Last spring, as my family prepared to welcome our third child, I decided to do things a little differently than I had with my first two babies. In partnership with my supervisor, my team, and, of course, my spouse, I decided to take a longer maternity leave: a full 18 weeks, a 50 percent increase over my previous 12.
As any parent who has welcomed new babies knows, those first two or three months — often lovingly (and frustratingly) coined the “fourth trimester” — are really hard. Between my own recovery, the adjustment to life as a family of five, the severe lack of sleep and the need to feed on demand, I knew there wouldn’t be much time for bonding, routine setting, or catching up on sleep during those hazy first 12 weeks.
And so, I figured an additional six weeks would be a positive experience for both myself and my family. And I was right! In May, my family welcomed a healthy baby boy named Grey. The pregnancy, delivery, and those first few months were thankfully uneventful and generally similar to the arrivals of our first two children. But that extra time was a delight: I was able to pick up my older two children up from camp when the day ended, instead of doing extended care and I spent more quality time with my retired parents, I established a morning gym routine; enjoyed time with an engaging, smiling, and playful infant; and I even got him on a schedule.
In other words, being home was just as lovely as I had hoped it would be. But what I didn’t fully anticipate about my longer leave were the positive outcomes that happened at work, too.
For some background, I’ve been in my growing role at Moishe House — a global nonprofit that supports Jewish leaders in their 20s to create Jewish homes and communities — for nearly a decade. Since joining the organization in its early days, I’ve been a part of the organization’s significant evolution: The only constant at Moishe House has (thankfully) been growth. That’s true about my own professional development as well as our impact on the ground, as we make it possible for young adults to build their Jewish communities all over the world. It has been a whirlwind, with no real breaks to catch our breath, let alone time to pause long enough to reflect on where we’ve come and where we’re going.
By taking an extended leave, I was able to fully step back and provide the space for others — and the organization as a whole — to rise. There was a learning curve, to be sure, but with each maternity leave, it got easier. (When my first child was born, I even brought my laptop to the hospital!)
That first month on leave is always the most challenging but I’ve learned that I simply need to switch gears in order to adjust to my new reality. My team embraced my time away to further hone their own instincts, run fast on new opportunities and projects, and have a voice at tables where they normally wouldn’t sit.
I returned to a stronger and more sustainable organization with empowered leaders who could function independently of me, as well as the space for my work to further evolve. Since returning, I have been able to take on several new projects I did not previously have the bandwidth for, and I have been able to more fully ground my decisions and direction on strategy with fresh perspective and time.
An equally important aspect to the extended leave was the way in which I returned, with intentionality to keep up the momentum and maintain the space created while I was gone. Luckily for me, my personal mentor (and a Moishe House board member), Jim Heeger, helped me think through that process and helped me identify key questions to ask my team when I came back to work: What did you learn in the last few months? How did you grow? Where can I give you the space to continue to build on the growth? What can/should I let go of so that we can operate at a higher level? Questions like these helped to build off the momentum and ownership created by my team during the time I was away.
In addition to returning to more empowered individual leaders, I also returned to a stronger team. My direct reports all noted how much they relied on each other while I was gone and how they felt more aware of and involved in one another’s work. I’m committed to helping ensure this spirit of teamwork remains.
I recognize that I’m in a unique situation. Not all working parents have the choice or opportunity to take this kind of extended leave, let alone any leave. I realize that I work for an organization that provides a great paid leave policy, and that I was in a position to be able to take advantage of it. But I know that not every family can afford unpaid leave, and it’s a problem that the majority of Americans do not get any paid time off from work (or even unpaid time, in some cases) when they welcome a new child.
My hope for this reflection is that it will help to shift the way we look at parental leave just a little bit. It’s not just a critically important time for the family, it’s an opportunity for an organization. I encourage any new parents, if you are able, to consider the benefits of taking an extended leave. And to colleagues filling in at the office, seize the opportunity to grow as a professional, develop new skills, get closer with your teammates. It’s a win-win for all, and everyone will come out stronger for it.
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