Two weeks before my second baby arrived, my company's CEO, Marco, asked me how I was feeling. I answered him truthfully: I was petrified. Not about the baby—I already had one of those and was confident that part would be easy. (I was so wrong, but that's another story.)
What I was scared of was being away from work, and the possibility of coming back to find that my team didn’t need me as much as I thought they did. Marco reassured me that wouldn't happen, but the fear was real.
So I took a different approach to maternity leave than I had the first time I became a parent. Here's how, and what the experience taught me.
Instead of taking off fully for a set amount of time and then returning to the office at full capacity, I took two months off at the beginning, then parceled out the remaining two months allotted to me over the rest of the year. I was fortunate to be able to strike this arrangement—many working parents aren't so lucky—but it ended up working surprisingly well for me, not just as a parent but as a professional.
Since I had a toddler at home with an established routine, it was actually somewhat disruptive for me to be at home the whole time. I was also in a different role at a different company than I had been when I had my first child, and I felt more anxious that I was missing out on a lot at work I cared about.
Spacing out the remainder of my maternity leave allowed me to strike a balance between what my family wanted and needed, and what was possible for my team back in the office. It also allowed me to ease back in at a pace that felt right for me. And best of all, it taught me some new habits that continue to help me step away from my work when I need to.
I now have a chubby, sweet baby who snuggles constantly. And I also have a team performing at the top of their game. My being out on leave was a challenge for everyone, but there have been some incredible, durable benefits that I didn’t see coming—and that have made all of us better.
Before taking leave, I had weekly meetings with my marketing sub-teams to give input on their work. While I was out, those fell off the calendar and nobody asked to reinstate them. It turned out, though, that my teams were great at managing their daily work, and my input at that level simply wasn’t critical.
What was critical was having more time for my team members when something really important or difficult came up. In my role, creating a cohesive brand experience is a top objective. And while I'd long believed in its importance, I simply hadn’t made time to drive it forward.
It wasn't until I came back after the initial two months of maternity leave that I saw the issues with our brand experience through fresh eyes. My brand and design teams banded together, and we're now on a clear path to get our brand where we need it to be. And since this process started to take shape while I was still using the remaining balance of my maternity leave, there were still times when I wasn't available—which meant using the time I was on hand to much greater impact.
Going back to work after baby No. 2 was more complicated than I'd expected, and finding the right balance felt elusive at first. One week, my baby would sleep well and I could be productive at work—and maybe even find time to exercise. The next, both kids were sick, nobody was sleeping, and fires were igniting on all sides at work.
I found that being tuned in to my own needs was essential for finding success both at home and in the office—and the flexibility of my approach to maternity leave helped keep me focused on those. When I was working late and missed my kids, I cleared time for them to visit me. And when I was completely exhausted, my husband and I would take turns sleeping in so we could both catch up.
I found that little adjustments day-to-day prevented the need for making big adjustments, and the freedom to actually make those tweaks took my commitment to the company to a new level. Other employers have a long way to go simply in terms of offering adequate leave policies to the parents they employ, but they should allow their staff the trust and flexibility I was given. It can actually help keep them grounded during a stressful period and committed to the company long afterward.
That love for my job has been the ultimate motivator for me, and it’s something that I desperately want everyone on my team to experience themselves. What I didn’t realize was how much making small adjustments to my schedule in order to meet personal needs could add up to a whole lot of love for my job.
So I've embraced this approach even for non-parents who report to me. Today, I have one team member on sabbatical to work on Hillary Clinton's campaign and another testing out a part-time schedule simply to spend more time with her family. Both are still contributing greatly to the business, both in their daily work and also by spreading the word about our incredible work culture.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, it turns out that my team did need me, just in new and different ways than I had imagined. Being out and then coming back—even in a much different way than I'd done it before—helped me see what they needed, and forced me to find creative ways to deliver.
Nikki Pechet is VP of marketing at Thumbtack, a local-services marketplace that connects customers with skilled professionals. Before Thumbtack, she was a principal at Bain & Company, leading growth strategy for consumer and retail companies.