Maternity Leave – Career Breaker or Career Maker?


With an increased focus on the Gender Pay Gap and Shared Parental Leave, I feel there’s no better time than the present to change the conversation around parental leave. Currently, it is very much perceived as a gap on the CV. In this article I challenge that notion and encourage both employers and parents taking leave to view it as an opportunity; a highlight on the CV rather than a threat or disappointment. As a Business Psychologist, I was interested to explore the psychological and cognitive processes that can characterise this period of leave, what neuroscience tells us about brain changes during pregnancy and how societal beliefs can influence performance and behaviour. Whether you’re an employer or a working parent, I hope you will find this article insightful and thought provoking. What I really hope for is a change in attitude and behaviour when dealing with employees about to take, or returning from a period of parental leave. With this in mind, I will also suggest some practical solutions that might support employers to leverage the ‘graveyard’ of talent that exists among parents (particularly mothers) who have taken a period of leave from their careers.

How often have you spoken with a hiring manager who has emphasised the value of ‘life experience’ when it comes to selecting good candidates? The maturity, open-mindedness and resilience that comes with having travelled, worked for a charity or accomplished a challenge of some sort is often seen as a valuable asset. Yet, when a worker needs to go on parental leave, the learning opportunities and value offered by this experience are likely to be completely overlooked. If anything, having a baby is not even acknowledged as ‘life experience’ and simply viewed as ‘time out’ or ‘dropping out of the race’.

I have to admit that when I was single, in my twenties and climbing the ‘career ladder’, I was somewhat guilty of this attitude even though I am female. Call it a stereotype, an unconscious bias if you will. It was also a general attitude that was present within the culture of my workplace. I sometimes felt resentment at the parents walking out of the door at 4pm to pick up their children and I imagined them with their feet up having a cup of tea at home while I was working late believing I was picking up the slack. Little did I know what most of these parents were really experiencing; a mad dash to nursery and/or school to pick children up before closing, dealing with hungry, tired, attention-starved children who just won’t eat or go to sleep resulting in little to no personal down-time in an evening, often followed by a short stint back on the laptop to reply to emails and finish off loose ends from the work day.

Most people would agree that having a baby is one of the biggest life transitions that a human being will face during their time alive. A major life experience such as this inevitably shapes and develops an individual and can change their whole perspective on life; impacting their values, personal style, cognitions and their behaviour. Not only have we ignored these changes in a practical sense when it comes to managing parents returning to work but there is scant research in this field. It seems remarkable when you think about it, that the experience of becoming a parent is dismissed so readily in the world of work when clearly there are significant social, biological and psychological changes that take place. How does this impact a person’s performance, engagement and productivity? What does this mean for their potential at work? We wrongly assume it is all negative.

A woman’s perspective

It’s interesting to explore what usually happens when a working woman discovers that she is expecting. She may find herself in the awkward predicament of debating when to tell her manager and team members; should she wait until the three month mark? Perhaps wait a bit longer so she doesn’t miss out on an important opportunity at work? She may be scrambling around trying to find clothes that hide her baby bump, secretly binge-eating and sucking up the symptoms of morning sickness all day (I don’t know why it’s called morning sickness, most people I know experienced it all times of day). There is a definite stigma and preference to avoid telling anyone until absolutely necessary. Many, including the female employees themselves, refer to their maternity leave as having ‘a year off’ during which there is little or no expectation to use their brain. How often have you heard the term ‘baby brain’ been used in reference to a pregnant employee? It is commonly expected that a woman going on maternity leave will experience a decline in cognitive functioning, but how accurate is this belief?

More recent research leads us to suggest that the concept of ‘baby brain’ is a myth and that a woman’s intellect doesn’t suffer after having a baby. It is suggested that reported incidents of forgetfulness and loss of cognitive function may simply be down to sleep deprivation as well as social priming and subsequent self-limiting beliefs. Any individual who has been told that they lack the ability to think and perform effectively is likely to demonstrate impaired cognitive functioning (refer to the famous ‘Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes’ experiment by Jane Elliot in the 70’s). Neuroscientific research tells us that the woman’s brain goes through significant changes during pregnancy to adapt and deal with the new life challenge of having a baby. While it is true that a woman’s gray matter within the brain shrinks during the later stages of pregnancy, this doesn’t necessarily equate to declined performance. Some scientists have suggested that this is a process of pruning that the brain undertakes in order to operate more efficiently and similar changes have been observed in the brains of adolescents, for example. This research supports that a woman is better able to strategise, make decisions, empathise (particularly negative emotions), act boldly and manage stress following pregnancy and this is exactly my point. Wouldn’t it be great to harness this potential rather than ignore it? Refer to this video of a woman saving a man from jumping onto train tracks; I’m assuming she is a mother of a young child because of the pram. I can’t help but wonder whether her sharp instincts to this emotional situation and swift, bold and brave actions were a result of the neurological enhancements identified in the above research? The improvements in cognitive functioning outlined by the research highlights traits that are highly valued in senior executive roles, yet often women end up taking a step down and scaling back their careers after having a baby. In my experience this has largely been down to the requirement for flexibility in hours; no wonder there is disengagement.

In an ideal world, a woman would feel comfortable enough to talk openly to her employer about her plans to have a baby so that both sides can take appropriate steps to manage the transition, to leverage the benefits and meet demands both at work and at home. Many industries can and do support flexible, part-time working including medical workers who manage to hand over patient responsibility to the next shift worker by following procedures and protocol. If it can be achieved in this ‘life or death’ scenario, I’m left wondering why it is a less viable option for a large number of corporate organisations. Winners of the Timewise Power Part-Timers Award demonstrate that it is absolutely possible to achieve great outcomes whilst working part-time and I applaud these professionals and the employers who supported them in these achievements.

If an organisation has the building blocks of collaborative teams and developmental support combined with succession and talent pipelines then a ‘gap’ in a role could be a wonderful opportunity for teams and organisations rather than a threat. People are always looking to expand and develop in their careers and if there’s no movement in roles, there are no opportunities for growth. I would argue that a period of parental leave is not that different to taking a sabbatical; quite often the answer to reinvigorate a valued employee. There is research to suggest that sabbaticals are a great way to facilitate innovation, growth and accountability. Going on parental leave could certainly offer a similar experience.

The experience of parental leave

When someone announces they are taking a year off work, in many cases they may as well as announce that they have resigned. A year is a long time in the world of work and rarely do organisations invest effort into maintaining a connection with the worker on parental leave. For many organisations, efforts may extend to something quite informal such as an invitation to morning tea. Perhaps this is residual of our old society where women did entirely drop out of the workforce once they had children but also reflective of the fact that there is a problem re-engaging women into the workplace and people don’t expect the person on leave to return. While there will always be a spectrum in terms of how prepared a woman is to return to work whilst raising a family, at the moment it feels like ‘all or nothing’. Most of the time the options are that you either return 4-5 days per week or you take a career break. Finding a ‘middle ground’ is increasingly rare.

An engaged, career focused employee on maternity leave is very likely to maintain her professional identity and consider herself a part of the team or organisation she is working for even though she may be forming a new identity as a parent alongside this. In contrast to her colleagues, her time spent away may feel as though it has been very brief. Whilst her colleagues may have experienced change gradually, the returning employee experiences this very suddenly. Landscapes and people have shifted, things are done differently, work has evolved and advanced. There may be both expected and unexpected changes including role specifics, connections within the team and other people’s perceptions of her. Whether it is real or not, there is a strong sense of feeling judged for being a ‘part-timer’ and for needing flexible hours in order to continue doing her job. The terms ‘Mother’, and even ‘Stay-at-home-Dad’ are often viewed as the antithesis to ‘Professional’ and this can have detrimental effects on the confidence and self-esteem of the returning worker. Since self-esteem and self-efficacy are important ingredients for success, is it any wonder that a person’s career prospects decline following a period of parental leave? The whole experience can make the returning worker feel quite ‘alien’ and displaced if not managed carefully and this can quickly lead to disengagement.

A personal case study

As a career-minded individual with a background in psychology, I have outlined below some examples of developmental changes that I experienced (some more than others) after becoming a parent. This is certainly not all encompassing and may vary for different people, but I wanted to open people’s eyes to the opportunities for growth in taking parental leave and becoming a parent. In the language of business psychology, if I were to map the development areas onto a competency framework it might include the following competencies; Strategic Thinking, Resilience, Managing Change and Unpredictability, Coaching and Training, Teamwork and Time Management.

Key learning no.1 - Strategic Thinking

Although taking maternity leave is by no definition ‘a holiday’, taking a break from your usual activity can have many advantages. Apart from the obvious benefits of feeling reinvigorated after a break, one of the best things offered by time out from any situation is ‘perspective’. During the parental leave, I began to consolidate what I had learned in the past and upon my return, naturally focused on the bigger picture rather than ‘sweating the small stuff’. Personally I found I was able to understand myself better and it became much easier to appreciate my shortcomings and identify better approaches; it’s almost as if the ‘penny dropped’. I would describe the experience as quite similar to having consolidated learning or solved a problem by sleeping on it. Referring back to what neuroscience tells us about changes in the brain after having a baby, a woman’s brain adapts so that it is less responsive to stress, more empathetic and better able to make decisions and judgements. If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it’s all about survival of the human race; these changes have got to enhance rather than hinder performance. Research also supports that diverse experiences support creative thinking therefore, having the experience of focussing on something completely different for a while, that challenged me in different ways helped me to adopt a new perspective. The change in context helped me to recognise more readily which aspects of my style were down to my individual make up and which were a result of my environment. This type of experience can put any individual in the perfect position to take a leap forward career-wise and may be one potential reason why many women choose to change career direction after starting a family.

Key learning no. 2 - Resilience

They say that nothing can prepare you for having a baby and that the first year of a baby’s life is the most challenging for the parents. It’s a phrase that you probably won’t truly appreciate until you have been there and perhaps you could liken it to completing some kind of physical and mental challenge, such as climbing Everest, whereupon your ability to continue on and strive forward is vital for basic survival. It requires emotional resilience as well as physical resilience. Made even more challenging as all layers of your rational self can get stripped away through the haze of sleep deprivation and the stress of trying to keep a baby alive and happy. The adversity can either make you or break you. As the saying goes; ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’. Surviving the first year of parenthood offers the same if not a greater sense of achievement than climbing Everest in my opinion. You learn what resources you can draw upon when you’re hit rock bottom and how to persevere in the face of challenges. You also suddenly realise that working long hours in the office is nothing compared to the ‘full-time’ role of parenting – no matter how busy you are at work, at least you can close the curtains and get an uninterrupted period of sleep when you’re done which is near impossible with a baby (!)

Key learning no.3 – Managing Change and Unpredictability

There is some debate as to whether babies need routine or flexibility in order to thrive. Whilst there are typical patterns that babies follow in terms of sleep and feeding, all babies are different. Similarly, all families have different schedules and it takes effort to establish a routine that works for you and the baby. Just when you become comfortable and think you have grasped the situation, everything changes. As a parent, you are constantly learning to read the signs so that you can meet your child’s needs. You have to learn quickly and constantly adapt in response and it can totally throw you out of your comfort zone if you are one for consistency and control. Leaving the house requires some careful planning for a smooth experience yet equally, this does not guarantee anything. Living like this I learned two things; (i) routine and planning can offer predictability and may actually help rather than hinder your ability to have fun; and (ii) you have to be prepared to throw everything out of the window and revert to a Plan B or make it up on the spot at any moment (which can be fun too depending on how you look at it!) This is a prime training ground for managing adversity and adapting to change. Amongst this, another skill you naturally acquire is the ability to ‘multi-task’. This word takes on a whole new meaning when you become a parent and you are constantly carrying out multiple activities at the one time. You develop a level of hyper-awareness; similar to having your peripheral vision switched on whilst driving and focusing on the road ahead at the same time. Your outlook is broader and you become adept at managing priorities and planning for a range of scenarios and schedules/events alongside each other. You become the master of dealing with unpredictability and change.

Key learning no. 4 – Coaching and Training

Raising a baby offers you a crash course in learning and development basics. Yes, when applying this to a workplace you will need to be mindful of the differences with adult learning principles, however, there are some fundamental learning principles that remain consistent. For example, in order for learning to take place you must create opportunity. If you want a baby to learn how to sit, crawl, walk, drink and eat etc., they must be given the opportunity to do so. The change is awkward, it’s easier to just keep doing things the same but in order to encourage growth you need to ensure that the individual has the opportunity to do things differently. It requires patience, coaching and support but eventually they go through the cycles of Johari’s Window of Learning and accomplish the next life skill. You learn that offering the opportunity to learn at an appropriate stage of development is critical to ensure that your baby is set up for success rather than failure. Prior exposure and conditioning before they are ready to learn the new skill also helps in ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible for example, give them a cup to play with before they have to use it as drinking implement so that it is not so foreign when it comes to adopting it. You realise that there will be setbacks, times when your baby is unwell or has had a bad fall, or is preoccupied with learning another skill, that means that they will revert back to the old way for a while. But they will pick up the new skill again once they recover and continue to move on and develop. You learn that maintaining self-esteem through this process is critical to ensure that the individual is motivated to continue learning. It is also important to maintain consistency with feedback in the learning process, otherwise the individual receives mixed messages and ‘correction’ is not achieved successfully. And finally, you are reminded that learning occurs through observation, copying and repetition. In order to master a skill, it needs to be repeated many times until it becomes ‘unconscious competence’. This requires a tolerance for repetition, adequate allowance for failure and patience - lots and lots of patience! These principles could easily be applied to professional development and given the amount of life skills a child learns in the first year, let alone the subsequent years into adulthood, the coaching and training is ongoing.

Key learning no.5 – Teamwork

Raising a baby can be rather tedious and the day is filled with many manual tasks that are not necessarily difficult, but require efficiency so that you are able to manage the sheer volume and breadth of tasks required to be achieved in a day. Over time, you develop a system of short-cuts, efficiencies and techniques that ensure you are able to manage your priorities effectively and not allow things to ‘slip through the cracks’. Whilst it is easy to develop and maintain a good system when working individually, when working as part of a team, you need to allow for differences and allow the other person to develop their own ‘system’ over time that complements and works in harmony with your own. You are reminded that there are many ways to achieve the same goal, and one way is not necessarily better than another. For the sake of maintaining relationships with your team members, you need to respect individual differences and appreciate different approaches, adapting your own system and tolerating delays or negative outcomes whilst your systems are syncing.

Key Learning no.6 - Time Management

Lastly, it is worth noting the shift in values that occurs once someone becomes a parent. For a career minded individual, work may very well be an important part of a new parent’s life and identity but in some cases it may no longer be centre stage of their life. Many misinterpret this as a lack of care or investment into work. The truth is, a lot of parents want to spend time with their babies while they are just that, young babies. A child changes from day to day and week to week. There is a constant feeling of grief for the ‘baby’ that was but at the same time, this spurs a parent to savour every moment of the child that they have, as they know that this will pass just as quickly. This is the impetus to spend time wisely and be as efficient as possible so that not even a minute is being wasted. Time becomes the most precious thing in the world. For parents returning to work, this means doing work that has a clear purpose. They often pursue work that they love and that has some meaning. They are not going to sacrifice their time unless it is personally and professionally rewarding in some way. That means that if a parent is at work, they are there because they choose to be there and they are 100% invested. It means that the skills learned in how to be efficient and organised are immediately applied to the work environment, often resulting in a boost in productivity. They will do a good job because they don’t want to waste time or energy and they value their career. In many ways, this makes a parent an ideal worker as they know exactly why they are there, what motivates them, and they will get on with the job as efficiently and effectively as possible.

So what can organisations do?

Since there are many opportunities for employees to become disengaged, understanding, supporting and recognising employees through a period of parental leave is critical to maintaining engagement. It also seems apparent that societal norms and cultural biases or perceptions against working parents are likely to have an impact on the engagement and performance of parents returning to work. It would be important to challenge and reshape these inaccurate perceptions and beliefs as well as recognise the potential in working parents.

In the first instance, I would suggest that it is critical to implement initiatives that keep the communication lines open with employees on leave. Extending an invitation to team and company events (without pressure to attend) will help parents on leave remain connected and abreast of changes happening within the organisation. Maintaining key relationships with team members and managers, meeting new people when they join, being introduced as a member of the team and having their work strengths and achievements recognised in their absence will ensure that as the team and organisation grows or changes, newcomers will be aware of the individual’s place on the team as well as their capability. If physical attendance is a challenge, ask the employee if they might be willing to record a short video message that can be played to the rest of the team. Organising events with adequate notice and/or offering the provision of child-friendly resources and environments may assist in welcoming attendance.

Secondly, I believe it’s critical to seriously consider flexible working or job-share arrangements either on a permanent or temporary basis. A major demand for all working families is time. It is widely acknowledged that in professional roles, focusing on work outcomes rather than time invested is a more effective way to measure performance and research by a Stanford professor supports that flexible working can improve employee engagement and efficiency. Despite this, organisations are very hesitant to allow people to work from home. Interestingly, this study suggests that given the option to work from home, many people may decide that they prefer to come into the office after all since people like getting out of their homes. It’s flexibility that is needed, rather than all or nothing. Reducing the pressure of commuting and childcare/school runs five days a week is likely to result in less stressed parents who are more willing and able to spend time working. Indeed, many parents frequently refer to time in the office as a ‘break’ from home. This doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard, it means that they can hear themselves think, spend time alone, have adult conversation and use the facilities without being followed in by a child! They can forget about parental responsibilities for a while and focus on their profession or calling. Funding further research into this field could support the business case for offering flexible working more broadly across the organisation so that working parents aren’t perceived as receiving special treatment. This may go some way in removing the stigma felt by working parents of needing to leave early or organise meetings on certain days of the week.

This segues nicely onto the topic of company culture. Consider what signals people are receiving in their work environment when people require flexibility? How do managers respond when employees talk about their families or request to leave early to watch their child’s Christmas play? What is the response when someone announces they are pregnant? Do managers convey confidence in managing the transition and do they know what to do? What language is used to refer to pregnant employees and are they afforded the same respect and opportunities in an intellectual capacity? Are their ideas and contributions recognised appropriately? How do people respond when a pregnant employee (or anyone) makes mistakes? Is there a sense of shared accountability and responsibility within the team? Are there plans in place for succession and talent progression? Are there adequate plans in place to spread the workload so that individuals don’t resent those who are working flexibly? People tend to adopt attitudes and behaviours that they observe within their workplace and it is important for leaders to role-model appropriate behaviours. Cultivating compassion in the workplace is likely to lead to more supportive and co-operative behaviours that will benefit not only employees expecting a baby, but anyone experiencing a life (or work) challenge that might impact on their ability to work at full capacity for example a critical illness, separation, aged parents, a major work project or crisis etc.

Finally, it is advisable to consider practical, hands-on support such as maternity or paternity coaching to target individual cases. Research supports that coaching is an effective tool in re-engaging working parents and that the main issues to address included career planning, flexible working, company culture and work-life balance (Bussell, 2008). Another researcher found that addressing factors such as the nature of the work, relationships at work and how role models at work influence career decisions is important for working parents in professional services firms (Filsinger, 2012). Coaching can support individuals to address concerns and conflicts rather than give up entirely. For organisations serious about increasing gender parity, initiatives need to target more than just systems and policies. Culture, language, behaviour and perceptions need to be challenged and working conditions may need to be adjusted to offer a ‘middle ground’ whilst new parents adjust to their new demands. Treating each case individually will be important since some women may be more engaged than others and ultimately, some will decide that they want to take a career break.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that becoming a parent offers a huge personal learning experience and goes a long way in developing maturity in individuals. Terms such as ‘baby brain’ are hugely misleading and overlook the extensive cognitive development that occurs through the experience of raising a child. If we can recognise this potential and harness it imagine the possibilities? It would be a challenge for employers to source a paid training course that will shape and develop their workers in the same way that a year off on parental leave will and I hope after reading this article, people might reframe their perspective and view the cost of a worker going on parental leave as an investment rather than a loss. I could extend this example to many other diverse groups; could individuals who have come from challenging backgrounds and experiences have a lot more skills to offer than we realise? Studies into the concept of ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ tell us a lot about human potential. I don’t need to reiterate the benefits of engaging women into the workforce or other diverse groups for that matter, but I would encourage that we don’t just look for ‘talent’ in the traditional places. You could fail to see potential if you aren’t aware of the veil of social biases and prejudice in front of you.

And to answer the question, do I think I experienced ‘baby brain’? I did forget my train of thought once and I vividly recall that being labelled as ‘baby brain’. I think I was just distracted and under pressure. Certainly, no person is immune from this type of forgetfulness caused by increased pressure. Whilst on maternity leave, my brain worked absolutely fine and I produced some of my best work and ideas during this time; including this article ;)

About the Author

Tia Moin (MABP, MBPsS, MAPPCP) is a Positive Psychology Coach, Consultant & Mentor. She is passionate about Diversity and Inclusion and supports career-minded mothers and individuals from diverse groups and backgrounds to achieve their goals and ambitions. She helps individuals to find their inspiration and overcome personal limitations and social biases.


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