Women leaders: Here's how you can go on maternity leave and return, smoothly
Here's how IMPACT's COO did it, and how you can too.
By Brie Rangel
On October 22, 2019, I got some of the best news of my career — which was quickly followed by feelings of stress, insecurity, and isolation.
We had just had our weekly leadership team virtual meeting and were assigning ownership of the remainder of our Q4 priorities. Our CEO, Bob Ruffolo, shared his screen with our Zoom call as he talked through our end of year focus, and I realized that he had assigned nothing to me.
After he went through our priorities, he said quickly that he would have me be responsible for watching over all the priorities and ensuring we pushed them to the finish line.
I thought to myself, “Hmm...that’s new, but cool. I can do that.”
He asked me to stay on our video call line so we could chat after the meeting. Once everyone hopped off, he told me he was ready to move me into the chief operating officer position for IMPACT — something that had been discussed for a couple months, but I didn’t realize it would be so soon.
I accepted the position immediately.
I was on cloud nine following our call for about three minutes when I remembered one other small thing happening in my life: I was nine weeks pregnant — and I hadn’t told anyone at work.
A million questions started racing through my head:
- Could I take on a promotion while experiencing pregnancy and all the physical symptoms that accompany it?
- Would Bob regret promoting me once he found out?
- How could a company leader take parental leave without things falling apart?
- How could I come back and not fall apart myself?
- How could I establish boundaries and a new balance without looking weak?
- Had anyone actually done this successfully before or was I destined for a shit show of a year? (Little did I know at the time how 2020 would actually play out…)
Reading stories from other professionals
To begin easing my mind, I started looking for articles and tips on how to more easily take maternity leave. Unfortunately as I searched for answers on the internet, I came across very generic, formulaic articles about building a plan, discussing the plan with others, and signing off when it was time.
I had so much on my mind, and the advice I found from articles barely skimmed the surface of everything I needed to plan for and figure out.
What actually helped me the most was reading other professionals tell their stories — from their initial planning for the birth of their child to their actual birth story to what life was like after the baby arrived home. Hearing real, relatable stories enabled me mentally prepare for all the potential scenarios that could happen for me, and helped me get ideas and tidbits I would have not seen otherwise.
The best source for those stories for me was Reddit. I joined sub-Reddits on pregnancy topics, and hearing how real people were preparing for all aspects of pregnancy allowed me to draw inspiration and develop my own plan.
Because I gained so much value in hearing others’ stories, I’m sharing my story with you here.
Now, this is just that — my story.
There will be things I did that you won’t be able to do or that won’t apply to your situation. I encountered this as I read other stories too (especially when I read about women in other countries who get 18 months of paid maternity leave!), but hopefully there will be elements that help calm your butterflies and help you feel more prepared.
🔎Related reading: How creating a mom-friendly company culture benefits your organization
Before I went on parental leave: Creating an environment where I could successfully sign off
First and foremost, I let Bob know I was pregnant once I knew it was a viable pregnancy.
He didn’t bat an eye and was completely supportive and excited for me and my husband.
We had a leadership team retreat out of state when I was 13 weeks, which is when I chose to let that team know. In fact, I was in my hotel room with our VP of Marketing and Sales, Melanie Collins, when I got a call from my doctor on our genetic testing blood work results and found out we were having a girl. She found out before my husband!
I let the rest of the company know a few weeks later shortly before I made an announcement on social media. (We’re a small enough company, so it’s not weird to tell the entire company big news.)
As it became public knowledge, it was much easier to start planning and preparing for my leave.
As ridiculous as it might sound, I treated my due date like a project launch date. I needed to define what end state I needed to leave the company in, and then work backwards to prioritize correctly to execute on that plan.
Based on what our company needed to do by the end of 2020, I drafted up the three biggest things I needed to accomplish for the year coming into my new position.
I then outlined all the things that would prevent me from achieving those things. One of the biggest hurdles was that there was going to be a lot of reliance on me as an approver or holder of information.
That obviously wasn’t going to work when I wasn’t there, so one of my sub-priorities was reducing dependence on me and enabling autonomy in our management team.
This did feel a little weird at first, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got, because when I would return, I could focus more on the business than in it — as in I could have the management team in the day-to-day decisions and I could work on longer-term planning and execution.
Based on everything I had noted and the pace I wanted to see things achieved, I used a Google doc to break down what I needed to do each quarter and then again by month in a simple list format.
To ensure I executed everything on pace, I plotted what I needed to do weekly on my calendar so I had dedicated time each week to knock it out.
As I went through the months leading up to my leave, I documented where I was with open projects in my Google doc about every two weeks so if I were to go out early, the person covering for me could easily see what I was doing and where things left off.
For my overall coverage plan, I defined what success or completion looked like in each area of the business I was accountable for and provided a standard operating procedure so the people covering for me could easily take over.
As it got closer to my due date, I learned I would have to be induced due to the hospital’s COVID-19 policy, so unless my daughter had different plans, I knew exactly when my last day would be.
Determining the communication I wanted for my leave
One last thing I did before leaving was I had a meeting with the three people who were splitting coverage for me to review what I was asking of them and clear up any questions they had.
In that meeting, we also came to an agreement on the amount and type of communication I wanted while I was out.
I asked to basically be left alone unless there was a larger company decision that needed to be made. I can work my whole life, but I knew I couldn’t get back that precious time with my new daughter.
I didn’t want to be sent Slack messages or texts. I was not going to be checking email. I probably was going to poke around our Slack and my email out of curiosity, but I was clear with my peers and Bob that I was on leave and to not count on me to communicate on any of our channels while I was out.
If there was an important internal discussion, I trusted that Bob and my team would know when it felt right to inform me and give me the option to be a part of it.
I also made clear that if they had questions or needed me, my phone still worked and I’d be happy to help out.
This set the boundaries I needed and the right expectations on both sides.
🔎Related reading: How to create a truly inclusive culture
How I created autonomy before I left
I mentioned earlier that I needed to reduce dependency on me in order to take a successful leave.
At the end of 2019, we were having challenges in information being passed to the right people at the right time, which caused unnecessary frustration and confusion, and made us slower in making decisions.
People felt the need to escalate questions and decisions to upper management and didn’t have the autonomy to know what calls they were allowed to make. We weren’t all working toward the same overarching goals and our internal projects overlapped with each other or competed for resources.
At the Leadership Team retreat when I was starting my second trimester, (when I found out I was having a girl), we decided to go all in on adopting the Rockefeller Habits from Scaling Up to fix the problems we were having in the organization.
Based on the framework from the Rockefeller Habits, we prioritized the following changes to the organization at the beginning of the year, which I knew would help me tremendously in being able to go on leave a few months later with the company continuing to successfully work toward our annual goals.
Institute communication rhythms
One of the first things we did was institute a middle management weekly meeting. This bridged the gap between leadership and our frontline employees and educated our middle management on why certain decisions were made because they were part of the decision process.
Over time, we layered on more structured communication like daily stand-ups first with just the management team, and later, the entire company. This enabled leadership and management to be aligned and then managers to bring information or important messages to their teams every day.
By empowering our middle management team, I could go on leave confidently knowing our team understood where the company was at all times, was aligned in what we needed to do, how they individually could help, and that everyone felt connected to their work. I didn’t have to worry that things would fall apart or big miscommunications would happen.
Create cascading company priorities
Toward the end of my second trimester, we included the middle managers in our quarterly planning session to determine our top company priorities and the sub-priorities that would roll up. We utilized a software called Align to track priorities, and our daily huddles for transparency and accountability.
Before I went on leave, I timed the next round of quarterly planning to happen a week before I was to go out.
With that timing, I knew the two months I was out on leave, the entire company knew would be focused on the most important things to do for the company. I didn’t need to be at work to micromanage this.
Clarify job accountabilities
You’ve probably heard the saying, “when more than one person is accountable, no one is.” As we looked into our accountability chart, we were finding we had multiple roles that had too many shared responsibilities.
We built job scorecards for every single employee that documented their key responsibilities, and the desired results and the skills required for the role. This cleared up confusion between roles and required less refereeing from me between departments.
I knew when I was out that everyone knew exactly what to do not only from a company priority perspective but also in their daily responsibilities.
This exercise also empowered others to step up. When they may have felt like they were stepping on toes before, they now knew if they were accountable for something, they could take full ownership in making it happen, whether I was there or not.
In my position, I had to plan for backup in my specific job key responsibilities, and also needed to design an environment for our team to stay focused and move toward our targets. It was not easy, but the last five months leading up to my leave were some of the most rewarding of my career.
Managing my home life
As you can probably tell, I was pretty busy at work throughout my pregnancy. But that didn’t shield me from all the things that come with having a first child.
Fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, I didn’t have a traditional pregnancy experience thanks to having a baby during a global pandemic.
There were no in-person baby showers, no hospital tours, no birthing classes, and no prenatal massages.
There was also no playbook on how to prepare for your first child when you can’t go to any stores or talk to any people in person. That, I had to figure out as I went.
On the bright side, I didn’t have to try to figure out what to wear out when I was nine months pregnant since everyone only ever saw me from the shoulders up on Zoom calls.
Hopefully that’s not something anyone else has to experience as it was isolating and quite frankly, boring. I didn’t get to drink my way through the pandemic like the rest of the world :)
What did make it go more smoothly for me was not compartmentalizing everything I was doing at work and everything I was doing at home. I mentioned earlier that I plotted out work things I needed to do each week on my calendar. I did the same for the baby.
That helped me feel as prepared as I could be. In the end, none of that missed stuff mattered the minute I locked eyes with my daughter for the first time.
What I did while on parental leave: learning a whole new set of skills and sticking to boundaries
For the most part, I did nothing — at least not work!
The first couple weeks, I could not even really think about work. I was learning how to function as a new parent.
I had really bad baby blues for the first 10 days or so. Everything made me cry and then I would worry about all the crying I was doing, which made me cry even more.
I cried happy tears just looking at my daughter, overwhelmed with how much I loved her. I cried sad tears when I was super tired and pouting about it. I cried about breastfeeding and how unprepared I was for how hard it was for us.
After two weeks, my hormone levels evened out. Until then, there was not one work thing running through my mind. I was solely focused on learning how to be a parent.
I am glad I was clear that I wanted to be left alone when setting expectations on the level of communication I wanted so I had the space to do that.
As the weeks went on and my daughter and I had a bit more of a rhythm established, I did find myself checking in, simply out of curiosity.
I’ve worked since I was 15, so not working is a foreign concept to me and, quite frankly, I was a little bored. I could only watch so much daytime TV and if I read, I would have fallen asleep.
It got to a point where I was watching old episodes of My Super Sweet 16 from 2004. I needed to do something mentally stimulating.
So, I chose to review only a couple Slack channels and every Monday, after each team did their weekly huddle, I read through our Align software to see what was going on. It took all of 20 minutes a week, and I felt like I was in the know enough to be comfortable.
I didn’t have to do any of this. It was my choice because I felt if I incrementally stayed in touch, future me returning to work would be grateful — and I was.
What I did to prepare for my return from parental leave: gearing up to enter a whole new work life
There were two things on my mind in preparing to return to work: figuring out how to get back into it as smoothly as possible and figuring out how to feed my child while working.
About two weeks before returning, I had a chat with the person who did the majority of the coverage for me and we set a meeting for the day I returned to do a big debrief.
We caught up, she got to meet my little one, and we briefly touched base on some of what I’d read about in Align over the summer.
With that first day back meeting lined up, I then focused on preparing everything on the baby side.
I have the benefit of my retired parents living close by. I wasn’t comfortable putting my daughter in daycare with the COVID-19 numbers Houston was having at the time, so my parents were lined up to come over each day and watch her while I worked. In the couple weeks leading to my return, they started coming over more often to get used to it and for my daughter to get used to them.
I ordered a ton of breastfeeding-friendly clothing, pumping supplies, and anything that could help make sure I could maintain breastfeeding while at work (spoiler alert: I lasted three weeks before moving 100% to formula).
🔎Related reading: Gender equality in the workplace starts with company culture
When I did when I returned from parental leave: managing new responsibilities with old
Despite all the prep work I did and the creeping I did over the summer, I was still a little lost on some of our bigger initiatives when I returned.
I was also trying to work around a feeding and pumping schedule, work through infant screams, and through a lack of sleep.
I was feeling guilty for not being the one to take care of my baby, relief that I was getting a break from taking care of her, guilty for feeling that relief, excitement to talk to adults again, annoyance in keeping up with a pumping schedule and so many other emotions.
What saved me was not getting piled on as soon as I got back. I had about two weeks to observe what was going on and where things were at so I could figure out where I needed to focus my time.
I use Evernote religiously, and I created a running document to list things I heard randomly in meetings that I had questions about, observations I had and ideas for our next company priorities based on what I was seeing.
While I fully expected to feel emotional, tired, and excited when I went back to work, I did not expect how much of an advantage of not being there would be.
I’m obviously deeply familiar with our company and what it’s trying to do, but I took the ultimate step out of the business. When I returned, I had an almost objective view of what was working, what didn’t seem to be working, and where to focus next. This was a neat feeling and an added advantage I had not anticipated.
About three weeks into my return, I made a personal decision to stop breastfeeding. I was having a hard time remembering to pump and didn’t want to spend time at a pump machine instead of holding my daughter after work just to keep up supply.
Write your own story
It took me about two months to fully feel “back to normal.”
I’m not my old self and never will be again. On one hand, I can’t just power through the day and work long hours like I used to, but on the other, I have a whole different perspective and level of empathy that I bring to the table that serves our company for the better.
Although I’m writing this as a reflection of what I did, I still have a lot to learn on balancing being a parent and being an ambitious professional.
I also recognize that my experience will be very different than yours. Just as any birth story is unique to the mother, so is their journey before and after it.
My hope is my story can help you write your own as you research how to prepare for a new addition to your family.
Some universal elements of my story that I hope you can apply to yours:
- Figure out a communication strategy you’re comfortable with. You do not have to share the news too early, but you do need to give yourself enough time to prepare with your team, so decide what makes sense for you and what is required by your company’s policy.
- Define what needs to be true for you (and your company/co-workers) to be comfortable to leave work for an extended period of time.
- Based on that list, work backwards to determine what you can affect to make those changes happen.
- Before you leave, agree on boundaries regarding what communication or level of involvement you will have and how you will come back to work without being overwhelmed.
- As stress arises, remember to focus on what’s most important — having a healthy, successful pregnancy experience and cherishing the experience of bringing a life into the world. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
- As you’re out, do what’s comfortable for you based on what agreement you have with your workplace. You could be totally checked out or do a hybrid approach like I did.
- As you return, keep a running list of questions and observations that you can talk through with your team or supervisor to get back up to speed faster.
- Lastly, accept that you will be a different person. Whether it’s your first child or third, there will be a new dynamic in your life that you have to learn to balance.
Wondering where to begin?