Working Moms: How To Set Effective Boundaries After Maternity Leave
Whether you’re going back to your old job after maternity leave or you’re starting a new one, here are some expert tips to ensure you get the flexibility you need.
On her first day back at work after three months of maternity leave, Maria was nervous. “I’m a lawyer and everyone works 70 hours a week in my office,” she says. “I’d already pushed to get three months off after having my baby when most women only take a few weeks. Then I came back asking for a four-day work week. My boss accepted, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it and I felt like my colleagues who had kids were giving me the evil eye because I had more flexibility than they did.”
Three days later, Maria was asked if she could attend an important meeting on her day off. She begrudgingly accepted and made hasty arrangements for her mom to look after her baby. Looking back, she realizes that saying yes to that meeting was a huge mistake that marked the beginning of the end of her flextime. “Before I knew it, I was working 50 hours a week rather than the 32 hours I’d agreed on with my boss,” she says. “I messed up.”
Full-time load, part-time pay
Coach and consultant Samantha Sutherland says she sees this situation all the time. “Mothers who are re-entering the workforce after maternity leave often feel so grateful for being given any work and any semblance of flexibility that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking for more or setting boundaries,” she says. “So, they often end up being given a full-time load even though they’re being paid part-time hours and they’re expected to manage the additional work around their personal lives. This is known as ‘wage theft’ and it happens far too often.”
But Samantha cautions that rigidly sticking to the terms of your flextime agreement isn’t the solution. “It’s important to be flexible if you want flexibility in return,” she explains. “A work colleague gave me wonderful advice when I was in my early 20s: start as you mean to go on. He had a clear boundary that he left the office at 5:15 to get the train home, so when he occasionally stayed late his colleagues noticed. But if you’re always there until 6:30, people come to expect it and it’ll be perceived negatively if you leave at 5:00 one day. So, set clear boundaries, but don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. If it’s crunch time and it’s important for you to pitch in, do it knowing that it will be recognized and that you receive flexibility in return.”
Create a clear work plan
She also recommends a positive alternative to saying “No” to new work tasks and projects that you’re too busy take on. “I always say ‘Yes’ and then ask what they would like me to deprioritize,” she says. “To do that effectively, you need to have a clear work plan that shows the projects you’re working on and their timelines. Just saying you’re busy is much less effective.”
5 tips for setting boundaries
Samantha has some solid advice for setting boundaries and making sure everyone you work with (including you!) sticks to them.
1. Keep records of your achievements and positive feedback
“We have a tendency to finish one thing and move straight on to the next without taking stock of what we’ve accomplished,” says Samantha. “Keeping a clear record of all the goals you’ve achieved and the positive feedback you’ve received will increase your confidence and give you leverage if you need to reassert your boundaries or negotiate a pay raise.”
2. Record your hours
“If you feel that the terms of your arrangement aren’t being respected, record your hours for a while,” advises Samantha. “Check how many evenings and days off you’re being asked to work and see whether that comes back to you in other ways. For example, do you often have to work late to get a report done, but then your boss is happy for you to leave for school assemblies? We can sometimes get an inaccurate picture in our heads of what’s happening.”
3. Decide what you want
Samantha stresses the importance of clearly defining your wants and needs. “Do you want to leave at 5:00 pm daily and switch off? Do you want your overtime hours to translate into more time off? Do you want increased pay? Do you just need to hear ‘thank you’? What do you need to feel valued? It can help to write down your goals.”
4. Ask for what you want in a constructive way
“Don’t go into a meeting guns blazing and demand never to work overtime again,” says Samantha. “Bring your data, your experience and what you want from the situation. Perhaps you say, ‘I’m regularly working late on Tuesdays and I’m happy to do that to support business needs. Since I’m being paid part-time, I’d like to take that time back by leaving early every Thursday.’”
5. Keep the conversation open and honest
“Setting boundaries isn’t about slamming them down and making them impenetrable,” warns Samantha. “It’s about setting up a working relationship that works for everyone. That takes open communication, flexibility and knowing what your needs are.”
Samantha’s podcast, Women at Work, has over 65,000 downloads. She interviews working mothers on the juggle and the struggle, tips for navigating the workforce, and how they manage their lives.