carr's suggestions for workers handling a new role:

  • Know where to find answers
    "Make sure you have another colleague on the job who can answer your questions, especially in the first few weeks," she suggests. "Find out if there are any special circumstances or red flags (such as politics, problems or sensitivities) that you might not otherwise be aware of."

  • Know the chain of command
    Carr recommends you find out whom you're reporting to and what they want from you. You want to be sure your standards align with the right person's.

Remember this is a period of transition for everyone

Any shakeup in daily activity affects everyone in a group, so all team members need to realize they're in this together. The new mother needs to keep her focus on her new baby (since this is the only time it's OK not to think about work on a daily basis) and to do this, workers need to step in where needed.

"The worst thing a new mom can do is start worrying about the return to work in such a way that she does not fully bond with her baby. The best advice I can give is to focus completely on the baby while you are on leave," Carr says. "When you return, in my experience, you will be pleasantly surprised by two things: The world did not stop turning while you were gone, and the people you left in charge will have done a great job," Carr says.

And, as always, a little gratitude can go a long way.

"If you can, express -- before you leave -- that you are grateful to your co-workers for their help. They are going to have to work extra hard to allow you to enjoy a precious experience."

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