The two ends of the spectrum on maternity leave are what I like to call "full blackout" (whereby you’re completely offline and unreachable except in case of true, dire emergency) and staying 100% online (plugged in to your office via the various devices you rely on).
As for the plugged-in approach: One woman told me matter-of-factly that she worked during her entire maternity leave(s), albeit remotely. "I wanted to stay on top of the projects I cared about," she said. She was also reluctant to completely turn over her work to junior team members because she wanted to be able to seamlessly ramp up again—even though her company and managers would have been fine with her disengaging for a few months. She never even put up an out-of-office message.
The truth, though, is that for the majority of high-achieving, career-oriented women, maternity leave falls somewhere in between these two extremes. A partner in a venture capital firm had a "partial blackout" plan, which gave her six weeks of uninterrupted, unplugged time with the baby, and then six more weeks in which she was partially engaged, participating in weekly conference calls and keeping up with email. Unfortunately, just two weeks postpartum, one of her portfolio companies hit upon a true, dire emergency—so she held a board meeting in her kitchen while her mother took care of the baby upstairs. Ever focused, she kept it to two hours to fit between breast-feeding sessions.
Many women opted for the partial-engagement side of her plan. Given that the idea of coming back to thousands of unread email messages can be panic-inducing, many occasionally logged on to delete or archive the things that didn’t require their response. Others did scheduled check-ins, or in some cases stopped by the office.
With my second child, when we were a year and a half into running weeSpring, it simply wasn’t an option for me to disengage. I offloaded as much as I could, and then I put up a vague out-of-office message saying I was offline because I’d just had a baby. I was unspecific about a return date, and I directed any urgent questions to my cofounder. The truth, though, was that I checked email regularly, at least a couple of times a day, even in the very beginning. But that out-of-office reply gave me cover on the nonessential emails, allowing me to simply ignore them without being rude.
Be sure to manage expectations—both those of your colleagues and your own. The first months after having a baby are "a tiring time for your brain," as one woman described. "Most likely, there are better solutions for your coworkers than having to depend on an underslept new mother, whether it’s an emergency or not."
If you quarterback your duties and projects thoroughly during your pregnancy, you can pull off a "real" maternity leave without even needing an out-of-office auto response.
Early on in her pregnancy, Sara Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs, introduced her clients and contacts to the person who’d be taking the reins while she was out, so they had plenty of time to build the relationship. Her team kept a running Google Doc of what was going on so she could stay apprised (on her own schedule), and in their emails to her they utilized subject-line hashtags like #FWYAB (for when you are back) and #IMPT. She could review her email from home without delving into the rabbit hole of things that weren’t urgent, and simply forwarded unanticipated external emails for a colleague to reply to on her behalf.
A couple of savvy women tracked and were compensated for the time they spent working in the months they were technically out on leave. A partner at a global communications firm used the billable hours she logged during her leave to take Fridays off after she returned to work full time. Laura Walsh Boone, an attorney in West Virginia, said, "I think a lot of employers would be willing to do this if women just knew to ask." And one woman who didn’t get paid leave negotiated a consulting deal for the time she was out of the office.
Margo Buchanan leads alternative energy investments for a private company. Since no one else there could shoulder all her responsibilities, her company designated someone to take on her responsibilities under the guidance of Margo’s roughly five-hours-a-week coaching. She loved it: "I wound up managing my old job, but from a higher level. I was happy to take those calls and have a chance to think about something other than nappies or sleep."
And she structured the deal smartly; the first five hours were at a very high hourly rate, because she wanted them to think twice about calling her—and if she was going to take time away from the baby, she needed to be well compensated for it. That rate dropped as she accrued more hours over the week, which kept her from pricing herself out of her job as she progressed further along in her leave.
But full blackout is doable for some. Fran Hauser unplugged completely during her first maternity leave. Prior to leaving she reviewed every major project, assigning it to someone on her team and defining what success looked like. She invested upfront in preparing her direct reports for her absence, and also put together "a massive spreadsheet" for her boss so he’d know who was handling what. Everyone knew how to reach her while she was gone, but no one needed to.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Fran adopted her children, so she didn’t even know that she might be leaving until six weeks prior to her departure. "When you’re pregnant, you have 10 months to plan. When you’re adopting, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a very vulnerable and tenuous situation." Reluctant to share any news before it looked like the adoption was rock solid (or as rock solid as adoption can be), she waited until two weeks before the birth mother’s due date to tell her colleagues.
But in the weeks prior to that announcement, she was quietly getting organized, reflecting on the major things that would happen while she was gone. "I wanted to set everyone up for success," she told me, so she developed spreadsheets with clear deliverables and goals. With all of those lists and outlines ready before her announcement, when she shared her news, she used her time together with the group to ask them to pull together their own assessments of what was critical. Then, when she met individually with her direct reports, she used her notes to add to what they had prepared. Ultimately, everyone was left with a clear sense of what their three-month goals were.
In her meeting with her boss, she handed over a document that listed each major initiative (like a product launch or companies they were looking to acquire), along with the person who would own that initiative in her absence. She was also open and transparent about her concerns, calling his attention to the two or three areas in which she thought he might need to get involved; she credits some of her success to being candid about these trouble spots.
Her best advice applies to most women planning leave: "The more you can put down on paper for your boss and your direct reports, the more likely you’ll be able to disconnect."
Excerpted from Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood, by Allyson Downey. Published by Seal Press, members of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016
Allyson Downey is the founder of weeSpring, called "Yelp for baby products" by InStyle and CNBC.