Maternity leave is not what a mother is “supposed” to think about when she realizes she is expecting. I don’t know that I have ever talked to anyone who admitted that one of their first thoughts was fear about work—about missing work, about missing out on important opportunities, about being viewed as a liability to her place of employment.
But the fear is real and valid. And we have to start talking about it, if for no other reason than to give mothers who work outside of the home an opportunity to share those anxieties and to experience a little bit of relief.
So here’s the anxiety in a nutshell: when I go out on maternity leave, I’ll be letting everyone down.
As a high school English teacher, I was incredibly concerned about missing six to eight weeks of the school year. I teach semester-long classes, so I was going to miss roughly a third of my class time with my students. The thought occurred to me on several occasions that it was not fair to my students that I was going to be out. So I did the best that I could to make it up to them. I completely redesigned my course in order to make my students as prepared as possible for my absence. I made a binder as thick as my arm full of assignments, instructions, alternate assignments, back-up plans, and enrichment materials. I found an online classroom platform to interact with my students while I was out on leave.
And all the time I was asking myself what I am sure every working mother asks:
How can I make it so I’m not missed? How can I be here without actually being here?
The answer is I couldn’t. And neither can anyone else. We will be missed when we leave our jobs to take care of our children. I think that women especially experience a lot of guilt when we can’t be everything to everyone. But the guilt is self-destructive and not helpful. My guilt didn’t allow my students to have a better experience while I was out. And your workplace will not function any better or any worse because of your guilty feelings.
So you’re not letting anyone down. But you can help your workplace thrive in your absence through thoughtful, careful preparations made before your absence.
Here are some practical ways that might help.
In the weeks leading up to your maternity leave, try to lay as much groundwork as possible for your bosses, your coworkers, and your employees.
Try to remember that although your pregnancy is the center of your world, that is not true for those around you. Make a habit of reminding those around you about your impending maternity leave, especially in the context of future projects and things that will take place while you are absent. For example, I talked with my principal about securing a substitute teacher and consistent computer access for my students. I also prepped my students with procedures for submitting work and contacting me.
Decide beforehand how much you plan to work while on leave.
Determine if you will try to work from home, and construct a timeline for that. I sent an email to my students the day before my due date letting them know that I would be off the grid for about a week. Did they still send me emails asking me to re-open quizzes, look over their drafts, and grade their make-up work? Yes. But I felt no guilt about not responding to them immediately because I had established the expectation.
Identify alternate points of contact for coworkers, clients, etc., and delegate as many responsibilities as possible.
I recruited a fellow teacher to help my students complete makeup work, and I let my students know he was their point of contact to do so. Establishing these expectations beforehand will allow others to know what you need from them and will give them time to prepare.
Don’t be afraid to let things wait until you return to work.
There may be things that are time-sensitive and essential that happen while you are on leave. For example, I had to grade midterms and submit grades around week four of my maternity leave. But there are many things that can wait until you are back on the clock, so to speak. Remember that you are on leave to care for your newborn baby. And to care for yourself (a part we often forget!). Rest easy knowing that you have prepared well for your absence, that those you work with and for are capable of dealing with things in your absence, and that you are more than capable of handling business when you get back to work.