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Re-entry: Lessons from maternity leave

April 10, 2015 Sarah Breigle

I’m a new mom who’s just returned to work from maternity leave. So Katharine Zaleski’s honest and insightful commentary in Fortune about what she learned (and sometimes regrets) about her time as a leader before having a child and as a leader and a mom after having a child has really resonated with me.

“It was almost as if my former self was telling me I was worthless,” she writes, “because I wouldn’t be able to continue sitting in an office for ten hours a day.”

As a returning-to-work-mom, I can really relate. And with 10 billion women entering the workforce—and an estimated 80% of them planning to become mothers—I imagine I’m not alone.

So, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what life was like before, and what my days are like now, after having a child.

The reality is not much has changed. And yet, like Zaleski writes, everything has changed. Drum roll please…

I don’t spend the same number of hours in the office anymore. I’ve stopped to think (more than once): what type of contribution do I make? How is the work that I do on a day-to-day basis helping our organization move forward? And I’ve come to the liberating conclusion that my contribution is measured by my outputs, not on the hours I spend in the office or how many meetings I attend or how many emails I send. My contribution lies in my ability to stop and ask questions on my way to making informed decisions. My insights come from making my past experiences—good, bad and indifferent—a part of who I am and how I show up every day.

Turns out that becoming a mother and a manager are both important pieces of my story—and they impact how people choose to interact with me.

Like the author, I, too, craft a story in my head based on the information that I have. This “story” tells me what I should be doing and how things ­should (ideally) be. We all do, right? I interact with my colleagues every day by phone, in face-to-face and virtual meetings, and through email. I chat with people at the water cooler and on the way to the ladies room. I make conclusions based on the information that I get in these conversations. I have preconceived notions (a.k.a. unconscious bias) that influence my train of thought and the assumptions that I make. I prompt myself to stop and ask questions. I learn about past experiences and what interests people have both inside and outside of work.

Since stepping into what people tell me will be my most important (and difficult) job—becoming a mom—I’ve learned that I need to be OK with the choices I make. Sounds easy enough, right? It’s not always that straightforward, but for the most part, I set my own boundaries every day knowing what commitments I have at work and at home. I make the best decisions that I can with the information that I have. I encourage members of my team to do the same. Sometimes I hit it out of the park—other days, not so much.

At the end of the day, my priorities are my own and being comfortable with my choices helps me keep a line of sight to what’s important to me. Finding my work-life “balance” has been far from glamorous, but is nonetheless worthwhile and surprisingly fulfilling.

A funny thing happened when I became a mom: I found the narrative to my own story.

What’s your narrative? Please share it with us below.

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