Surviving your Maternity Leave at Work
Of all the low points during my maternity leave (and as someone who had a touch of PND there were many), one moment really stands out. I was sat at home in my usual position, i.e. wedged uncomfortably under a four-month-old milk monster, who was still cluster feeding day and night without an end in sight. I was tired, tearful and utterly exhausted.
Scrolling through my phone, I came across a few photos posted by a colleague on Facebook from a night out. Among the familiar faces was my maternity cover, Andy, standing in the middle of our work group with a pint in hand and a huge grin on his face. Another picture showed them all throwing shapes on the dance floor. The same dancefloor I used to throw my own crazy shapes on every Friday night. I felt a bit unnerved. When I saw the comments underneath gushing about how good a night they’d all had, I’m ashamed to admit that I lost it a bit. I felt irrationally angry and decided then and there that I really didn’t like Andy. Bloody Andy with his pint and his grin and his dance moves. And there was me, a leaky zombie, who only got to dance under duress at baby sodding sensory class. Of course, the worst thing was that he actually looked like a lot of fun and someone I’d have loved as a colleague, but ironically he was only in the picture because I was not. It just felt so weird.
Thankfully, those feelings didn’t last for long but it’s a funny old thing, going on maternity leave. Usually, one of two things happen: either your company decide to save a bit of dosh by splitting your job between existing colleagues, or someone is recruited to cover your position for the time you’re off. On paper, the latter can seem like the better option. You get someone who is dedicated to your role and will hopefully keep the ship steady. You also don’t have to feel guilty about peeing off your colleagues, who while congratulating you on your ‘amazing news’ are wondering how the hell they’ll manage with all the extra work. But the whole idea of someone else covering your job, whether it’s a specific person or several people, can stir up a lot of emotions and questions so here are a few tips on how to survive the maternity cover period.
1. Accept that it’s a strange time
So you’re not planning on leaving work forever, but you’re not exactly going on a short holiday either. You’re also not obliged to have much involvement while you’re off, but at the same time you might want to feel included. Maternity Leave is an occupational twilight zone where no-one, including you or your cover, really has much of a blueprint to follow. You’re bound to have questions. Will my cover do a good job? What if I want to return to work early? Will I come back to the same job? If you can, try to talk these through with a Manager or HR before you leave. That way, you won’t spend your precious maternity time stressing unnecessarily.
2. Know your rights
You’re protected by law against a whole range of things which might constitute unfair treatment or dismissal before, during and after your leave. This includes any changes made to your job on your return, a requirement to involve you in key updates while you’re off, such as promotions and restructures, and protections to allow you to express milk at work if you’re a returning breastfeeder. It’s also worth finding out what might happen if you choose not to go back. Some companies have a policy which require you to pay back all or part of your maternity allowance, so it’s worth keeping a copy of your work’s maternity policy with you (and also not blowing your whole allowance too early!). There are some great resources on the web about your rights. Try Maternity Action for starters.
3. Decide on your level of involvement
The law says that both you and your employer are allowed ‘reasonable’ contact during maternity leave. What constitutes reasonable can depend on what you’ve both agreed on before you go so it’s worth having a think about how often you want to be contacted and for what purpose and get a written plan if you can. You can always amend this during your leave if your needs change. By law, you’re also allowed (but not obliged) to take up to 10 KIT (Keep in Touch) days where you should be paid at your normal rate. These can be great for getting updated and refreshing your skills, especially if looking after a screaming baby has left your brain slightly scrambled. I found KIT days invaluable for feeling like part of the team again (and realising I really liked Andy after alll!).
4. Don’t compare yourself to your maternity cover
Before I went on leave, I joked to my manager that whoever was recruited had better be good but not too good (I was only half joking). It’s only natural to worry about your cover and what they’ll be like. For me, it didn’t help that despite six successful years in my role, the last few months before I went on leave saw me at my worst. I struggled with morning sickness in the early stages of pregnancy and then with a particularly bad June heatwave towards the end. My last few weeks at work saw me slouched in front of a fan, generally whining and whinging about the lack of aircon to anyone who would listen (to be fair, it turns out I was carrying a 9 pounder). In contrast, my cover was a breath of fresh air in our overheated office. He was like an eager young puppy, desperate to be loved by his new owners and make an impression. But who could blame him? The bottom line is it’s pointless to compare. What your cover might bring in enthusiasm, they will lack in experience. Besides, it is your job; they are not replacing you they are simply keeping your seat warm so the better they perform, the easier you might find things when you come back…
5. Ease back in gently
….And when you do come back, try and resist the temptation to make your own big impression straight away. The adjustment of going from baby to boardroom can be tough so try and ease in slowly, or at least give yourself permission not to feel like you need to prove yourself. It’s your job – and you have the same rights as anyone else, including the right to request flexible working if you need to. A lot of Mums worry that they’re inconveniencing everyone further by making more demands on their return but a happy employee is a productive employee so do what’s right for you.
6. Look on the bright side
If you’re feeling really negative about your maternity status, try to focus on the positives. Having a break from employment can be a great opportunity to reflect and consider what it is you want from your career. Some Mums really benefit from the work breather they get. Plus there’s something quite satisfying about having naptime snuggles with your newborn and thinking “I’m getting paid right now” (although probably not enough fo’ sure)
As for my maternity cover, luckily, and like with so many things in life, it all came good in the end. I returned to my old role after a year and Andy secured another position in our department. So we actually became colleagues and got on like a house on fire. I even learned a few new dance moves in the process (although that’s definitely one thing he was way better at than me).
I’d love to hear your stories of maternity leave. How did your cover go? Did your employer treat you fairly?