A pregnant pause: what I learnt taking maternity leave

May 10, 2022

Eleanor Miller
Investor Development Group

No-one anticipates going into finance for an easy life (and if they do, perhaps they need to brush up on their research). We all know about the long hours, demanding projects and pressure that can, at times, feel relentless. I am writing this close to midnight, having paused work at 5pm, put our daughter to bed at 7pm, before returning to my laptop and completing my regular evening stint. I am most certainly not complaining. I love my job and enjoy the rewards.

This has been a big year for me, professionally and personally. Professional highlights including working on the biggest fundraise of my career and feeling like everything had clicked into place. I felt confident, I knew what I was doing and work challenged and excited me. I was in a role that was a culmination of over a decade of professional experience. It was at this time we found out we were expecting Evelyn, our wonderful first child. I felt very fortunate to be in a position where I both had a job I loved and was expecting our much-wanted baby. That said, I couldn’t help but feel the timing was less than perfect – I was pregnant at exactly the time I was hitting my stride professionally. Biology and career opportunities are not always aligned and so I started my personal voyage of discovery.

Pregnancy was uncharted territory. I found myself searching the internet late at night for tips on taking the perfect maternity leave. The search results for “maternity leave” and “Private Equity” weren’t particularly encouraging, nor was there a great deal of positive anecdotal evidence within my circles to reassure me. I realised quite quickly that preparing for maternity leave was going to represent my biggest ever exercise in trial and error. Here’s a whistle stop tour of what I learnt, which I’m sharing in the hope it helps others, either to frame their own maternity leave or to understand and support those who are taking it.

  1. Invest in a maternity career coach. 

Some organisations like the one I work for offer maternity career coaching. If your organisation isn’t as supportive, consider paying for it yourself.

Maternity career coaching has been a career defining opportunity for me. My workplace offered 12 hours to be taken at any point during pregnancy, maternity leave or upon returning to work. I was initially dubious, unsure I’d have enough content to fill those hours. I was wrong, utterly wrong, and the reality is that 12 hours is not nearly enough time. The sessions have been a game changer and have given me the space and tools to help clarify my thoughts and shape my ambitions, ultimately empowering me to advocate better for myself. By having the big conversations about my future in the context of maternity leave, I’ve been able to articulate my career needs better.

The coach you work with makes a huge difference and I had chemistry tests with a few before knowing that I’d found the one, Audrey Wiggin (https://www.audreywiggin.com). Put simply, Audrey is spectacular at what she does, providing a perfect balance of support and challenge and I trust her deeply. Naturally, the immediate focus is on the big return to work, post-maternity leave. However, thanks to Audrey we have looked wider and deeper at my professional development.

It may be a surprise to some readers that my line manager attended one of the sessions. Audrey facilitated the meeting which gave me the chance to raise important questions, some of which I’d previously been too cautious to ask. These included promotion, how I’d integrate back into my role after returning from leave and so on. Having Audrey in the room not only gave me confidence, but also saw Audrey act as my advocate as she subtly and professionally summarised discussions and reframed questions.

I’m not footing the bill for coaching this time but it’s something I’d invest in, particularly for a future maternity leave or when anticipating any period of significant change. The coaching has given me the opportunity to take stock of where I am right now and the space and confidence to consider where I’d like to go next.

  1. Have the courage to discuss promotion

I have a brilliant mentor at work with whom I shared my news early and gladly received her wise counsel. One such piece was how I needed to have the big conversations now. And she wasn’t wrong.

In an ideal world, I would have taken a maternity leave when I was more senior, but biological clocks and career development systems can often seem to exist in separate universes with different timetables, rules and values. I started having conversations prior to being pregnant about promotion. I announced my pregnancy and these conversations continued. I was clear with my manager how important promotion was to me and we had frank conversations about what I needed to achieve. Audrey helped me see the value in maintaining a regular dialogue with my manager during maternity leave. We spoke every six weeks and my promotion arose as a regular topic of discussion. I returned to the business in early 2022, the annual promotion cycle was announced a month later and my name was on the roll.

Before heading on leave, I delivered some excellent handovers and said my individual goodbyes to key stakeholders, explaining I was going for promotion and would appreciate their support. This kind of explicit and opportunistic career signalling isn’t something I’d done before and I had to dig deep to do it but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  1. Harness your network and continue to grow it

We have a Female Network at work, which hosts regular events and showcases female talent from across the organisation. This network doesn’t feel token or that it exists to serve the firm’s agenda rather than the needs of the individuals within it. Each year there is a session to celebrate female promotees. The committee’s chair has the mantra that ‘promotions are earned and not given’ and the annual session explores the experiences of female colleagues through this lens, focusing on personal stories. A colleague at the 2021 iteration shared her experiences of navigating both promotion and maternity leave. I clocked this and subsequently reached out to her to learn more, asking pertinent questions that elicited candid responses, responses that might not have been shared openly on a company-wide stage. These were the insights I used on my own journey and I am truly grateful to the colleague who shared them. A year later I spoke at the same session and offered to pay forward the favour to anyone listening who wanted to speak in more detail.

How much contact you have while on leave is your choice. I wanted to know exactly what was going on but I recognise this won’t be for everyone. A close colleague offered to send me periodic messages with work updates. I readily accepted as I wanted to know what was unfolding in my absence so that I could pre-empt how such news might bear on my role and my relationships. I felt at peace in the knowledge that, thanks to my colleague, the big news would make it to me. Hearing news about work on these terms made me feel included. It also meant that I didn’t obsess over checking hundreds of emails because I didn’t need to.

There was something broader at play here which was my fear of being forgotten. If someone is out of sight, it is easy to overlook them and I worried that years of hard work would be forgotten in mere months. It was a source of comfort to know there were people in the business who were thinking of me. The colleague who sent me work updates was one such person. And there were others including champions, friends and allies, all of whom had a positive impact on how I felt about my position in the business while I was on leave. Before heading on leave and with a carefully selected group, I shared my aspirations and fears, a level of transparency I’ve previously shied away from in a professional context. By doing this, I entrusted my feelings to others and gave them an opportunity, and perhaps responsibility, to safeguard them.

  1. Strategically plan how you’ll deliver value before going on leave 

I worked hard in the knowledge that my performance in a reduced timeframe before I went on leave would be judged against others who had an entire year to add value. I set my objectives thoughtfully, thinking creatively about how I could maximise the value I’d add in a reduced time window. I got buy-in on my goals to ensure key stakeholders felt everything essential was covered. Being thorough in my planning gave me the space I needed to enjoy maternity leave knowing I’d done as much as I could while I was in the business. Setting strategic goals also gave me a roadmap to work towards going on leave. Although deviations occurred, as they so often do, my plan’s structure meant I could cope with any changes to its content, even in the final few weeks of pregnancy.

  1. Prepare yourself for the existential questions and give yourself space to think through them

Maternity leave has thrown up the big questions, more than I ever expected. I thought I’d have a baby and return to work pretty much as I was. This hasn’t been the case and I realised quickly that I needed to continue to love my job, as any time invested in it was time not spent with my baby. This is a hugely powerful motivator. I’ve heard people refer to working parents as superheroes and, perhaps more importantly, as excellent hires. You’re getting someone who can prioritise, operate on little sleep and an employee who is making an active choice (this is perhaps subjective depending on circumstance) to be at their desk, performing in their role and away from their child. In the early days of having returned to work whilst still getting to grips with the reality of our childcare, it was challenging. I felt like I was trying to keep everything moving in the right direction simultaneously. Coming through the other side, I now know that if you can do this, you really can do anything.

I hope my reflections are of some benefit to the next people to follow this path. Pregnancy and taking parental leave are not uncommon and the more we share our experiences, the easier it becomes for others.

I’ll sign off by saying that the past year has been far and away the trickiest in my life to date – but it has also been the best.

Good luck!