Here's the Plan.

Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood


By Allyson Downey

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For many women in their 20's and 30's, the greatest professional hurdle they'll need to overcome has little to do with their work life. The most focused, confident, and ambitious women can find themselves derailed by a tiny little thing: a new baby. While more workplaces are espousing family-friendly cultures, women are still subject to a "parenting penalty" and high-profile conflicts between parenting and the workplace are all over the news: from the controversy over companies covering the costs of egg-freezing to the debate over parental leave and childcare inspired by Marissa Mayer's policies at Yahoo. Here's the Plan offers an inventive and inspiring roadmap for working mothers steering their careers through the parenting years. Author Allyson Downey, founder of weeSpring, the "Yelp for baby products,” and mother of two young children advises readers on all practical aspects of ladder-climbing while parenting, such as negotiating leave, flex time, and promotions. In the style of #GIRLBOSS or Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, Here's the Plan is the definitive guide for ambitious mothers, written by one working mother to another.






In my early twenties, when all I cared about was work, pregnancy and parenthood seemed a million years away. I assumed that, when the time came, I’d be one of those women who goes into labor at the office, envisioning this as the ultimate demonstration of commitment to one’s career.

Sure, when I had actual children, I would need to shift my priorities a bit, maybe working remotely on occasion or coming in after school drop-off a couple of days a week. But pregnancy? Pregnancy was nothing. I was a force of nature, and being pregnant would not slow me down.

Well, it turned out that pregnancy is a very real and literal force of nature. I saw early signs of that among my colleagues; I worked with one woman who was vomiting so much and so forcefully that she had to be put on an IV. She’d plod into the office after barfing at home for two hours, steely-eyed and determined to make it through the day, but I’d look over at her during meetings and see in her clammy, gray face that she was struggling. This was before “hyperemesis gravidarum” was a known term (made famous by the Duchess of Cambridge), so my colleague’s state seemed both horrifying and rare. On the other end of the spectrum, I had heard women share—with wonder, their hands resting gently on their bellies—how pregnancy was so incredible. But even if you’ll be in the happy, glowing camp, you’re still looking at a prolonged absence from your job.

For that, planning is crucial, and from much earlier on than you’d expect. I have always been a planner, so naturally I had a plan for my maternity leave from my Wall Street job: I’d proactively send an email to my external contacts; I’d have a colleague keep an eye on any open accounts; I’d neatly wrap up any other loose ends; and I’d be back in the office six weeks after giving birth.

Of course, as I shared earlier, none of those things happened: I had serious complications at just 23 weeks, and I didn’t set foot in my office again. In hindsight, there’s not much I could have done differently; I had a plan, but I had no time to execute it.

What would have made a difference would have been understanding and accepting that there’s nothing reliably predictable about pregnancy. We’re regularly told what “usually” happens when one is pregnant: if you suffer from morning sickness, you’ll usually start to feel better around 12 weeks; women usually love the second trimester; first pregnancies usually deliver a little late. But here’s the thing: you might be unusual—in fact, in some regard you probably will be. So advance planning is essential.

The first step is wrapping your head around what your time away from work will mean for you.


I talked to dozens of women who felt deep, bone-shaking anxiety about taking maternity leave. Some were panicked at the thought of a three-month black hole of work left untouched during their absence. Others were concerned about their career trajectory, especially if making accommodations for that leave would require them to start saying “no.” For some, the “no” wasn’t just about broadly declining additional responsibility; it was tied to very specific and practical things that would be impossible. For example: “No, I can’t be in Dallas in March because I’m having a baby in February,” or, “No, I won’t be able to lead the due diligence on that deal because I’ll be on maternity leave for half of it.”

And given the sorry state of paid leave in our country—which I’ll outline in detail—there are also major financial implications to taking leave. One woman wanted to take the full time she was afforded under the Family and Medical Leave Act (twelve weeks), but was eligible for only six weeks of paid leave—so she took the other six weeks unpaid. “Your financial life stops,” she said, “for almost fifty days.”

       After trying for seven years to have a baby, it never occurred to me to think about what would happen when I did.


For other women, the fear took a more ominous tone: they feared they’d fooled everyone into believing they were valuable. If they left, what would happen if no one missed them? Would it finally become clear to their colleagues that they weren’t really contributing? This is a classic example of impostor syndrome, wherein one feels incompetent or unqualified—and on the verge of being exposed as such. In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young profiles countless household names who have feared they’re frauds, including Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, and Meryl Streep. Sheryl Sandberg also discusses it in Lean In. Impostor syndrome is painfully common in women.

And then there are the women who truly believed (and in many cases rightfully so) that their companies couldn’t operate without them. Not working meant that whatever they’d been doing would come to a screeching halt. The most talked-about instance of this was Marissa Mayer’s highly publicized two-week maternity leave, which was scheduled to happen just a few months after she’d been named CEO of Yahoo. I remember that news cycle as a whirlwind of contradictions, with comments like “It’s groundbreaking that a pregnant woman has been named CEO of a public company!” being countered by “It’s destructive of her to be suggesting women don’t need to recover after childbirth!”

During my first pregnancy, I felt I’d be leaving my company (and career) in the lurch, and so I declared I’d take minimal leave. At the time I was a sole operator in a commission-based business-development role, which meant if I didn’t do something, it didn’t get done. I landed on that six weeks estimate by interrogating a woman who’d just had her third baby. She told me, very bluntly, that it wasn’t an option for her to take time off. “I’d lose my clients. They expect to hear from me, not an assistant.” She hired a baby nurse and worked from home.

The second time around, I was running a startup—and I took a different approach. Soon after I shared that I was pregnant, I started moving things off my plate and onto others’. First I created an extensive document of my responsibilities (which is a good exercise for anyone, pregnant or not). I prioritized the responsibilities, and identified a new “owner” for many of them. I then shared this document on the cloud with the team, so everyone could see who was handling what. This process also shored up their confidence that we could hold things together without my being involved in the day-to-day operations.

But the most empowering, and unexpected, benefit of this planning was that a lot of things didn’t get a new owner. They just didn’t get done. The exercise was enlightening, forcing me to identify what I spent time on that wasn’t mission-critical. Sending a monthly email update to investors? A good idea, certainly, but they’d be fine with quarterly updates. Leading content syndication deals with partner sites? While that could be a game changer if I pulled it off, it was also a huge long shot—and I couldn’t afford to invest my time in long shots. Other women echoed how illuminating it was to just stop doing part of their job and discover there were limited consequences. One referred to the startling revelation that parts of her job “could get iced for three months if they had to be.”

Of course, this kind of streamlining becomes second nature once you’re juggling your work life and your kids, but it’s a powerful thing to act on while pregnant because it gives you a preview of your office during your absence. One woman started working from home two days a week during her pregnancy, essentially running a maternity drill for her team. “I wanted them to get some practice at not having me around while I could still keep an eye on things.” Similarly, taking stock of the nonessentials—and putting them on the back burner—before you take leave gives you a chance to assess whether or not the company can operate without them.

Another thing to consider: whether you’ll want or need to take some time off prior to the birth of your child. Those federally mandated twelve weeks can start to shrink if you want or need to tap into those days before delivering. Some women are emphatic that you should work up until you deliver—not just to show commitment to your career, but also because it buys you more time with the baby. Their decisions were compounded by the fact that they weren’t sure when they’d deliver, so they could wind up miscalculating by two weeks or more. They said things like, “I didn’t want to waste my maternity leave.” But others felt that pre-baby time couldn’t be further from “waste”—that it’s absolutely essential to give yourself the physical and mental break before embarking on what one woman referred to as “the road to perpetual exhaustion.” And some women had no choice at all: for medical reasons, they had to bow out of work early. One woman I interviewed delivered at 28 weeks, then returned to work six weeks later while her baby was still in the neonatal intensivecare unit. Though that period was harrowing and miserable, with that early return she was able to take her remaining six weeks once her baby came home from the hospital.

Some short-term disability policies will cover things like pregnancy bed rest without diminishing your maternity leave, but that’s a question only your HR department can answer. You’ll also want to ask HR what your leave options are. That’s covered lower down, starting with “Overview of Family Leave in the U.S.” Some fortunate women have a say in how they’ll structure their leave. Lately companies have started making headlines by announcing extended leave policies, such as offering flexibility for paid time to be used at any point up until baby’s first birthday, or, in the case of Netflix, offering “unlimited” time off.

For women who are afforded choice, the next step is figuring out how long you can afford—professionally, financially, and emotionally—to take time away from career life.


To get right to the point: deciding on the length of your maternity leave before you’ve had a baby is completely backwards. For one thing, you’re about to undergo the biggest life change you’ll ever face, commencing with a physical feat I’ve heard some women equate with running a marathon without any training. Regardless of how prepared you think you are, there’s really no way to predict how you’re going to feel mentally and physically—never mind deciding when you’ll be ready to return to business as usual. So if you get to choose the length of your leave, you have to make that choice blindly.

Because there’s no broadly mandated paid leave in the U.S., duration of maternity leave is primarily a financial decision for many families. To give yourself more flexibility on the financial side, one woman advised starting a separate bank account pre-baby and diverting a portion of your take-home pay into it so you have a fund you can dip into in those weeks or months with no paycheck. If you’re not yet pregnant, I cannot emphasize this enough: start now.



           Countless women told me that they were floored to learn that their companies didn’t offer fully paid maternity leave. Many received no pay at all, while others received just 60 percent of their paychecks for six weeks. One academic told me, “I financed my maternity leave with a credit card.”

                  Every year, Working Mother magazine publishes a survey of the top 100 employers for women; in addition to stats on teleworking and the number of women executives, it includes data on the amount of parental leave offered. Of the 100 companies considered most friendly to working women, only 18 percent offered twelve or more weeks fully paid. More (19 percent) had only four weeks of leave paid in full, with the average landing at just 7.5 weeks. And that’s the most hospitable companies!

                  Brittany Griffin is a former teacher who now works at an education-focused technology company. She was pleasantly shocked to learn they covered twelve weeks at full salary, but she saw it as an embarrassment of riches. She had friends who worked in medicine who had to go back before their C-sections had fully healed; another friend who was a waitress started taking shifts a week after her baby was born. “I couldn’t tell any of my friends I had twelve weeks paid,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who got their full salary for that long.”


Jane Barratt, founder of GoldBean and the former head of a global advertising agency, told me that she financed a yearlong maternity leave by selling half of the Apple stock she’d bought in her twenties.

Twelve weeks is usually what you’ll see in companies where the leave policy is considered generous. Anecdotally, I found that companies that needed to be aggressive in recruiting top talent (like big law firms, who all compete against each other for top law school graduates) offered the “cushiest” packages. But the policy on the books and what people actually do can be vastly different. One lawyer shared, “It’s nice if you can actually afford to step away from your duties for that long,” but most women can’t.

“Three months is nothing,” one senior executive told me. “Nothing!” But because most people in major corporations don’t take more than one week of vacation at a time, it feels like an eternity—both to them and to their colleagues. The reality is that “few projects get done in three months, especially at big companies.” It’s less time than you think, both for the work you’re missing and the time you’re taking at home.

But while the difference between three months and four months may seem minimal, it’s incrementally huge for your newborn. At four months, she’s a “little less fragile,” as one of the moms I talked to phrased it, and she has more set rhythms. Your body is healed, and you’re probably feeling a little more confident. You’re probably also getting significantly more sleep—all of which benefits your baby.

Unfortunately, some companies have zero flexibility on this timeline. When one global marketing manager requested an unpaid extension on her leave, they flatly refused. “I hadn’t slept for twelve weeks, and I couldn’t give them a clear answer about how much more time I would need.” She thought it might have been two weeks, or maybe two months—but she realizes now that by being nonspecific she put herself in a poor negotiating position. The company told her they couldn’t hold her job, but she could resign and then call as soon as she was ready to come back. So that’s what she did, thinking it would be a quick reentry—but because the financial crisis hit around that same time, it wound up taking years.

While I’m not trying to fearmonger here, it’s worth doing your research now to determine what the contingencies would be should you want or need more time off. Ask other women who took leave, or talk to HR in broad terms about whether there’s flexibility if the family needs it. These conversations, particularly with people who have influence over your job, can be a tricky balance: you don’t want to signal any doubts about returning, but you also need context on policy and precedent if you’re going to try to secure an extension.

You can also survey other women in your industry to get a sense of what’s considered normal. The CMO of a publicly traded multinational company asked every senior-level mother in her organization—and friends outside—how they maximized their time, extended their leave beyond what was allocated on the books, and prepared for their departure. “There’s just no playbook for an executive leaving for three months.” Her research turned up a blood-boiling disparity: in France, employees of her company could take nine months’ paid leave, and there was a woman at her same level currently taking that length of leave at her full salary. But because she was in New York she was entitled to only three months, and even if she could take more, she feared it wouldn’t go over culturally. She ultimately took five months, using vacation days, personal days, and banking every other day possible for her maternity leave. The risk there, though, is that you go back with no accrued leave, so if your child is sick—or you are—you have to take an unpaid day.

Another woman, a partner in a venture capital firm where there were no other women, didn’t have a precedent to go by. She was pretty sure she wanted to take significant time with her new baby, but her partners were all married to women who stayed home full-time. She knew they already anticipated her departure—and not constructively so. In her first year one of her partners tried to dissuade her from attending an expensive conference. When she pressed him he said, “You could be here for eighteen months, go have a baby, and never come back. It’s not good ROI to spend $5,000 for you to go to this conference.” She was stunned, but took this as an early view at the partners’ mentality.

So she conducted a thorough analysis before she told them she was pregnant. “I knew that I would have to go above and beyond on planning and logistics,” she said, “and it had to be in a way that would make sense to them.” Fortunately she had a mentor, who worked at a different firm, who surreptitiously passed along data on the maternity leaves of a dozen women from other small investment funds, including how long they took and whether they were paid. Armed with that, she presented to her partners a one-page document with a bullet point reading, “[initials] at full salary for Q4” (“Q4” being her euphemism for “twelve-week maternity leave”). She spoke in their language, and it worked; they didn’t even blink at that line.

For some, policy is malleable. When media executive Fran Hauser sat down with her company’s HR specialist to discuss her maternity leave, she was shocked to learn she was eligible for only three or four weeks of the official maternity policy of thirteen weeks. Why? She was adopting, and the company didn’t consider it comparable. “I’m bringing home a newborn!” she told them. “I don’t understand why there’s a difference.” She fought it, enlisting her boss and another senior woman who’d adopted a child a decade earlier, and she won: the policy was changed company-wide. She felt she owed it to the other women she worked with, knowing that someone more junior raising this issue might not have succeeded. “I had a lot of women reporting in to me,” she said. “I was a mentor to them. It was my responsibility to speak up.”

A Preview of Post-Baby Capacity

In thinking about how much time you’ll need, the other major consideration is what life with a newborn actually looks like. I was clueless on this: I’d heard from friends that it was hard (obviously), but I was cloudy on what would be hard. The concrete things, like “You won’t have time to take a shower,” sounded like hyperbole. I knew people who’d had rough physical recoveries, and I’d heard complaints about lack of sleep, but I didn’t really have a sense of how that would affect me.

What wound up surprising me most was the enormous, radical impact of sleep deprivation. While we’re told newborns need to eat every two hours, we’re not always told those two hours are start-time to start-time. A breast-feeding newborn can take forty-five minutes to nurse. If you add in a diaper change, a trip to the bathroom, and a snack for you, you’re down to about an hour. So for those first couple of weeks, on average you’re getting sleep in one-hour increments.

That sleep deprivation has myriad effects. It’ll affect your appetite (you’re more likely to crave sugary foods) and your mood, but its most tremendous impact is on your cognition. The underslept brain doesn’t store new memories (like what your boss said in that meeting) as effectively, and suffers from diminished word recall. Sleep deprivation reduces your ability to concentrate, which will compound those memory problems further. It also impacts your decision-making: studies have shown that after a night of interrupted sleep, people are less risk-averse and more likely to make rash decisions—a phenomenon all-night casinos bank on. (We’ll cover the how and why of sleep deprivation in more detail later.)

Needless to say, this isn’t a mental state that’ll be constructive for your professional work, but too few companies consider this when setting their parental-leave policies.

Soon after my son was born, I vividly remember thinking—in abject desperation—that it would be twenty years before I again got more than two contiguous hours of sleep. Thankfully I was wrong, and by the time I went back to work at twelve weeks, Logan was usually waking up only once between 8:00 PM and 6:00 AM. But even that left me less than sharp.

There’s no such thing as “normal” when it comes to infant sleep, but we know a few things that researchers believe apply almost universally. First, circadian rhythms aren’t established until newborns are at least four months old—so until then, your baby can’t really differentiate between night and day. Second, the length of time babies can go between feedings (which also is the maximum they’ll sleep in one stretch) is tied to weight, not age, which makes it even harder to predict when you’ll achieve some regularity. So no matter how successful you’ve been in other parts of your life, infant sleep is not something you’ll be able to shoehorn into a rigid schedule.

Take that into account when you’re thinking about both your return-to-work date and your return-to-work plan. If you can factor in some flexibility—like a later start-time so you can grab a catnap in the morning, or some work-from-home days—it could improve your performance by helping you get the rest you need to function effectively.

Childcare Logistics

The ins and outs of managing childcare as a working parent are laid out in Chapter 6: Hiring a Caregiver, but how you’ll handle that transition should also factor into your thinking about your leave from work. Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Public Schools, told me she couldn’t imagine staying away from work for twelve weeks. “Both our HR manager and my mom hassled me to think more wisely, so I messaged my leave as twelve weeks because I thought I would be back well before then.” But her childcare search pushed that out another two weeks, to fourteen total, because she hadn’t allowed time for that search early on. “I was working from home early on in my maternity leave,” she said, “when I should have been screening nannies.” Another woman told me she wished she’d built in more overlap time—so she’d still be at home when her nanny started taking care of her daughter—to give her time to get comfortable and build rapport with her caregiver. For parents taking their child to daycare, you might also want to consider reserving some of your leave for days your baby won’t be able to go in; you’ll soon learn how common both daycare facility holidays and unplanned sickness can be.

However you chart your childcare, there’s still a huge emotional hurdle to overcome: leaving your child with someone else. There’s just no way to know how you’ll feel about it until you’re in it, so consider preserving what flexibility you can.

Leave for “Secondary Caregivers” (a.k.a. Paternity Leave)

I bristle at the term “secondary caregivers” because it implies that someone is a “primary” caregiver and that parenting responsibilities aren’t divided equally. Cynthia Calvert, president of Workforce 21C and a senior advisor to the Center for WorkLife Law, advises companies to avoid terms like “secondary” and “nonprimary” caregiver in their leave policies because of the challenges inherent in enforcing a categorization like that. “Do they really want to police who is a primary and who is a secondary?”

But putting aside what it’s called when someone who wasn’t the birth mother takes time to bond with a baby, studies have shown that women whose spouses take parental leave have a lower incidence of postpartum depression and are also more likely to earn more over the course of their career.1 If his or her company is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (discussed below), your spouse or coparent is eligible for the same twelve weeks of unpaid leave that you are; some more progressive companies, like Facebook and, offer several months of paid parental leave for all


On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
240 pages
Seal Press

Allyson Downey

About the Author

Allyson Downey is an entrepreneur, writer, and parent who has built a career on the power of trusted advice. In 2013, she launched weeSpring, a Techstars-backed startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. weeSpring has received accolades from TechCrunch, Mashable, CNBC, and the Daily Mail, and it was heralded as “Yelp for baby products” by InStyle magazine.

Allyson has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and a BA from Colby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools, one of the country’s top charter management organizations, and lives in Boulder with her husband and two children.

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