Monday, June 10, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling an Extended Leave

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?


  1. My big suggestion: If, during your leave, your boss quits, seriously consider finding a new job instead of going back.

  2. Anonymous6:52 AM

    I don't have any personal experience on this... my first pregnancy I wasn't even covered by FMLA and got no leave. My second pregnancy I asked for, and got, a teaching reduction for one semester by strategically using up a lot of paid sick-leave. My research is the kind I can do easily from home, so that's what I did. (Also I'm a bit of an unnatural mother. So there's that.)

    However, I can answer a bit about how to get back into the labor force (from economics studies). 1. Network. 2. Volunteer 3. Get more education/training. We don't tend to measure bitterness in economics, but I'm willing to bet that showing that hurts a person's chances. Theoretically an employer wants to see that you're active and able to learn new things. Depending on the job they may also be looking for someone who is going to stay a certain time-frame.

    From my own experience as an academic employer, I want people who are responsible, have attention to detail, and are willing to ask questions. I screen for that at or before the interview stage-- a lot of those stupid instructions for sending in your resume are testing attention to detail and ability to follow directions.

    1. The advice about not being bitter came from the outplacement training I got after one of my layoffs- not related to children at all! If people put themselves in the place of a hiring manager and think about how their attitude will be perceived by someone in that role, the reason to avoid sounding bitter will probably be obvious.

    2. Agreed that it doesn't matter what the bitterness was related to, it's offputting because as the person being vented onto who frequently really had nothing to do with the thing they were angry/bitter about, it was expressed in such a way that lumped me (new HM) into the "X sucks because ..."

      In my experience, so of course YMMV, it's hard for someone who is bitter and not even attempting to mask it with humor not to act as though the new interviewer is the problem. Appearing to verbally attack or dress down someone you just met is problematic for your chances of getting hired. :)

  3. Anonymous may find that 9-12 months at home is too long. I was going stir-crazy at 5 months with my first kid, about 4 months with the others. So Anonymous may not need as long as she now thinks she will. I would advise planning for a 6-month leave, I have a feeling that's a pretty good length from the standpoint of mother recovery and baby sleeping habits.

    Here's a nice graphic overview of parental leave practices I saw over at InBabyAttachMode's

    Cloud made some excellent points above, like this one
    the cardinal rule of job searching: never sound bitter

    I adore my kids but I am also very career-driven, and I must admit I have a hard time understanding the long-term stay-at-home choice when made by highly educated women who had (seemingly) fulfilling careers pre-kids, but to each their own. I do not, however, appreciate being told that daycare is somehow damaging my kids, and have been known to respond in kind to such comments.

    1. Anonymous7:35 AM

      I don't get it either... but I'm also at the age where (highly educated) friends of mine are doing the "take paid leave, take unpaid leave, then quit" thing. It's probably a combination of their jobs not being as compelling as mine, and their kids sleeping a lot more than mine, and maybe personality, I dunno. Doing some IRL comparisons, I spend the same amount of awake time with my kids that many of them do! The difference being that we're often begging the baby to go to sleep at 10:30pm and they're trying to keep theirs up past 6:30pm. Theirs take two two hour naps during the day, mine takes two 20 min naps (at daycare), and so on.

    2. Amen @GMP, so true that @Anonymous might find a 9-12 month leave too long. YMMV of course, but I was ready to go back at 17 weeks after baby #1 and after 14 weeks post baby #2 (I know because I actually wrote that down both times.)

      Also both of my kids entered the attachment phase right around 8-9 months and suddenly got freaked out by strangers. If we had started them in daycare/with a new nanny at that point - hoo boy, it would have been a tougher transition that it was starting them at 4-5 months old.

    3. I would have had a hard time staying quiet during that rant. High quality daycare is just like pre-school, only you get more of it. So, unless you think pre-school damages kids, it's hard to see the daycare argument.

    4. I don't know, re: the daycare argument. Yes, absolutely, it's offensive and non-evidence-based to claim that daycare "damages" children. Yet it's not always an optimal environment for small babies, depending the quality of daycare available or what's affordable, and depending on the personality of the baby. I would not have put my baby in daycare under 12 months. In fact, I did not, and made a series of choices so that did not happen. I felt strongly about it, even though it was inconvenient and cost me extra money. I was not "wrong" in my priorities or feelings, just as I don't think there's anything damaging about putting a 12 week old infant in daycare (or younger, depending on the parents' situation). Where I lived when my kids were babies was a place with no decent daycare options that we could get into. Eventually, we found a great home daycare, but he was a toddler by then. My eldest child would have found daycare at such a young age unbearable (when he got overstimulated at 3 months old he would scream and scream and scream). He is extremely sensitive to environment, even today (and he's cycled through having a nanny, nanny-share, home daycare, big daycare, and preschool).

      And I also wanted to be with them. I was home full time until they were 4 months old, then I started having babysitters come in for 10-20 hours a week, depending on their age and which child it was. I didn't go back full time until they were eight months old. (My kids never went through attachment phases of clinging to me, either one of them,and they both deal with transitions and new people really well.) That rhythm worked really well for me. I'm an academic so it's very easy for me to keep working or work part time even when on "leave". (#1 I had unpaid leave, #2 a semester of paid leave, during which I was actually still working, just not teaching.)

      A full year completely away from work is unfathomable to me, too, but my sil (in Canada) recently took full year leaves for both infants and then quit before the end of the second maternity leave. I think many working women quit because they find it overwhelming, because they have partners who don't help with the childcare/house care. They'd rather just simplify. And also I think many people just don't care that much about their jobs. (it's a job rather than a profession, if that makes sense.)

    5. I think the woman delivering the rant about day care was just angry about what a hard time she was having getting back into the job market, and that anger came out as defensiveness for her choice. Or anyway, that's how I chose to view it so that I didn't feel like I had to defend my choice!

      @Erin- I agree that for some babies, day care isn't a good fit, and that in some areas quality day care for babies is hard to find. That's not the case here in San Diego, but I don't know where this woman was living when her children were babies.

      I think the woman who was talking had been out for more than the baby years, though. In general, a one year break in biotech is not hugely problematic. It happens to people because of lay offs as well as because they choose to take time off to be with a baby.

      There were actually quite a few women trying to get back into work after an extended break (primarily to care for kids) at this event. They are setting up a group to provide support and ideas to each other- which I fully support. But it was eye-opening to me to talk to some of them. They seemed surprised by how hard it was to get back in and some (not all) seemed to think companies owed them internships or other assistance on the way back in. In some cases, they had done nothing to stay in touch with their career goals while out for 5 or more years. Basically, a few of them just seemed completely out of touch with the realities of navigating through a long leave like this. It was a bit depressing.

    6. I just wanted to agree with @Erin (and not disagreeing with you!). I was fortunate that my husband was able to stay home the first year. We also had family and nanny help. I just could NOT envision putting my babies in daycare before 1 year old. I repeat this all the time, but I truly believe 1 year leave is optimal for breastfeeding and bonding time with babies. After that time, women can make a better decision about working. I was so sleep-deprived that first year and I imagine that pushes more women to quit, no matter how much they value their job / career.

      I also agree that companies don't owe anyone anything. It just makes sense for them to reward/hire those who do stay in the workforce with more current skills. I think the SAH-person needs to ramp up their skills via volunteering and what not, because it's just too competitive out there to assume an employer would prefer a SAH-parent over someone who never left the workforce.

    7. @Erin: of course, daycare is not for everyone, and some places may not have access to good quality affordable daycare. I don't think the issue is that all kids should go to daycare, I don't think anyone is arguing that. It's more of a question: many families sends their kids to daycare and are happy with the arrangement (i.e. it works well for the kids and parents). Then someone comes to tell these families (or, as it most often happens, moms) that they are not only wrong, but that they are in fact hurting their own children by (selfishly!) working outside of home and that the one true way to not make future sociopaths is for the women to stay at home (who cares if the woman actually has any aspirations beyond child rearing). That makes me livid on so many levels.

      ... it was eye-opening to me to talk to some of them. They seemed surprised by how hard it was to get back in and some (not all) seemed to think companies owed them internships or other assistance on the way back in. In some cases, they had done nothing to stay in touch with their career goals while out for 5 or more years.

      FFS, have they met corporate America?

    8. Anonymous8:28 AM

      At 8 months my baby needed daycare. One-on-one attention was no longer enough for her. We were boring her. The mother's helpers were boring her. Our toys were boring her. Our neighborhood was boring her. The only thing that wasn't boring her was dangerous stuff she wasn't supposed to get into, and learning how to climb so she could get into said dangerous stuff. It's been two months and she LOVES daycare. Daycare has also allowed her own stuff to become more interesting again.

      I am still breast-feeding and bonding. Heck, I breastfed DC1 until he was almost 3. I like to think we're still bonding with him despite his being in school.

      My mental line is: institutional daycare is great once the kid is mobile. Even the best daycares find it easier to leave non-mobile babies in the bouncer/small motor station/swing etc. too long. Of course, even the best SAHP and nannies do that too, but at least if you're a SAHP that's your choice. There's also the way daycares make everybody sick, and it's a little easier to deal with that with older babies, but there's nothing magical about a year there.

      There are pros and cons to every child-care choice, and we have to take our individual beliefs and individual children into account when making our own choices. We should keep in mind that blanket statements probably aren't going to work for everybody, and that most kids will flourish under a number of different scenarios.

    9. @N&M - exactly. My oldest went to daycare at 4 months. I worked in my home office nearby and came in every day at lunch to nurse him. We bonded perfectly fine.

  4. One thing that wasn't mentioned...if they are being paid off a federal (or even foundation) grant, there may be rules about time off (all of the research scientists I've worked with had some sort of career development grant to pay their salary while they got the experience/papers/time to get a faculty position). I'm pretty sure NIH career development grants have stipulations re: maternity leave. While anon may be willing to take the time off unpaid, if the grant doesn't allow that, she may not have a salary to come back to. Grants also have time-lines, so the work NEEDS to be progressing in her absence. The research scientists I know do a LOT of their own experiments/data analysis/etc... you may have some students working with you, but its not like you're a senior faculty member with a whole lab full of workers that you can supervise from afar. It may be hard to keep things moving at a good pace when you're out even with once a week meetings or the like. And finding a temp worker for a PhD level position may not fly in academia. Its very likely a research scientist is getting salary paid from a grant, which can't just be transferred to a temp or even a tech.
    And then there is the issue mentioned above about how much time she will REALLY want off. Is she about to have her first kid? Is this just hypothetical? Pre-kids, I thought, the longer the better for maternity leave, but once I entered my first leave, I realized that I would go nuts pretty quickly.

    1. Alexicographer6:55 PM

      At the (R01) university I'm part of it would be pretty easy (conceptually, not necessarily actually) to hire a replacement Ph.D. for an academic or calendar year. Junior Ph.Ds are a dime a dozen in the (social science) fields I'm close to. That said, if the project in question involves considerable investment/awareness in its particulars or a rare sort of expertise, obviously this wouldn't work no matter how many people want (even) a short-term job. And the hard sciences may have very different job environments (though my general impression is, not so much).

    2. NIH has changed policies relatively recently to provide more options for family leave:

      I think the granting agencies are adding more flexibility, but that it is recent, so a lot of people are unaware. That's why I think Anonymous should do some research on this before talking to her PI.

    3. Good to know, thanks for the link.

  5. Anonymous12:57 PM

    I went back to academia after two years of force leave (I quit because the group I was working wasn't supportive) with the help of NIH reentry award. Still struggling to make my mark, but who said it will be easy. Something to think about...

  6. I agree that the poster might not know how much time she will want off until she's in it. That being said, if she only takes 6 months and then wants 10, that's not a good thing either. That happened to me (I'm in Canada, so we can take up to a year with benefits, but i only took 9 and was very upset and not ready when I went back). I'd say, if possible, get as long of a leave as you can, but see if the door is open to return earlier.

  7. +1 to the not knowing about how much time off one needs beforehand. I'm the opposite - I thought I'd be happy to go back to work after my leave and pick up where i left off, so to speak, but for me so much was different once that first baby was actually here. I ended up having "the talk" with my boss about a month before I was scheduled to return from a 20 week leave, to get a part-time schedule. (I was prepared to walk away, and they knew it, so they accommodated.)

    One thing that may not apply in this questioner's circumstance, but more so in the hypothetical scenario, is to not only keep your professional network active (lunches, coffee, and LinkedIn at minimum), but also to maintain any professional certifications by keeping up your continuing ed requirements, paperwork, etc.

    I have no desire to take that wretched PMP exam again, so while I'm off (which looks like 2018 if all goes well), I'll be doing everything I can to get those credits completed.


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