I have had a question about taking an extended maternity leave queued up for an Ask Cloud post for several weeks. I made the rookie mistake of not minimizing my work commitments during the last couple of weeks of the school year and have just been flattened by a parade of school events competing with work deadlines. Tomorrow is the last day of school, so I'm coming up for air. Apologies to my anonymous correspondent for the long delay in posting this answer!
Also, I want to put a caveat up front: this is a very US-centric post. I realize that some of my international readers will read it and think about nothing other than how little leave time and legal protections US workers have. This is a fair observation (and feel free to make it)- but I'm going to focus on what can be done within the confines of our current system. I agree that the US system is imperfect, and I think we should change it. However, I also think that the European systems with long leaves are not perfect. Not every mother wants to take 1-2 years off after each birth (I did not- although I'd have liked a little more time than I had), and there is data hinting at discrimination against women in hiring, even in the egalitarian Scandinavian countries in which fathers take leave, too.
I am not at all qualified to expound on the policy options that would be fairest and have fewest unintended consequences, so I'm going to skip that altogether and focus on practical advice about how to get the leave you want without tanking your career in the imperfect system we have now.
I should perhaps also provide the details of my own maternity leaves. In both cases, I took 3 months off, followed by one month of working 3 days per week (Mr. Snarky stayed home those days, and worked the other two). The first time around, I then went back at 35 hours/week until my daughter was ~10 months old, when I switched jobs. The first leave occurred while I was an employee at a contracting company at which a lot of people had shifted schedules and where part time options were fairly common. The second leave occurred while I was the head of a small department at a small biotech company. No one had done a part time schedule before, and I had to submit a plan to convince the CEO that I could make the part time schedule work. I was laid off from that job when my second daughter was a little over a year old. I do not think my maternity leave arrangement had any impact on that decision at all.
Anyway, on to the question:
Anonymous is a research scientist in a university lab. For my non-US readers, this usually means a PhD level position with more stability than a postdoc, but not a principal investigator on grants. Anonymous didn't say exactly what the position entails, but from the context of the rest of the email, I think it is pretty close to the usual definition.
She writes that she loves what she does and is happy with her position, but...
"The one thing I struggle with the most, as far as the whole motherhood/scientist thing goes, is the maternity leave. The 12 weeks of FMLA feel too short and inadequate. Some of my colleagues take even less. Our university has a policy for up to 1 year leave of absence (unpaid) for employees if the department chair agrees to it. On one hand, I would feel totally out of line and guilty asking for 9-12 months leave. On the other hand, the policy is there - why not use it?
What's your take on the length of maternity leave and the options scientist moms have (or don't have)? How would you react if one of the people on your team asked for an extended leave of absence to take care of their child(ren)?"
I have some thoughts on this, and I'd also like to bring in some thoughts on returning to the work force after a few years out (to raise kids, care for a sick parent, or whatever). I want to weave these two things together because the crux of my advice is the same in each case: to get what you want, your best bet is to spend some serious time thinking about how to make what you want attractive to your employer (current or prospective).
Let's talk about Anonymous' case first. She wants to take advantage of a policy that is in place, but that is not normally used. I think she should use the policies that are in place if that is what she wants to do, but that there are ways to do so that maximize career risk and ways that minimize it.
I would approach this from the standpoint of what she could do to help ensure her projects stay on track while she's out. Perhaps she could come in once a week for some meetings (having arranged child care- yes, in an ideal world we could bring a baby along and expect people to work meetings around the baby's schedule, but that is not the world we live in, and I think it would be particularly problematic if you're trying to pack a lot of value into a short period of time). Perhaps she'd be willing to read and answer emails once or twice per day (this was my arrangement on my second maternity leave, when I was the head of a small department). Perhaps she'd be thrilled to have a part time arrangement.
She should also do some research into sources of funding for temporary help in the lab, to fill in during her absence. This is one area in which industrial scientists have a bit of an advantage. If your department isn't paying your salary, they can often tap into that money to pay a temporary employee or contractor. I have heard that some grants allow PIs to claim funds to pay for temporary help to cover family leave, but I do not know the details. Chances are, neither does Anonymous' supervisor. Sure, he or she could figure that out after talking to Anonymous, but Anonymous will be seen as much more professional and committed to the lab if she has this information on hand. Remember, the goal is not just to take the leave. It is to return from the leave to pick up a career that has not been damaged by the time off.
I would not recommend that Anonymous broach the subject with her supervisor until she has a concrete proposal or two worked out. Speaking from experience both as an employee and as a supervisor, your chances of success with your supervisor are greater if you have solutions for some of the problems your absence will cause.
She should also think about what her response will be if her supervisor says "no." The very first extended leave I negotiated was actually not to care for a baby- it was to travel around the pacific for four months. My case was helped by the fact that I was a contractor and could time the leave to be between assignments, minimizing disruption. It was also helped by the fact that my response to a "no" would have been to quit, and my supervisor knew that. Obviously, being willing to walk away gives you a strong negotiating position, but only if that is truly an option.
And what if you do walk away for a year or more? Can you get back in?
I think the answer is "yes," but that again, there are things that maximize your chances of success and things that minimize them.
I think there are three distinct stages to taking a long leave: before you go out, while you're out, and getting back in. I'll take them each in turn.
Before you go out, you want to do everything you can to make sure people think of you as a professional with strong skills. These are the people who you'll need to help you back in- so leave them thinking well of you. Obviously, you're awesome and have been doing awesome work and have an appropriately awesome reputation. Don't blow this by showing obvious signs of "short-timer's syndrome" as your end date draws near. Proactively working with your supervisor and colleagues on a transition plan would be a great idea. Look at the advice I gave Anonymous about handling a 9-12 month leave, and think about whether any of it makes sense in your case. Can you offer to answer questions if they come up in the weeks and months right after you go out? Can you help recruit and/or train your successor?
While you're out, consider taking steps to stay somewhat connected to your career. Obviously, you want to make sure this doesn't interfere with the primary purpose of taking the leave- if you are taking time out to focus on your kids, by all means, make them your primary focus. But if you decide you want some sort of outlet for the parts of you that aren't all about mothering, why not make that outlet relevant to your career? Ideas I've seen for keeping a connection with your career are to take a class, work to finish off a paper, offer to collaborate with a former adviser on a review article, and participate in a relevant volunteer project. At the very least, try to keep your network active. Go to lunch with colleagues. Look for a local conference that you can attend. Things like that.
When it comes time to get back in, you're going to need your network. I have to be honest: your chances of being hired into a position based on sending a resume in to a job listing are slim in any circumstances, but are next to none if you have anything on your resume that needs explanation- like a gap of several years since your last position. However, you CAN get back in. I have personally hired women back in after breaks. In every case, I made the hire based on a glowing recommendation from someone who knew the woman in question and went out of his way to make the recommendation.
You can also think about options such as being a temporary employee and contracting. Contracting reduces the risk for the hiring manager. Hiring is a PITA, but firing really sucks. Really. No one wants to make a hiring mistake. Contract to hire positions let the hiring manager test you out and see if you are really going to be a fast learner who quickly picks up the things that have changed during your absence from the workforce. A temporary position gets something current on your resume, even if you have to run another search in a few months.
I have seen people recommend going back to do another postdoc, and I know people for whom that has worked well. If you are going the contracting route, you can also consider offering a short term discount on your rates while you get up to speed. I know a couple of people who have used that technique successfully, as well.
My final bit of advice applies during all stages, and should be obvious, but is clearly not, since I've seen it violated so many times: don't diss the women who have made different choices. I was at a women in science event recently, and during a discussion of work-life balance, one woman got up and basically delivered a rant on why employers should help her back into the workforce. Her argument seemed to be that since she had made the sacrifice for the good of her children, who were spared the inferior experience of day care and also the parade of day care illnesses thanks to her willingness to stay home with them, employers should have to help her back in.
Um, no. Employers don't really owe you anything. The hiring manager might be an incredibly nice person, and is perhaps even sympathetic to your argument. But if you aren't going to help solve his or her problems, you aren't going to get hired. It is not about you. It is about them.
I actually tried to find the woman who gave the rant after the session ended, but could not. So I will tell you what I wanted to tell her: it is fine that she thinks that staying home was the best thing for her kids. But her rant broke the cardinal rule of job searching: never sound bitter. No one wants to hire someone who might turn out to be a congenital complainer. Also, she delivered a neat slap in the face to some of the people who are best positioned to be her allies on her way back in- mothers who chose to stay in the workforce, but who know full well what skills you are likely to develop as a mother. (I've always said that anyone who can consistently get more than one kid out of the house on time would make an excellent release manager, and probably also has the skills to be a project manager....) She should take a break from the networking events until she can be less angry about her experience- or at least hide that anger better. Is that fair? Maybe not. But it is real.
Having written all of this, I want to emphasize: these are the opinions of one woman. I have both taken slightly unusual leaves and seen my career survive and hired women back in after two or more years out of the workforce. However, my advice is purely anecdotal. I do not have data on what works best. Going off the "normal" path is inherently risky. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it- a lot of great things in life come with risks. The way to handle risks isn't necessarily to avoid them, it is to analyze them and figure out how to minimize the chances of negative things happening while you pursue the things you want to do. To do that, you have to be honest with yourself about the risks, and make sure that you are truly OK with taking them.
OK, readers- what ideas and opinions do you have for our anonymous correspondent who wants a 9-12 month maternity leave or for the hypothetical person considering taking a multi-year break from the workforce?