How Pregnant Workers Can Take Time Off Without Hurting Their Careers

pregnant at workBy Julie Feinberg

It's all well and good to want to have it all with a successful career and family life. But most women who want children at some point face a big dilemma: How do you take time off with the new baby without killing your chances for advancement and increased earnings?

Of women who go "off-ramp," in the U.S., 74 percent get back into the workforce and fewer than half return to full-time jobs, according to a 2005 report released by the Center for Talent Innovation (then known as the Center for Work Life Policy), a New York-based think tank. The effect on earnings is profound: On average, women lose 18 percent of their earning power when they off-ramp; that figure increases to 28 percent in business and banking/finance.

Part of the key to maintaining career momentum is handling your pregnancy plans with finesse. "How women handle the stages before, during and after they off-ramp plays a significant part in their professional self-confidence," said Elena Rand Kaspi, a former litigator who designed the maternity leave program at law firm White & Case and is currently the president of LawScope Coaching, an executive career coaching company. "It makes returning easier because they feel they left their professional image intact."

By law, American mothers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their child, with individual companies deciding whether to offer paid time off or not. In contrast, the U.K. offers 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of them paid. Sweden offers a mind-blowing 16 months of paid leave, with two months of it mandated to be used by the "minority parent," usually the father.

No one can guarantee that taking off a large chunk of time won't affect prospects for raises and promotions. But the tips below may help.

1. Start the conversation early.

Once you're certain you are pregnant, let your boss and HR representative know, probably around the 12-week mark, said Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media, a group that promotes work-life balance for mothers. That will prepare them to help you smoothly transition when you take your leave.

Some women start even earlier. Ann Blakely, a 33-year-old management consultant in the Milwaukee office of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, an accounting and advisory firm, told her managing partner when she and her husband started trying to have kids.

"I let him know we were trying to start a family and reiterated my commitment to the firm," she said. "I said I wanted to be a partner one day and asked for his input on whether he thought there were any roadblocks."

"He said he appreciated the conversation and with enough advance notice, we could make anything work," she added.

2. Work your hardest until the day you leave.

If you want people to remember you while you're not in the office, put in the time to make your work and attitude stand out.

It's crucial not to "leave before you leave," said Rebecca Pomering, chief executive of Seattle-based Moss Adams Wealth Advisors. Don't take yourself out of the running for plush assignments simply because you'll be out of commission for a few months.

Pomering, 37, had been a partner for two years at Moss Adams before having her first child in 2006. She was promoted to CEO of the wealth advisor unit in 2008 and had her second child in 2010. She believes her career progressed because she told the firm she wanted to advance.

"I had made it very clear that I wanted to run a division and be on the executive committee one day," she said. "I continued to be clear where I thought I could contribute to the firm, even while pregnant and while having small children."

Six to eight weeks before you depart, send out a notice reminding people you're leaving, advises Rand Kaspi of LawScope Coaching. Tell them you'll send a memo in the next few weeks outlining the projects you're handing off.

3. Stay connected during maternity leave, but only a bit.

Most workplaces don't want you checking email and corresponding with your staff during the first six weeks of your maternity leave because you're technically on disability leave. So enjoy the time with your baby and appreciate those moments before you have to fully tune in again.

Toward the last month of your leave, start checking in with your team to show you're interested in what's going on. During the last six weeks of Blakely's maternity leave, she plugged into strategy planning sessions for the upcoming year.

If someone is filling in for you while you're gone, give them a call to see how things are going, said Evans of Working Mother Media. If your work is being divided amongst the team, call your boss to say hello and see what they've been up to.

"Resist the temptation to feel emotions of fear and anxiety and jealousy," Evans said. "You've made it clear you're coming back and that you're excited about it. Don't be overconnected and act like you're afraid. You only want strength to show."

4. Come back at your own pace, but manage expectations.

If you tell your boss you'll be returning three months after you have the baby and will work your pre-baby 12-hour days, you better be ready to do exactly that.

Most women find that too difficult. And a boss is much more likely to accept a flexible working arrangement with three days in the office at the beginning if you get all your work done than the alternative of long days and little productivity, said Rand Kaspi.

The goal is to under-promise and over-deliver. Halfway through her first pregnancy, Blakely of Baker Tilly put together a flexible work schedule that allowed her to be home on Fridays with her newborn.

Similarly, Amy Siskind, a former head of distressed debt trading at Morgan Stanley and a managing director at Imperial Capital, created a three-day workweek that suited her lifestyle when she worked at the latter. Throughout her career, she routinely left work each day at 5:30 p.m. to spend time with her kids.

She could only do that, though, because she was good at her job and a revenue-generator for the firms she worked at.

"The firms had no choice because they wanted to keep me," she said. "You have to make yourself indispensable to name your ticket. If you're not making money or adding value, it's harder to demand flexibility."

Keep your emotions about motherhood in check once you come back. While everyone is excited for you, no one wants to be bored with all the tiny details.

"It's like any other thing. If you buy a boat, people are happy for you, but they don't care about the color of the sail," said Rand Kaspi.

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