Real Life

Does having a baby derail your career?

Going on maternity leave doesn’t have to derail your career, says this employment lawyer.

All too often we dread telling our bosses we are pregnant, for fear that taking parental leave may be seen as an inconvenience and affect our career prospects.

My experience, both personally and as an employment lawyer, is that we need not worry. Although the concept of taking time off to have a baby might be a new thing for you, for your employer managing parental leave absences is simply part of running a business.

Laws providing for parental leave and employment protection have been around for almost four decades, and few employers will be unacquainted with them. Many will have also seen the benefit of the laws first-hand when raising their own families.

That said, I can certainly recall feeling like my parental leave would be an inconvenience, especially because I got pregnant three months after starting my job. I distinctly remember having a casual chat about it with a senior partner at Friday night drinks, or sodas in my case. I remember him making clear that it was a non-issue and that the firm always looked at the bigger picture.

Since that chat, and in my professional experience, I have noticed that this ‘bigger picture’ approach is common. The employers I deal with generally seem to be less concerned about the inconvenience of an employee’s absence and more worried about whether their valuable resource will come back to them.

So, in my case, it turned out that it was my personal expectations and insecurities which made me feel like my leave would be an issue, not anything my employer had said or done.

Similarly, I knew a woman who felt obliged to explain that her pregnancy was unplanned to justify why she had got pregnant after she had just agreed to be involved in a long-term project.

So why do we feel like this?

I suppose it’s Murphy’s law that the age we feel ready to start a family overlaps with the age we want to put our foot down and advance our careers – so naturally, we feel somewhat conflicted internally. We might also worry about what will happen to our role while we are away. For my part, I remember feeling frustrated at the interruption that my ever-expanding belly would cause to the momentum I was trying to build in developing my practice. It felt as though I was on a train to where I wanted to be, but would have to get off only a few stops down the line and sit on the platform for a year.

I actually voiced those frustrations to another female partner, also a mother, who reassured me that it would all be here waiting for me when I got back, and I would be back up to speed within six months. Actually, it was more like six weeks. I had a great year away and came back raring to go. I had expected a slower start, putting up a few pictures of the girls and going for coffee with colleagues, but by day two, I was in the thick of it and it was as if I had never been away. Parental leave had zero impact.

It’s only looking back that I can see the ‘bigger picture’ more clearly. When I was pregnant, it was hard to see past my little girls’ arrival and the major life adjustment that would follow.

But of course, employers can, and do, see things in a more balanced way. Let’s be fair, they don’t have the pregnancy hormones to contend with. Yes, budgets and staffing may need to be tweaked in the short term, but these minor details don’t change the long-term plans.

Balancing the demands of work and home life is a challenge and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. My preference is to work full-time, but I have a very understanding boss who allows me the flexibility to work from home, or dash to day care for an early pick-up when I need to.

So if, like me, your mind becomes clouded by personal concerns about a career-limiting baby bump, or how you will cope once back at work, try to keep in mind that you are of value to your employer and taking time off to bring a new life into the world will not change that.

Words by Jessie Lapthorne

Photo by iStock Images

Related stories