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5 Lessons I Learned Whilst Navigating Maternity Leave

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I’ve written about parental leave for the We Are Adam blog before but this piece is a little different. As I approach my 8-year work-iversary, I am also returning to the business after 6 months on maternity leave as a first-time mum. I’ve been encouraged to share my personal journey (so far), so here are the 5 key lessons I’ve learned whilst navigating maternity leave.

As Operations Director, I know the company’s policies inside out, so the process of being pregnant at work and preparing for maternity leave seemed simple. What I hadn’t realised was just how engrained I was into the fabric of We Are Adam. I told the senior team about my pregnancy early so we could plan effectively and yet, despite a detailed 6-month plan to unravel me from the business, there were elements we missed - and plenty of lessons learned. Some practical and some personal…

Lesson 1: Planning

Plan, plan and plan again. When you’ve written your plan, review it and write it again. And then get someone else’s input. And then rewrite your plan again. Because no matter how well prepared you and your team think you are, you will have forgotten something.

Effective resource planning was absolutely essential to keep the business ticking along whilst I was gone. I spent months detailing a list of tasks, earmarking who they would be handed over to as I went along. I tracked how long each task would take, and how often it was completed. They were broken down into Essential and Nice to Haves to make sure the crucial activity was maintained and people understood where priorities should lie. This is an important step in creating a smooth transition – whether you are arranging temporary maternity cover or redistributing across the existing team – as I’ve found peoples’ perception of priorities can vary wildly.

Then comes the time to start handing over. With three months to go, I began doing every task alongside someone else; having people shadow me to train them up on their temporary responsibilities. With two months to go, we completed each task together; a chance for a refresh and to ask any questions. With one month to go, everything was handed over; I worked on some Nice To Haves while my colleagues picked up the Essentials. By handing over full responsibility before I left, colleagues were able to complete tasks autonomously, but I was still on hand to answer any queries that arose. We all knew that, come January, that I wouldn’t be able to answer the phone to run through how to process a new starter, for example.

As we are a small business, it would fall to numerous people to pick up different elements of my role. As part of preparation, I created How To Guides. Some were long form, like a Guide to Onboarding, which covered everything from ordering tech to what their first week should look like. Others were much shorter; little snippet videos of screen records on things like to how make back-end amends to our system. These proved to be really useful… if people remembered they existed. Sometimes, I wish I’d done a Guide to Finding my How To Guides!

We created shared spaces to store documents, passwords, supplier details… and yet when it came down to it, we still found odd bits were missing. Make sure that whoever is covering you is empowered to find the missing information without your input. Even if you tell them that you don’t mind the odd message or call, they won’t reach out – 1) they’re not supposed to and 2) they know you’re under a different type of stress right now.

Lesson 2: Telling your colleagues

I tried to keep my pregnancy under wraps, but when I announced it to the wider team it became clear that most people had suspected it for a LONG time. I guess skipping a few glasses of wine at a work do was just a bit too much out of character! However, no one ever broached the topic or made me uncomfortable, and for that I was incredibly thankful.

Once the usual joy subsided though, panic began to creep into some of the team. Who was going to answer their legal queries? Could they still get bespoke support with marketing collateral? Where would they go for technical advice? The Ops Director of a small business wears many hats, after all.

Reassuring the team was my number one priority. My Back Office colleagues all understood where their roles would move to and who would be their key support in my absence. What was less clear was who would aid the wider team.

Firstly, I asked everyone for input on what they anticipated they would miss me for. Whilst I believed I had thought of everything, it’s very easy to underestimate the little ways you provide assistance. Thankfully there were many recurring themes, which made delegating a specific point of contact much easier.

Once The Plan had been finalised, we granted access to everyone in the business. Transparency is a vital component of preparing for an extended period of leave. Without this, people would undoubtedly be unsure of where to address their queries and concerns. Instead, I handed the team a directory of key support contacts for their most common challenges.

A clear, robust handover – both to the person/people taking over tasks and the wider business – provides reassurance all round and supports a calm transition into working life without you.

Lesson 3: Cutting the cord

I couldn’t have timed it better to be honest. We wound down for Christmas at the end of 2022 and when everyone came back after new year, I simply wasn’t there. In fact, on Tues 3rd Jan, as my teammates fired up their laptops, I was in the hospital welcoming my beautiful baby girl.

Personally, it made disconnecting easy. You know that weird limbo period between Christmas and New Year when no one knows what day it is anymore? For me, that limbo period lasted months rather than days. There was no lingering guilt about what state the business was in, since I had watched everyone clear their desks for 2 weeks of annual leave. Nor did I feel like I was missing out.

But once the newborn bubble dissipated, I felt confused. For starters, I’d gone from being an experienced, self-assured career woman to a clueless first-time mum. I’m battling the uncertainty, the unknowns and the WTFs?! – all on less sleep than you get during a weekend at Glastonbury. And whilst I felt like I was settling into my new role pretty well, it wasn’t quite the perfect fit. Like buying a pair of shoes half a size too small because ‘they’ll stretch’, but they just don’t quite feel right.

It wasn’t until I paid my colleagues a visit a few months in that I realised what was wrong – I just didn’t feel like me. I’m not the type to attend endless baby groups, chatting with other mums about nappy sizes over a cold cup of instant coffee. My daughter is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but she isn’t the only thing that has ever happened to me. And I haven’t just stopped being me since I became a mum.

It took a while for me to reconcile the fact that I could love being a mum and love my job at the same time. Once I did, I started to feel like myself again. I started doing KIT (Keep in Touch) days – and my word were they welcome. The guys at We Are Adam did a stellar job keeping things ticking over, but there were still so many unanswered questions, broken Excel formulas and annoying little niggles that just couldn’t be solved. I reveled in the fact that a) I was still needed and b) my brain was capable of more than 20 rounds of Incy Wincy Spider that day.

Because yes, despite having been an integral part of what made We Are Adam tick, I realised there had always been a niggling doubt in my mind… would they even need me back? Imposter syndrome is a nasty piece of work, let me tell you! But it filled me with joy to be able to stretch my brain during those KIT days, trouble shooting and problem solving, generating ideas and being part of the team again. It made me look forward to rejoining the fold.

Lesson 4: Returning

So, rejoin I did. And that’s where you find me now, working from home whilst my little one is in nursery.

I had always planned 6 months of maternity leave. Everyone prepared for me to be gone longer “because you’ll change your mind once you are off”, but I knew I’d feel the need to reconnect. Weaving flexibility into your plan before you head off on maternity leave is a wise move. If I had changed my mind, plans were in place to accommodate that.

I knew when I wanted to come back, but not how. Could I work full time? Compressed hours? 4 days a week? We Are Adam takes an agile approach to work – perfect for structuring around childcare – but balancing what would work for the business and what would work for me was still tricky. After several discussions with the leadership team, I decided to take a leaf out of the book of our other working mums and return on 4 days per week. We Are Adam were more than happy to oblige.

However, those discussions also threw up something I hadn’t even considered. How will I cope? I was used to having all day every day to look after my daughter, my dog and my household. How will I manage the transition into working? So I opted to ease in with 3 days a week to start, and it’s been the best decision I’ve made through my maternity journey.

Becoming a parent changes your perspective and one thing I’ve found vital is setting boundaries. Not just with my colleagues, but myself. Whilst I establish new routines and discover my new normal (never thought I’d use that phrase again after 2020!), it’s important that I take time for me.

Right now, being back at work feels like a form of self-care, but it could be all too easy to slip into old habits, working long hours and getting caught up in the stresses that come with the recruitment industry. My current focus is on steadily building back to where I was pre-maternity leave. Burnout is a very real threat; it sneaks up slowly until you don’t understand why you always feel tired and have no motivation. In my experience, it’s a very different type of tired to the one that comes with a newborn baby!

Lesson 5: Mum Guilt

It is SO tough.

Already I’m riddled with doubts – How can I be okay with sending my 6-month-old to nursery? Would she be better off being at home with me? Do people think I’m heartless for going back to work quickly? Or worse, do they think I don’t love her?

Every morning when I take my daughter to nursery I’m wracked with guilt as I kiss her goodbye. And I miss her terribly. Despite enjoying being back in work, come 4pm I’m watching the minutes tick by, desperate to pick her up for a play and a cuddle before bed. I worry I’m going to miss major milestones, like her first steps, because I chose to be in a meeting about automation instead of taking the full maternity leave period.

And that’s totally normal.

I haven’t met a working mother yet who doesn’t suffer from mum guilt. Whether their kids are 6 or 16 doesn’t matter – the feeling that you aren’t present enough doesn’t go away. The beauty of agile working is that I know I can take an hour to attend a ‘stay and play’ session at nursery and simply catch up on my projects another time. The challenge is not feeling guilty for taking an hour off work to spend quality time with my daughter.

Watch Agile Working at We Are Adam: Our working mums discuss how important flexibility is to them.

It’s a tight rope all working parents must walk, and each have their own boundaries and routines. I’m only just starting to figure out mine. One thing I do know is that the challenges of juggling work and motherhood are ones I’m willing to take on.

Some people say women can’t have it all, and I’m sure that’s true. But there are two things I won’t sacrifice – my career and my family. I’m determined to strike a balance between the two that, to me at least, feels like I really do have it all.

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