How to rock your return to startup after maternity leave

maternity leave

Several months ago, I wrote a post about family planning in a startup. I wrote another post about what it was like to be out on mat leave. I failed to write a post about heading back to the office after having a kid. For those who have been asking for i…this one is for you.


As an American in Canada, it’s still striking how much longer the Canadian maternity leave is. For the vast majority of people, having a year of leave vs. a few weeks is a colossal win.

The part where it’s much trickier is around how you slot back in after the year is up. And this is particularly tricky when you’re coming back to a startup.

People say a year of startup is like three years anywhere else. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that after a year out of the office, it’s unlikely you’re coming back to the same place you left.

Same same, but different

There’s a banner across the Queen Street Viaduct in Toronto. It says: This river I step in is not the river I stand in.

It’s a Heraclitus quote — or a riff on one. I’ve come to love it as a commentary on fast-paced organizations, particularly startups.

The people who filled in while you were gone are not the enemy. It’s easy to hate on them.

Coming back to a startup after maternity leave is like starting a new job with a bunch of familiar faces. There will be a lot you already know, but brace yourself for a lot to be new — new people, new context, new priorities. Like the Queen Street Viaduct, the river you last stepped in is not the one you find yourself standing in now.

You have some sense of the place you left. You already own the branded t-shirt. You have the hipster Herschel backpack. You have the commute to the office down pat. You know the place that has the great coffee but no place to sit. And the place that has the mediocre coffee but loads of tables.

It’s safe to say you’re walking in with more context than any of the rest of the new hires. But the first day in the office after a year of maternity leave is going to feel like a new job. I don’t care that your door code still works. I don’t care that you weren’t issued a new laptop.

Here’s are some practical tips on how to step back into the startup river, without getting swept out to sea:

Float on

When I got back to work, my old desk had been reassigned. My stuff had been put in a box, tucked away in the corner. Not gonna lie, that one stung a bit. But it gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Without a set desk, I floated around for two weeks after I got back. I sat with the data science folks. I sat with the designers. I sat with the new product/engineering squads. I shuffled around and got to meet everyone who’d joined while I was away. And I got to know them in a much deeper way than if I’d just introduced myself while grabbing coffee in the kitchen. Floating meant I got to hear about the work and projects that had kicked off after I went out on leave. This was not only good from a social perspective. This was critical for me as I ramped back up.

The nice part about startup is that you can do this even if you don’t come back from leave to find your stuff shoved in a corner. Startups are all about disruption. No one will give you a hard time if you say you want to float for a bit as you find your footing.

Design on your way out, design on your way in

Californians love the idea of designing. It’s language I first learned from my leadership coach while at Mozilla. She would talk about designing alliances and the first time I heard it, I had no idea what she meant. It sounded like Northern California hippie speak to me. But over the years, I’ve come to like it more and more.

You may need different things from your workplace, from your coworkers, from yourself as you reintegrate.

These design moments typically show up when it feels like things are stacked against you. If you can’t get over the mountain, can you get under or through it?

Designing elegantly expresses the idea of agency. That we not only have a role to play in how things unfold at work, but that we are key to their success or failure.

The same is true as you head out on your leave. If you expect to be off for a year of parental leave, you have a role to play in helping your organization plan for your absence. You also have a role to play in helping them plan for your return.

Be honest about what you need

As you head back to work, be honest about what you need. I was still pumping when I went back to work. I needed dedicated space with an outlet and privacy. And I needed two uninterrupted blocks of time every day where I wasn’t in meetings so I could pump in peace.

My office was great about providing the physical space but the calendar space proved more difficult. While I had the dedicated room available to me, I found extracting myself from meetings that were running long proved more difficult.

Don’t expect to come back to the same place you left.

I’d look at the clock. 11:15. Shit. The meeting was supposed to wrap at 11. I still had to get my pumping stuff, get to the room, get set up, and still vacate the room by 11:30 a.m. in time for the next meeting to start.

After a few weeks of this, something had to give. I had talked to work about pumping in the office but I’d failed to design for it. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t going well.

It was time to regroup. I moved my pumping “meetings” to be on the quarter hour. It meant 15 minutes of buffer between the last meeting in case it ran over. It also meant I had 15 minutes before any of my colleagues showed up at the door to tell me they’d booked the room for a meeting.

From this seemingly minor redesign, all things flowed (get it? ha!). I no longer sprinted through the office, milk and pump parts in hand. I was the cool, calm, mama extraordinaire I’d always dreamed of being.

Be kind to the people who kept things running in your absence

The people who filled in while you were gone are not the enemy. It’s easy to hate on them. They made decisions in your absence and may have gotten promotions while you were out. They stepped up. Much as your company may have missed you, the person wearing the hat while you were gone might have relished the opportunity to step into a bigger role.

They are likely to have mixed feelings about your return. This is natural. They may want to know what this means for their career or for their professional development. You may be wondering the exact same things.

Remember that in startups, there aren’t a fixed number of opportunities. Particularly in high growth phases, there tends to be way more work than there are humans to do the work.

Instead of jumping in on final details for a project that’s been underway for six months, turn your attention to the work coming in the next few months. This will give you some space to get back in the groove. And it will give your coworkers room to reintegrate you into the workflow.

Last but not least…

Be kind to yourself

Returning from leave can be overwhelming. It’s a moment where the tenuous balance you’ve built at home gets thrown into chaos. The small bits of friction throughout the day often take on much larger significance than they did pre-leave.

Your world has shifted. It’s unlikely that you are the same person you were when you left. You may need different things from your workplace, from your coworkers, from yourself as you reintegrate.

In summary:

  • Don’t expect to come back to the same place you left.
  • Design on your way out and on your way back in.
  • Be honest about what you can and cannot do. Redesign as needed.
  • Don’t fight over scraps of work underway. Turn your attention toward emerging projects.
  • Be gentle with yourself as you transition. Give things time to click back into place.

This post was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Photo via Unsplash

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.