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Maternity leave and your career – the importance of connections

23 July 2014

twins at home

Margaret Bounader’s (above right with her twins) successful career in Austrade spans 20 years. Ten years of that includes time as a trade commissioner in Asia and Africa.

Now State Director for Victoria and Tasmania at Austrade, Margaret is, at present, on maternity leave.

“I have year-old twins. If you’d told me that I would extend my maternity leave beyond a year back when I was pregnant, I would have laughed at you,” she admits.

Circumstances change, and re-entering the workforce in a way that minimises disruption for her twins and her workplace also needs thought, time and flexibility of approach on both sides.

“Wrenching yourself away is tough. Finding, let alone securing, good child care is very hard. Then getting the scheduling right is no easy matter,” Margaret explains of her decision to extend her leave a little longer.

Having spoken with a number of successful career women, Margaret found the common feedback to be, they regretted not taking longer out of the workplace. Time and again she heard: ‘two years out is nothing in the workplace, but you don’t get those years with your child back’.

“Keeping in contact with your career and work life is a challenge. Women feel (and it’s probably not all that misplaced) that they’ve ‘dropped off the radar’ and that they’re missing more than they actually are at work.

stay connected for your career

“What we think we’re missing out on [at work] is rooted in our self-confidence. It’s so important to stay connected, to reach out to people and maintain networks, attend a few functions and events. That is where it’s so different for men. They don’t lose the connections, so they don’t feel they’re out of the loop,” says Margaret, who’s found people have been happy to meet with her and bring her up-to-date.

“Finding the time, especially in those early months, takes effort, but it’s rewarding and confidence building,” Margaret says.

“I also sit on two boards, Mercy Health and the Mercy Health Foundation, so that kept my brain ticking over and my hand in business,” she admits.

Well passed what she calls the “baby blur” - the first three months of bringing her twins home when things were so new she could barely lift her head from the task at hand – Margaret’s sage advice for women on maternity leave is to stay connected.

“Women, I think, connect naturally, but when you have a baby, and I think especially when it’s a first, it’s very easy to become isolated. At first you just don’t have the time to do anything and then you can quickly feel awkward reaching out and making connections, especially in relation to the workplace and those networks. If you’re unable to find the time and then the confidence to seek support and help, you’ll quickly become more and more isolated. That’s a very detrimental spot in which to be,” Margaret explains.

While there is something to be said around workplaces making the effort to step up to the plate, to reach out and check in on women on leave, Margaret also says having a mentor was a strategy that worked for her.

“We have different mentors at different times for different reasons. Having a mentor you can connect with and who understands your situation and supports you to keep in contact, as well as get to a few events, is a really positive strategy. They are your way back in. They are an accessible, safe and secure way to start the conversation,” she thinks.

Having twins and being an older first-time mother has had its ups and downs: “My focus had been on trying to have a baby not on what happens when you have one. The hospital engages a maternal health nurse and when they come to see you they connect you into a parents group and open a whole world of support services. Seven of us from the parents group I went to still see each other regularly.

“The best advice I got was ‘happy mother happy baby’, and ‘whatever you decide to do for your baby is the right thing’.

“As an older mother I felt I had the confidence when something wasn’t working to step up and make the choice to do something else. I really struggled with breast-feeding and the pressure I felt to continue was unbelievable. In the end my decision was to stop.”

It was a decision, Margaret says, that required courage and conviction: “All situations and babies are different and there is no right or perfect way – only what works best for you.”