Wonderful, terrifying, joyful, and exhausting: having a baby is a life-changing experience.
One thing it should not change, however, is your career potential.
Employment laws oblige your employer to keep you abreast of any changes that take place at your workplace while you are on maternity leave.
If you are worried about losing touch, there are also lots of ways to keep your skills up to date.
Making the most of maternity leave
Whatever length maternity leave you decide to take, here are some tips to help you come back to work on top of your game.
Reading newspapers, trade journals, and relevant websites is one of the easiest ways to stay on top of what is happening in your sector while you are off work.
It’s one of the steps Dr Lottie Ford, a consultant gastroenterologist at Western Sussex NHS Trust, has taken to keep her skills up to date during her seven-month maternity leave.
“I have been keeping up with medical journals and scientific publications, and doing some online learning,” she said.
Attend keeping-in-touch days
Under current laws, you can go in to work for up to 10 so-called keeping-in-touch days while you are on maternity leave. These can be used to attend key meetings or training sessions, or to ease your way back into work towards the end of your leave.
“I plan to do some keeping-in-touch days at the hospital to maintain my skills in endoscopic procedures such as colonoscopy,” Ford said.
However, keeping-in-touch days are optional: your employer does not have to offer them, but it cannot insist you attend them either.
“I feel very lucky that my – almost exclusively male – colleagues have been very supportive. They have kept me in the loop without putting any pressure on.” Ford said.
Recognise your new skill set
Becoming a parent will almost certainly mean you have to develop lots of new skills you can use to your advantage in the workplace.
“Motherhood has definitely made me more focused and more efficient,” said mum-of-three Annabel Andrewes, a legal counsel consultant at London-based Legal Edge, which provides legal services for small to medium-sized businesses.
Ford agrees. “The skills motherhood has given me include patience, resourcefulness, and the ability to better empathise with my patients and their families,” she added.
“I now understand what it means to worry about someone to the degree that you struggle to articulate your fears or rationalise your feelings.”
Consider a part-time course
You probably won’t have the time to think about doing much other than care for your baby during the first few months of maternity leave.
If you have opted to take longer off work, however, you may want to consider doing a part-time course to gain a new qualification or learn some new skills.
Just remember not to take too much on.
“While on a previous maternity leave I did a distance learning qualification – a diploma in post graduate medical education,” Ford said. “But in hindsight that was probably overdoing it a bit!”
Maternity leave: your rights
The law states that new mums must take at least two weeks off work after the birth. Beyond that, you can decide how much time you want or need.
The statutory maternity leave available to all pregnant employees is 52 weeks. This period is split into two parts: ordinary maternity leave lasting 26 weeks, and additional maternity leave, also set at 26 weeks.
Your employer is only obligated to pay you statutory maternity pay, which is worth 90% of your usual salary (before tax) for the first six weeks and £145.18 per week after that, for 33 weeks.
The exception is if you have a provision in your contract for enhanced, or contractual, maternity pay that is above the statutory rate.
Staying in the loop
Either way, employers are required to inform you of any relevant changes, such as promotion opportunities and social events.
“How the employee is kept up to date should be agreed between the employee and employer before maternity leave begins,” said employment law specialist Acas.
It is, however, worth bearing in mind your employer only has to allow you to return to the same job, under the same terms if your leave lasts for six months or less.
Beyond that, you may be offered a different role, albeit on similar terms.
Take a proper break
New skills are not the only way maternity leave can give you a professional edge. Sometimes time spent not thinking about your job can be a great way to get a fresh outlook.
“I do not believe having some time off for maternity leave diminishes our experience and skills,” Andrewes said.
“Most skills don’t evolve that radically in a year, so I don’t think we should worry as much as we do.
“It can be good to take a break and come back with a different perspective.”
Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.