There are two words that bring as much excitement as dread for a new mother: maternity leave.
While I was obviously overjoyed at welcoming my daughter into the world, society had me believing that these twelve weeks were going to be grueling. Goodbye sleep, sayonara sanity. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying every moment of the process: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And believe me, there were all three.
I think many new mothers feel that they will lag behind the rest of their colleagues when they are on maternity leave - pausing their career while others charge forward with skillbuilding and new projects. However, as a recent survey revealed, I fully believe that becoming a mother has actually raised the level of my performance in the office. Since my return from maternity leave, I now find myself applying the tough, but good, lessons I learned in these twelve weeks of raising a newborn to my everyday work.
1. Let go so that everyone (including you) can grow
- As a parent: When you invest your whole self in a project, you, by nature, become attached. I am biologically wired to want to be attached to my baby. As important as it was for me to take a shower, go for a run, start seeing friends on adult time, it was also important for my daughter to have her own time. I’m not saying I put the baby down and disappeared for 5 hours, but I let her play quietly on her playmat while I responded to some emails or did some laundry. The next thing I knew, my daughter was finding her voice, learning to grasp at toys, gaining more mobility and giggling. If I hadn’t let go, I would have stifled her independent learning.
- As an employee: We all need time to experiment, try new things and explore. A few years ago, I developed training materials on active listening for new hires joining the HubSpot Services Team. As I got ready to leave for maternity leave, I knew I needed someone to take over these trainings. I decided this was a good opportunity to give to two team members who were ready for their next challenge. I loved running this course, but the new perspective that these employees brought to the training has made it so much stronger and given me the time to now focus on other employee development initiatives.
2. When the plan goes to hell, salvage what you can and move on
- As a parent: Many doctors encourage you to write a birth plan. My doctor doesn’t. Her feelings are that things can take any number of turns and if you are too set on your vision, you will feel let down when things don’t go the way you planned. Nothing went as I would have planned for my daughter’s birth, but in the end, she was born happy and healthy.
- As an employee: The plan for a certain project will likely go off course, but if the vital signs of the project are good, trust your advisors and get to the finish line. When I returned from maternity leave, I discovered that a number of courses that we run in our continuing education program had veered away from their goals. Rather than scrapping the program, I quickly audited for what was working and what was not. By not dwelling on what was broken but instead learning from it, we were able to get the ship back on track.
3. Stop talking and do what needs to get done
- As a parent: When you have a new baby and are tired, it is easy to be short tempered. You can waste your time talking about why the dishwasher isn’t emptied or you can just empty the dishwasher and get some sleep. Chances are you won’t even remember what upset you the next day. A colleague shared with me advice his dad had shared with him when he became a new father: “When you have a pile of laundry, don’t go around and talk to everyone about the laundry. Don’t get angry at the laundry. Just start folding each piece.”
- As an employee: When I first got back from maternity leave, there wasn’t one straightforward project to dive into, there were many tasks, programs, and people to get synced back up with. My head began to spin. Where should I begin? I started making lists and then lists for my lists. And then I stopped. I began treating the tasks like laundry. I quickly sorted everything into themes and attacked them piece by piece. Everything began to feel manageable again.
4. Pause and observe, then act
- As a parent: The only parenting book I found helpful was Bringing Up Bebe. It was a series of observations by an ex-pat on French parenting. The big advice is from day one: when your baby cries, pause before you rush over. By pausing, you are able to better observe what’s going on. After a week of being home from the hospital, I began to notice that different cries meant different things, and by the end of the first month, my daughter was learning to self soothe. I now pause before I react to the situation. I feel calmer and saner.
- As an employee: I recently received an email from a team member, and it was one of those moments where your initial read feels really harsh. Before I reacted, I paused. I didn’t immediately react back, I asked for clarification so that I could get more information and observed. This helped me see the situation from the other side and how the team members needs weren’t being met. By pausing and observing, I put my own ego at bay and saw the situation more clearly. When we were able to connect, we approached it together with a problem-solving mindset.
5. Don't chase the finish line, enjoy the moment
- As a parent: After a few weeks home, my daughter and I got into our routine. She’d wake up, I’d make some coffee, I’d change her diaper, and we would settle into our giant beanbag and listen to podcasts while she ate and I caffeinated. Initially, I felt the time ticking every second towards my return to work and time away from my daughter. When I stopped focusing on my return, and started greeting each day new, I felt the freedom to enjoy each moment. Two weeks before I came back to work, I got really sad, knowing I was going to no longer have those mornings. But I stopped and reminded myself that, while I might be going back to work, I could still enjoy weekends and there would be lots of other opportunities to share with my daughter for years to come.
- As an employee: In my role, I spend a lot of time coaching individuals and managers. It is very easy to get caught up in the marathon, moving forward to the next conversation or problem solving opportunity. Since returning from maternity leave, I am making time for people to drop by casually for advice, taking walking meetings, and circling back to individuals I’ve met with in the past. This gives me an opportunity to be more insightful to individual’s needs, ask better questions, and slow down to consider effective solutions.
Whether you are a new parent or a pedal-to-the-metal employee, it’s easy to get sucked into the autopilot of the work-life roller coaster and forget why we are here and what we are doing. My time away on maternity leave helped me take a step back, let go of the things I’d been holding on too hard to, and return to the office with a fresh perspective that has reinvigorated my approach to my career.
Has being a parent also taught your valuable lesson you apply in your work life? I’d love to hear about your experiences!