New moms try to strike a balance

It’s been said that motherhood is the world’s most difficult job, but when you combine giving birth with a career in IT, the amount of responsibilities for a new mom to juggle increase to the nth degree.

For Kori Inkpen, a computer science professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, maternity leave didn’t mean leaving her job behind. Because she supervises graduate students, Inkpen was required to work throughout her six and a half months with her new daughter.

“I have a job with responsibilities that were still incurring when I was off, but I did feel overwhelmed when I started back full time,” she said.

Donna Marie Braaten, director of research and development at Crystal Decisions Corp. in Vancouver, found herself checking her work e-mail to stay in the loop during her 10 weeks of maternity leave.

“I wasn’t actively doing work, but I was trying to keep up,” Braaten said.

This strategy is extremely important for new moms on maternity leave, according to Monica Roper, a consultant at Watertown, Mass.-based Work/Family Directions Consulting.

“Anything specific to IT moves at a rapid-fire pace, and the challenges that other women face can probably be notched up a degree, so it’s really important to periodically check in to keep abreast of what’s going on in the organization,” she said. “Keep in contact with your boss and with your co-workers while you’re away.”

Roper said it is more difficult to jump back into the workplace after three or four months, because things really start to change within that time frame. For women who choose to take longer leaves – the Canadian government now allows a full year of maternity leave – Roper suggested that the best strategy is to keep a close eye, not only on the workplace, but on the industry in general.

“For the technology world, this is even more of a requirement than for any other field: don’t lose touch with what’s happening. Network with other people in the industry and keep on top of what’s going on by becoming active in professional organizations or reading trade magazines,” Roper said.

It would be helpful if Canadian maternity benefits would allow for a phase-in period, Inkpen said. Many women want to spend a full year with their new child, but would like to ease more slowly into work, she said.

“The way that maternity benefits are structured in Canada, if you earn any income, you lose your benefits. It would be nice to transition back by working three days a week and still be able to have maternity benefits for your days off, because a lot of women can’t swing it on a part-time salary. At the same time, they don’t want to be away from their babies five days a week. It’s a hard decision,” she said.

Keeping things covered

Roper also suggested that before the leave begins, it is imperative to ensure that there is an adequate plan of coverage for the new mom’s workload.

“Don’t leave people in the lurch when you’re on maternity leave, because it breeds resentment and people might not be so happy to see you come back,” she said.

In terms of coming back, Roper stressed the importance of clearly negotiating a return date with the employer before starting the leave, and renegotiating if necessary with plenty of warning.

“If you say you’re going to take six months, and you need to renegotiate, do it ahead of time and not a week before,” she said.

This is particularly important, because according to Roper, a recent study showed that over half of all managers and co-workers of women taking maternity leave don’t believe that the new mother will return to the job. It’s important to show that you can make a commitment and stick to it, she said.

For Elisabeth Jang, a researcher at the corrosion control group at the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada in Vancouver and mother of two, extending her six months of maternity leave for each of her children wasn’t a problem, but she did encounter some difficulties upon returning to work.

She and her employer had a tough time agreeing on how many days she should work. After some unsuccessful negotiation with her employer, Jang drafted a letter of termination, at which point she and the company settled on a four-day workweek.

This kind of flexibility is extremely helpful to new parents, Roper said, and noted that a number of companies are developing resources for returning mothers including flexible hours, phase-in periods and onsite or near-site day-care facilities.

For Inkpen, flexible hours made returning to work much easier.

“I needed to be available for her. For the first few months, I’d go and spend half an hour during the day to check on her for my benefit as well as for hers, and I really needed that flexibility to be able to drop by,” she said.

Braaten’s work environment also allows for flexibility, and appreciates being able to leave the office to attend an event at her children’s day-care.

“As long as I can make sure that everything’s covered off I can leave. I’ve got my Blackberry and my laptop with me, so I can stay connected. It all evens out,” she said.

Braaten has maintained one philosophy during her time on maternity leave and as a working mother.

“You just can’t have perfection all the time. It’s all about striking a balance and paying attention to the most important things – time is really precious,” she said.