Career Q&A: Returning to work from a parental leave

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I’ll be returning to work in February after 10 months on maternity leave. I work with a small organization (there’s only 5 of us), enjoy my job, have great co-workers and am looking forward to going back. This is my first mat leave and I’m the first one in our organization to go on leave so we’re all pretty much making this up as we go along. What should I expect and how should I prepare myself?

This is a question that hits very close to home for us! Before we started Foot in the Door Consulting, we were both managers in a small organization and Nancy suffered through Christa’s two maternity leaves. Just like children, every situation and every organization are different but here are some things from our perspectives from both sides of mat leave to consider:

First, get childcare lined up well in advance of your return. Do a couple of test runs so your little one is familiar with the new environment and people, and you are comfortable with arrangements and can return to work knowing your little one is safe and well cared for. Just as importantly, do a trial run of your drop off / pick up procedure: how much extra time do you need in the morning to get to work at the same time? Will you need to leave earlier or later to deal with traffic en route to the daycare centre on the way home?

Then get back-ups for your childcare lined up. And then line up back-ups for your back-ups (we speak from experience!). What happens if your childcare provider is sick? What will you do if your own child is too sick to go to daycare? What is the holiday schedule of the daycare centre or childcare provider and how will it mesh with key dates at work? If you have to work late unexpectedly, who will be available to pick up your little one on time (some daycare providers have very strict pick-up policies). If your job requires travel, how will that extra childcare time be covered?

Be sensitive to the fact that your co-workers have been carrying an extra burden while you were on leave. Many small organizations cannot afford to hire a maternity leave replacement as they will still be paying for the new parent’s benefits and mandatory employment related costs to the government even if they do not offer a salary “top-up”. If this was the case in your organization, your co-workers have probably been counting the days until you return and can pick up your share of work again. If there was a maternity leave replacement, your co-workers would have had to help that person up the learning curve before he was able to be fully functional in your position. Tasks may not have been done your way or up to your standards, but appreciate that they were covered. If you are 20% of the organization’s workforce, keep in mind it was a considerable workload that had to be managed in your absence.

Communicate with your supervisor and colleagues before you return. Get up to speed on the status of programs, any changes and immediate priorities. Know what you are walking back in to: was your workload fully covered or were some things left by the wayside? How and where have notes on your programs been kept?

Also communicate your own needs and expectations. Do you need to adjust your usual workday to accommodate childcare drop-off / pick-up times? If your pre-mat leave style was to work long hours and be available on evenings and weekends, will this continue? Discuss things like whether you use your annual leave or sick days to care for your child when your child or childcare provider is sick.

Most organizations truly want to be family friendly but might not know exactly what this means in reality. As the first person in your organization to be a new parent, you will be the trailblazer. However, do not expect all your needs as a new parent to be accommodated. While your life may have a new focus and new demands, the work remains and your organization still needs someone dedicated to doing it well. Communicating clearly and frequently will help this unfold smoothly.

We should also note that these points are not just for the mothers in a workplace. With more and more men taking extended parental leaves – and we applaud you for it! – these are points that need to be taken into consideration by women and men.

We wish you and your organization all the best in managing your return to work!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through

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