“I came back early from maternity leave - twice!” She bragged.
As a leader in our company, her words carried more weight than she perhaps realized. Within the next 3 years, one of her team members had pledged to take zero maternity leave when she delivered (and that’s exactly what she did), another started assigning work projects to those out on maternity leave, and another took the maximum allowed, but felt bad about it and ended up taking on multiple work assignments whilst technically on leave.
In one throwaway remark, that leader ruined parental leave for her team.
Too often, people in a position to take parental leave take just a week or two, apologize for putting something other than work first, or even lionize the idea of taking less than the company’s policy permits. And while people should of course feel free to return early from leave, they should do so because it’s the right choice for them, not because they feel pressured to do so.
My feelings on the state of parental leave in the US are well documented. So as I face another round of leave, this time as a business owner, I also face a choice:
take a week or two away from the office, remain plugged into work, and return to the office within a matter of days pretending I didn’t just give birth; be fully online within a few weeks and play down the significance of bringing a person into the world; or
take a meaningful stretch of leave, recover physically and mentally from childbirth, and give my new baby a better start in life; ultimately, my team and clients get me back at 100%, rather than 50% masquerading as more.
Not everyone is in a position to choose and I am lucky to have options. As such, I have a responsibility to set an example - to our clients and to my colleagues - that it is ok to take leave, it’s human to need some personal time, and bringing one’s whole self to work is to be encouraged, even when that means not bringing oneself to the office at all.
I’m not shuttering my business or sacrificing my career - I’m fortunate enough to be able to do right by both. My team will have a chance to step up and my career will be richer for my coming back to it as a whole person, rather than a sleep-deprived one. Plenty of parents can of course thrive in an early return to work, but I’m not one of them; pretending that I am seems unfair on everyone.
So, if you need me in the coming months, you’ll be in great hands with my team. Or you can catch me when I’m back my desk in the spring, back at 100%. That’s the plan anyway…
Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie is very comfortable delegating.