Returning to Work After Maternity Leave
A year ago, India’s Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act went into effect. While its stipulation of six months’ paid maternity leave is an improvement (though it may come with negative ramifications), the leave-taking is only one half of the story. We talked to a mix of working women — some of whom have had children recently, others who had children before the law took effect — to find out more about the other half: What it’s like going back to work after maternity leave. Here are four women’s stories of returning to work after having a baby. (All women are identified by their initials to protect their professional identity.)
K.S., the consultant
Before I got pregnant, I was a director of strategy at a start up. I took four years off after having kids. I had already decided I didn’t want to be in that sector anymore, so I used the maternity leave as a full career break to take the time to decide what I actually wanted to do.
There’s a lack of self-confidence that comes from maternity leave that made me end up taking a role at a level below what I had been. Childcare was a challenge; making sure that you have enough of a support network was a huge logistical challenge.
Dealing with my in-laws and their questions around who was going to cook or take care of the kids was also hard. I got through it because I have a great husband, but the familial pressure was huge.
I had to learn to set my own boundaries, with working hours and figuring out how to deal with emergencies when things go wrong at work or at home.
I’ve encountered a lot of workplace bias about becoming a mother. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding in the workplace about what it means to manage home and work. Someone calling you at 8 pm to have a 10-minute call is not a minor thing – it’s a major intrusion into the most crucial moments of your family life.
People don’t understand that parents never get a single moment off. We are not refreshed after a weekend or holiday!
We live in a culture where I’m in the minority. Most parents who successfully go back to work are men, and they can do it because their wives are either at home or have taken a significant step back in their careers.
What needs to change is that fundamental company DNA of understanding what this experience is. It’s not just about popping out a kid. It’s about a wholesale perspective on how lives change, pressures change.
It’s also about mentorship and support, consideration of alternate pathways, heightened sensitivity particularly among leadership. This has to be balanced against not seeing mothers as additionally challenged.
A.P., the entrepreneur
I could not go back to my job because I couldn’t leave my twins at just 3 months old. My job was a 14-hour a day commitment and involved a 90 minute commute, which was not possible for me to do. I would never see my children.
When I finally did return to work, one and a half years after my twins were born, despite having taken a pay cut in order to work in flexibility into my work schedule, I found resistance to my request, and what’s more I found a basic lack of empathy and understanding towards working mothers. I now work for myself. I am lucky that I did not financially need to work; if I did, I do not know how I would have coped.
It’s definitely harder for me to balance work and home than it is for my male colleagues. My company had family leave policies that complied with Indian law, but that did not make them adequate.
In order for women to thrive after maternity leave, they really need:
- Better day care facilities
- Equal leave opportunities for both men and women for child care
- Flexibile work hours being more commonplace whether for child care of other reasons
- Professionally trained and qualified nannies / child care professionals
S.A., the doctor
I was working in a government medical college before I got pregnant, and, because there is no provision for maternity leave, I took a term drop for one year after having a baby. The return to work was difficult, and managing a 10-month-old baby along with work was hard.
Most of the time I was exempted from late working shifts as a result of being a new mother. It’s definitely very difficult to manage work and home.
Maternity leave is not sanctioned in my line of work. I think at least 7 months’ maternity leave should be sanctioned at full or half pay.
P.N., the executive
I took six months’ maternity leave. It was great to be back in action — really felt wonderful to get up in the morning, get dressed and move out of the house. The team at work was very welcoming, absolutely enjoyed meeting everyone after a long time. However, there was really not much for me do at work, since one of my juniors had taken up my role in my absence and he was doing it well. I was anyways grooming him for my role when I was pregnant as I was hoping to take up a more challenging role when I joined back. When I got back, it felt good to know that he was handling the role well.
It’s been two weeks since I joined back, I have started having conversations with my seniors about what I could do next, but it will take some more time before that gets closed and I get a defined role/ deliverables to work on.
There have been a few people who simply assume that I’ll be leaving early from work since I have just joined back and have a baby at home
Women have to plan meals, order groceries, think of what things need to be ordered for a baby in advance, before you run out of them. I don’t think my husband ever checks on my nanny or my mother-in-law, or asks “Did the baby poop today? How many times? Did she finish all her meals? Did she cry while taking a bath?” All these things are always on my mind. Plus, since my baby is only six months old, she still gets up every 1.5 to 2 hours in the night for feed, and hence, I don’t get adequate rest in the night. My husband has tried a couple of times to pacify her and put her to sleep, but she only wants me in the night. My husband is very supportive, however he definitely has it much easier, as the only two things that he needs to do is (a) play with the baby at his convenience and (b) do whatever I ask him to do.
I think the biggest change required is the mentality of people who think that if you are leaving for home on time (6 o’clock), you aren’t really putting in your best. I know a lot of bosses who would rate people working more hours much highly compared to those who leave on time, irrespective of the quality of their work or their productivity. If this changes, women can better plan their work and personal life without worrying about how bosses and colleagues are judging you based on the hours that you put; the only thing that would count is your work.
Another thing that could again help is to not have meetings post-6 for things which can easily be postponed and are not ‘on fire.’ I think these two things can really make a big difference!