Your office, the projects, employer goals and expectations — none of it stops simply because your baby arrives. The working world will go right on spinning while you’re in labor and on maternity leave, and that’s okay. Normal, even. What you probably don’t want is for your own world with baby in it to keep right on spinning in sync with that work world.
“My baby was born 5 days ago,” a mom from the Mindful Return course recently wrote to me. “And I’m still answering work emails. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to do this. I wasn’t supposed to be online during my leave.”
However she got into this pickle, this new mom now had to extract herself from it if she wanted to save her own sanity and protect her family time. My first instruction to her was to communicate clearly to re-establish expectations: “Yes, I know I’ve been answering e-mails, but I’m signing off now.”
Disconnecting 100 percent may or may not be your goal. Whatever your hopes are, though, it’s worth being intentional and explicit about them. What are some ways you can set yourself up to successfully disconnect from work while you are on maternity leave? Here are my top five tips:
1. Plan the heck out of your leave.
Several months before you go out on leave, start giving thought to what projects will be in the works around your due date and who can take them over. Document processes you complete on a regular basis, and work with your teams to determine to whom you’ll be making handoffs. Introduce your maternity leave replacements to your key contacts, so they can reach out directly. The less folks need you to get answers to their questions, the easier it will be for you to disconnect.
2. Communicate expectations clearly.
Talk to your supervisor and your HR department about their expectations around your leave and how those align with your own. For my first maternity leave, I wasn’t supervising anyone and found it quite easy to disconnect completely. The second time around, though, was a different story, as I was managing another employee. The plan we came up with was that I would be completely disconnected for one month, and then after that I would speak with her once a week to address urgent issues and answer key questions. For any emergencies, everyone knew to text me instead of emailing. Once you’ve thought through your plan, consider creating a formal document for your employer to set out these expectations clearly.
3. Tackle time-sensitive tasks (like employee reviews) before you leave.
Things like review cycles don’t stop while you’re on leave, and the people you manage still need to get feedback from you. If you know your reviews of your direct reports will be due while you’re on leave, write and submit them beforehand. Not only will your employer appreciate your advance planning, but then the task won’t be hanging over your head while you are gone.
4. Stick to the boundaries you’ve set.
How you behave teaches others an important lesson about how you will behave. If you respond to “just this one email,” your colleagues will likely expect a response to the next one. And the next. To quote Brené Brown, “choose discomfort over resentment” when you’re deciding whether or not to check in or respond.
5. Remember that you are still valued — even if you are not irreplaceable.
We all want to feel important and irreplaceable, which is why we can sometimes be our own worst enemies when it comes to disconnecting during maternity leave. It’s good to remember, however, that everyone is ultimately replaceable in the working world — as well as the fact there is no one with your exact combination of unique and wonderful skillsets. Growing your team and letting colleagues use your maternity leave to shine in new ways (perhaps even taking things off your plate that you were ready to get rid of!) is an important leadership skill. You WILL be missed, mama, and your work will continue to be appreciated when you return. So take this important time for your family now.
With advance planning, good, open lines of communication, and a commitment to your own boundaries, disconnecting from work during maternity leave at the level you want is indeed possible. It’s worth taking these concrete steps, so you can take care of yourself and the new wonderful little human you’ve created.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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