What I Learned from One Maternity Leave to the Next — Advice for Before, During, and After Your Baby

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June 16, 2024 at 2:56PM UTC

Family leave can be tough to navigate, however, feeling supported by your company is key to feeling supported. Fairygodboss talked to Sharon Suchotliff at ZS about her experiences with taking time when her children were born. Suchotliff says, “I have always been a person who likes to work, who thrives on the energy of working with people and solving problems, but when my daughter was born, my perspective changed.”

Currently a Patient Centricity Lead at the professional services firm, she took four months after the birth of her daughter (she was with a previous employer), but now feels it wasn’t enough time. So when she had her son, she had a different plan of action. “In preparing for my second maternity leave, I started leave about two weeks before my son, Max, was born, and it was one of the smartest decisions I made.” She took six months off, and credits the network of women at ZS with supporting her before, during and after her maternity leave. She says the company’s WLI (Women's Leadership Initiative), in addition to other employees who had been in the situation, was a very useful resource. Read on to learn the smart ways in which Suchotliff prepared before, during, and after her maternity leave, along with her advice for new moms.

How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously? 

I have been with ZS for a little over three years. I joined to build our capabilities in patient centricity- helping pharma develop the strategies and capabilities to meaningfully participate in the patient centered care movement in healthcare.

Before ZS, I was the SVP and director of the engagement strategy group at Saatchi &Saatchi Wellness.

What led you to the decision to take a career break?

I took four months off after the birth of my daughter, Rhea, and it just didn’t feel like enough. I have always been a person who likes to work, who thrives on the energy of working with people and solving problems, but when my daughter was born, my perspective changed. I still loved work, but being home and being part of those special early moments with my daughter became more important.

So when it came time to plan for my maternity leave at ZS, I thought a lot about how much time I would need to be ready to come back and what I would need to be ready to leave. Before Rhea was born, I worked literally up until the day before I delivered. I didn’t know it at the time, but that didn’t give me the brain space to separate from work and take time to transition into this new role as a mom. In preparing for my second maternity leave, I started leave about 2 weeks before my son, Max, was born, and it was one of the smartest decisions I made. It gave me the space to disconnect from the day-to-day routines and the mindset of work, and transition to a focus on being a full-time mom at home. 

How long was your career break, and what was it like to return to work? 

My son Max was born in April of 2019. ZS offered up to 26 weeks of leave, and I took it. Having that time at home gave me the space to focus on my family and also to care for myself and recover.  

Returning to work was hard. I looked forward to engaging with adults again, talking about things other than poop and naps, and using parts of my brain that had mostly been on hiatus for a long time. But it was still hard. There was insecurity about what changed while I was gone, the fear of the ability to come back and do a good job, to catch up…and managing some sort of balance between home and work, while still being pretty sleep deprived. 

One of the smartest things I did in planning to return to work actually happened before I even went on maternity leave. In speaking about preparing for maternity leave with other women at ZS, I got the advice to plan for my return NOW and be very deliberate about it. So as I was planning my leave and transitioning responsibilities to others, I was also having conversations about what I wanted to take back over when I returned, and what potentially would remain with others. It was not easy to think about returning to work before going on leave. Looking back on it, this step was really critical to making my transition back to work a bit easier. I knew what I was coming back to and I was excited about it. 

What type of programs did/does the organization offer to those who are returning to work after a career break?

About a month before returning to work, I reached out to a few women at ZS who had returned from maternity leave to get advice and tips on the transition back. Some of these were the same women who coached me as I planned for my leave. Although I had returned to work after maternity leave my previous employer, ZS is a very different company with a different culture. I didn’t want to assume that what I did then would also be useful now. I didn’t want to come back with any blind spots. 

I also worked with HR to align on a transition plan which included coming back first at 50%, then 70%, and finally to 80% of FTE, which is still where I am today.  The transition time was a wonderful way to ease back into work. It helped me slowly connect back with my ZS network and that type of thinking, and to be okay leaving Rhea and baby Max at home. 

ZS offers different baby/mom health and wellness services like nurse support and lactation services through our health insurance, but I didn’t use them this time around. Services like these were so helpful after my first child, Rhea, was born (it was like having “baby tech support”), but I didn’t need them this time around. 

How is this support reflective of the overall culture at your company?

ZS has an incredibly supportive culture. Support is both formal (company resources, services, benefits, affinity groups) and informal (moms and dads tend to look out and support one another). The WLI (Women’s Leadership Initiative) has given me opportunities to connect with senior leaders who are also moms and dads and learn about how they do it — how they balance their work, their family, and also taking care of themselves.

There was a period of time when I traveled quite a bit. This was hard for my then two-and-a-half-year old daughter. She was often angry with me when I left and gave me a bit of the cold shoulder when I returned from a trip. Rhea was clearly upset. 

This was constantly on my mind, so I was relieved to learn that others at ZS had gone through similar experiences. During a dinner hosted by WLI, a colleague shared with me a few of her tips to help her toddler through this very same situation. She told me about a calendar she created for her daughter with symbols to show who would be picking her up from school on which days. This calendar helped her daughter internalize when mom would be home and provide some certainty about when she would be around. The sharing of these tips and tricks from others at the firm is so much a part of the culture and happens at both informal gatherings and also sponsored panels and events. 

More than any other place I have worked, I see people at ZS willing to be vulnerable and share personal stories to help others in similar situations. 

Why do you think your company is a particularly great place to work?

I find ZS to be an incredibly open, flexible and supportive environment. I get to do work I love, be entrepreneurial, and do so with full support from leadership and my teams. It’s a company that stands behind its values- treat people right, get it right and do the right thing.

What kinds of boundaries do you set to maintain work/life balance?  

I am very forthcoming with my priorities and the importance of family to me. I love to work, but my family time is precious to me and I don’t like to cut into it. I mark my calendar to show when I am offline for family duties (i.e. Max has a doctor’s appt, Rhea has a play at school… etc). I also make it known as to when I can be flexible if my teams need me. 

How has your experience been transitioning to working from home during the COVID-19 crisis? What types of changes have you made to your routine? 

I had always worked from home quite a bit, but this is a whole new ballgame.  Like most women, I was very much impacted by the pandemic. Our family went from having a full-time nanny, to zoom schooling a then three-year-old and doing it all on our own. My husband and I both work full time, so this is a real challenge.

Very early in the pandemic my husband and I agreed that he would do the morning shift with the kids, and I would take the afternoon. This gave us consistent blocks to work. We are very lucky in that both of our workplaces have been very supportive and accommodating in terms of these schedules.  

What’s your #1 tip for women who are returning to work after a career break?

I have a few that I think are really important:

  1. Plan for your return BEFORE you go on leave: Many women will plan to transition work to others before they leave. But I’m not sure we spend the time to plan our return before we go. Figure out what you want to come back to. What will get you excited to come back and what you want to work on, because you need a good reason to come back. 

  2. Make it known: ASK for what you want and make it clear to your teams and your supervisors. This way, they can plan accordingly while you’re on leave and help support you when you return. It’s ok to ask for what you want. Things may not always turn out precisely that way, but in my experience, being clear and vocal is key.

  3. Take the time: Take all of it (if that’s financially feasible for your family, recognizing that maternity leave is often not fully paid by employers in the US). You will never have this opportunity again. Don’t feel guilty that your partner or significant other is working-- you just carried a child for 10 months! Don’t feel bad that your co-workers are picking up some of your work-- you will likely do it for them too. 


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