When a woman announces her pregnancy, the first response of the manager is often to refer to the policy relating to maternity. But whilst a clear and accessible procedure is essential, at the heart of supporting a woman during maternity and beyond is open conversation. Throughout the pregnancy, maternity and on return, the manager needs to be talking to the mother, giving choices and options, understanding and recognising that the individual needs and priorities will change through pregnancy, birth and beyond. The type of contact during maternity, the support required, needs to be led by the mother.
Coaching is a powerful tool and one that can give a woman choices and empower her to find her own solutions at a time when she may be feeling a little uncertain and confusing. 121 coaching support before, during and on return can help the woman to identify what she wants to do, what form she wants her maternity leave to take, and indeed, how and when she wants to return.
Choice and influence is important too when the manager is looking at how maternity leave is covered. By engaging the woman in the process, and helping her to identify ways cover can be provided, can help the woman to feel valued and have ownership. This can also extend to the woman meeting the person providing cover and helping them to learn the role. The whole issue of maternity cover can be very unsettling for a woman and it often leads to concerns such as not being wanted back. This too is why the manager needs to be mindful of the sensitivities around this – for example, using the term ‘replacement’ can indeed make the woman feel as if they are being evicted from their job.
The way that a manager and indeed a company engages around maternity and parenthood is also key. Companies which celebrate family, where the internal dialogue is positive around women who take time out to have babies, will create a sense of security and belonging for women at a time when they may well be feeling vulnerable.
Flexibility is essential too. During pregnancy, when the mother may need time out for appointments, during maternity leave when a planned keeping in touch day be scuppered by a poorly child, and on return, when the woman may want to consider how and when she returns. And a company needs to ensure that its commitment to flexibility means that women do not feel ostracised if they return at reduced hours; a mother working a part-time role should not feel any less valued for the contribution she is making than her colleagues.
A robust policy and procedure is important but one that is not too rigid that it does not give space for choice, options and flexibility. The company too needs to make the woman aware of what the procedure is, what support is available, and what she needs to do.
And when a woman returns from maternity leave, it is also essential that the manager is sensitive to the personal struggle she may be facing in being separated from her child. The manager also needs to be aware of her wellbeing and look out for signs that support is needed.
But the most important thing of all is for the manager to keep talking – and listening – to the woman so that she feels empowered and valued.