How to Best Prepare for Maternity Leave

Career Enrichment, Women Empowerment, Work Life Integration
12/15/20 - Nicole Wood

Maternity leave is an important time for you as a parent to bond with your new addition and for your family to adjust to an exciting, albeit exhausting, new normal

We have a long way to go in this country, but it has been great to see more and more companies providing substantial parental leave policies to birthing parents and non-birthing parents. However, breaks from work that last weeks or months are often coupled with stress. Stress around how to plan and ensure goals are still met in your absence. 

These steps will help you effectively prepare for your leave so that your team can thrive while you’re gone. And also so that you can focus your time and attention on your family.

Understand Your Benefits and Follow Procedures

Before you can plan thoughtfully, you should fully understand what you are entitled to in terms of time off and benefits. This can be quite confusing as it differs by state and employer. This article provides a great summary of the various methods of securing paid or unpaid time off for maternity leave. Connect with HR at your work to understand your benefits in full. Also, ensure that you fill out the proper paperwork to secure your leave according to your employer’s policies and processes.

A person signing few paperwork

Start Early

Once you know how long you’ll be taking off and when you plan to start (some parents begin their leave prior to their due date, and some wait until the baby arrives to try to maximize time with the child), you can begin preparing for your time away.

If you’ve ever left for vacation and realized 2 hours before you signed off that you didn’t have a coverage plan in place, you know the panic that can set in. Don’t set yourself up for that panic (times a million) by waiting until the last minute, or even the last week or two. Start planning early for your leave (babies can be unpredictable!).

Luckily in most cases, you know that maternity leave is coming months in advance. This gives you ample time to think through your strategy and put a comprehensive coverage plan in place. Start taking note of tasks as you complete them, meetings you lead or attend and any extracurricular involvement you have. If you are only paying attention for a week or two, you will likely miss some of your important, less frequent tasks. Starting to build awareness and document your role months in advance will allow you to catch all of those additional responsibilities.

Make Life Easy For Those Covering

Document processes and procedures. Ideally, someone would be able to pick up your documentation and perform the task without having to ask any questions. That’s the goal! Try and get this level of detail in your documentation whenever possible. Loom is a great free tool for recording short video tutorials including screen recordings. This can make your process documentation a lot easier.

Try not to leave a mess! In the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day, all of our inboxes, processes and to-do-lists can get a bit dizzying. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hand over a perfectly clean set of responsibilities to someone else. However, making your best effort to tidy things up before training your replacement will make their life easier. This might include:

  • Teeing up meeting materials
  • Making sure spreadsheets work and fields to edit are clearly called out
  • Forwarding email threads that might provide relevant background information
  • Updating progress trackers/project management tasks

Schedule transition meetings to walk people through what you need of them and to give them a chance to ask you any clarifying questions. This includes determining temporary changes in reporting structure and bringing stand-in managers up to speed on what they need to manage your direct reports in your absence.

Use it as an Opportunity to Identify Gaps

You may not even realize until you go to document your processes or train someone else on them that certain aspects could be improved upon or that the processes in place don’t even make sense anymore. Use this exercise as an opportunity to identify areas of improvement for the future. You can even suggest to the person covering for you that they keep track of their own questions and suggestions so that you can have their fresh perspective in addition to your own when you return and can address it.

Determine Your Communication Plan

Hopefully you will be able to truly disconnect, delete your Slack, chat and email apps and focus on your family. However, there may be a few scenarios where it makes sense for you to be kept in the loop. Think through the following, and determine your preferred communication strategy:

  • What things do you want to be notified of? This might be significant impacts to the budget or reports that will go to the board.
  • What things do you want the opportunity to weigh in on? Maybe it’s major changes in strategy or key personnel decisions.
  • Which communications do you want to be copied so you can review when you have time or when you return?
  • Which things do you definitely not want to be copied on?

Once you’ve come up with your answers to these, take the time to document them along with the rest of your coverage plan and communicate it to your team.

Expect the Unexpected

Babies don’t follow our plans and may arrive a week late or 3 weeks early. While of course you can’t account for every scenario, try to make your plan for maternity leave as flexible as possible so you can adjust to whatever is required. 

Some things to think about:

  • What if baby comes early?
  • What if baby comes late?
  • What if you need to be out longer than expected?
  • What if you can’t get to the office? Do you have everything you need?
  • What if you need to work remotely for some time?

Think about Your Reengagement Strategy

Playing catch-up is always tricky. Remember that the world you are returning to will look completely different from the one you left. Here are some things to consider:

  • How will you get back up to speed on what you missed?
  • Can you block off time to catch up on emails?
  • Can you keep meetings to a minimum until you’ve had a chance to get your feet under you?
  • If you have important meetings or presentations right when you return, who can help you prepare so it’s not all on you?
  • What will your new life and schedule look like? Don’t forget things like childcare hours and dropoff/pickup. Pumping schedule and breaks throughout the day. Plans if your child becomes sick or has an appointment or childcare is unavailable.

You won’t be able to plan for every detail because you won’t know all of them until you’re living it. But thinking through some of this in advance may make the transition a bit smoother.

Seek Support

They say “it takes a village” for a reason. No one can do it all alone, and community can help you be educated and more importantly, stay sane. This could be something as simple and informal as buddying up with other recent/expecting parents at work or joining some local parenting Facebook groups. Or you may also want to seek some more structured support.

Some of our favorite providers include Partum Health, which provides postpartum coaching, support and care coordination and Kunik, which provides community and resources for working parents. Seeking support now will help you have a more enjoyable maternity experience and a more successful transition back to work.

A woman working on her laptop at home with a baby

Congratulations! This is such a wonderful and exciting time for you and your family. Remember, planning for every single scenario at work is impossible. You want to set your team and colleagues up for success while knowing that if a ball gets dropped or a minor detail gets missed, life will go on! Following the steps above will help you think comprehensively about your maternity leave coverage plan so you can focus your time and energy on your child whenever it is they decide to arrive!

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