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Exactly how to prepare for your first maternity leave

Whether you’re carrying the babe or someone on your team is, here’s some advice for how to navigate your first maternity leave from the office.

Exactly how to prepare for your first maternity leave
[Photo: Kyryl Gorlov/iStock]

Exciting news, you’re pregnant. Or, perhaps someone else on your team is and you’d like to support them in this transition into parenthood. Whether you’re carrying the babe or someone on your team is, here’s some advice for how to navigate your first maternity leave from the office.

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Have a solid communications plan—and start with your boss

As with any major job change, you’ll want to have a plan in place for how and when you’ll communicate your good news. As tempting as it can be to tell your best work buds on the team first, start with your manager. Together, you two can come up with a plan of action to share the news with the rest of your team as appropriate. He or she may have reason to ask you to speed up or slow down sharing with the team (for instance, another teammate on the team is also pregnant and you’re being asked to share the news together, or there have been a spate of departures on the team your manager would like your news to help counterbalance). Your manager can also help jog your memory on cross-functional teammates you might want to loop in.

Share it like the good news it is

Sharing you are pregnant can be a nerve-wracking thing. How will people take it? Will they be happy? Will I get dinged for this? Though it’s an intimate and sometimes scary thing to share, share it with your best foot forward knowing that what you say influences how people respond to you. Saying, “I’m pregnant, but don’t worry I am going to see all my work through” might seem reassuring, but it can actually plant a seed of doubt that you might not see all your work through. Instead, share with enthusiasm, and keep it professional and focused. For instance: “I wanted to share the good news with you that I’m expecting a baby. My partner and I are very excited. I’m looking forward to partnering with you on the best transition plan for the team.”

Choose the timing of your announcement

When you communicate your pregnancy is entirely up to you and specific to how you’re feeling, how early you start showing, and what your relationships at work are like. In my case, I shared the news with my manager at around 14 weeks, but other coworkers I know shared as early as six weeks. The difference? They had morning sickness, and I didn’t. They were also closer socially with their manager than I was with mine, and they started to show earlier.

If you are up for a promotion, you might wait until that has gone through before sharing the news if you can. Though it hasn’t happened to me personally, I’ve heard enough horror stories to know that sadly, revealing a pregnancy during or leading up to a performance review cycle can have negative effects on your review and promotion prospects. Assess the situation based on your workplace environment, individual manager, and history of promotions and positive reviews for those pregnant before you.

Don’t wait too long to share the news

The longer you wait, the more likely it is that you will lose control of your message. Hearing a coworker exclaim “I knew it!” might feel good to them, but as the pregnant person in question, it may not feel good to you to know that your peers, friends, or colleagues have been cranking away at the rumor mill about you.

Once you tell one person, move quickly to tell the rest

I had a plan all laid out. It started with my boss, then my peers, then my direct reports, and eventually to my cross-functional colleagues. At each stage, I asked that people keep the news mum until I had a chance to share the news more broadly. Most people honored that, but not everyone did. I still remember the horror of being in a 20-person meeting and having a colleague—someone I barely worked with—reveal that she knew I was pregnant and share that news with the entire room. Not only had I not planned to share the news with that group yet, but I certainly hadn’t planned to share it in that way. It was the worst I felt during the time leading up to maternity leave, and I had to do a lot of damage control after that to reassure my colleagues that I had indeed planned to tell them the news and did indeed have a coverage plan.

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Put together your coverage plan

In order to create a comprehensive coverage plan, you’ll want to make note of all the responsibilities that might need coverage. To do this, jot down all the work you consider part of your role’s responsibilities day-to-day and week-to-week. Take a look at your work calendar to jog your memory if you’re feeling stuck. Your list could look something like: Project A (to be completed in March), Project B (to be completed in April), Relationship management with stakeholders A, B, C on an ongoing basis, Performance management with team members X, Y, Z on an ongoing basis, etc.

For each of those, clarify your role in the project. Are you leading and running it from the ground up? That’s going to take a lot more coverage than if you are operating in a more consultative fashion and providing an expert opinion from time to time. Also, note the responsibilities involved. This will make it much easier to tackle the next step—assessing who could take this work on in your absence.

Lastly, prioritize. Most of us have more on our plates than we can handle at any given time. Which of these projects do you enjoy but perhaps not *need* to have someone see through because they are lower priority?

Assess who could cover you

At this stage, you’re guesstimating, not signing anyone up to provide coverage for you. Brainstorm a list of people who could provide coverage while you’re out, and get creative. Maybe there is one person who could cover everything for you, or maybe your work is better covered if distributed among the team.

Discuss with your manager

Share your coverage plan with your manager, and discuss it as a team. Together, you can align on which responsibilities will be covered, which will be dropped, and which will need to be completed before you depart. Your manager can also help you navigate conversations with those who may be taking on your work in the future, or manage these conversations directly.

Transfer all the knowledge in your head to those around you

Make a list of major projects or processes that you currently own, and link to relevant documentation from a single document. This process can also help you identify where you might need documentation that doesn’t exist yet.

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Another way of doing this is to have informal chats with those you will be handing work over to. Depending on your company culture, this may be more or less preferable than having details documented. Though I’m a firm believer in documentation myself, if you work in an environment where no one reads documents and everyone keeps their knowledge in their personal brain base, a 1:1 conversation may suffice. Go with what works best for your team given what you know about the company culture.

Take care of admin and HR details

If you’re a manager, make sure you officially transfer your team over to the interim manager through your HR team, so the interim manager can access things like performance reviews. Or, if you are responsible for approving documents in an automated workflow (think: pay stubs and the like), make sure you assign a different approver in the system before you depart. This will prevent your inbox from overloading with automated work messages and ensure your team isn’t blocked in your absence.

Familiarize yourself with your benefits

In addition to preparing others for your leave, you’ll want to prepare yourself, too. Make sure you understand your maternity leave benefits before you leave. Start having conversations now about what’s included and what’s recommended. Talk to your HR partner and your leave specialist, and also seek advice from those who’ve been there before.

You’ll also want to make sure you know who your point of contact for things like pay (assuming that’s covered) a return-to-work date, or any other detail in your maternity leave policy.

Think about how you want to spend your time off, and communicate your preferences

Some new moms still like to be looped in to major team changes while they are out. Some want to unplug completely. Think about what will work best for you and your family while you are on leave, and then be clear about your preferences. For me, I know that if I hear about a team change or hiring update, I will spin on it longer than I should. Others find it much easier to compartmentalize and even enjoy work updates while they are on leave. Only you can know what is best for you, your family, and your team. Communicate your preferences to your manager, and make sure you’re aligned on when they should plan to contact you and when they should fly solo while you’re on leave.

Slow down, and prepare yourself for departure

If you’ve been prepping for your transition, the closer to your leave date you get, the less you should have to do. I knew I had appropriately delegated my responsibilities when during my final week before my leave, I wasn’t generating new work or projects or frantically wrapping things up. Instead, I was providing final counsel, reassurance, and comfort to those I knew had all the tools and information they needed to carry on just fine without me.

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As your leave approaches, slow down, do less, and delegate more. Your body will thank you for it, and your brain, too. Making a human is a lot of work. Appreciate that your team is capable and that you’ve done everything you could to prepare them for this transition. And now, it’s time to prepare for your next transition: becoming a parent.

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About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and HuffPost. She currently manages a team of researchers at Pinterest, in addition to leading a company-wide mentorship program

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