Maternity coaching: a crap name for an incredible development opportunity

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I want to start with a confession: despite my dislike of the terminology, if you search our website, you will find reference to maternity and paternity coaching. It’s become such a commonly recognised internet search term, we have to have it in our shop window to enable our discovery by interested parties.

I do dislike the label, though. In the two years that we’ve been developing and growing our career parent focused coaching consultancy, we’ve come to believe that labels such as these are as off-putting as they are useful.

Maternity coaching actually has very little to do with maternity. It is not about the experience of childbirth, nor does it explore what good parenting is.

At its best, maternity (or identity transition coaching as we like to call it) frames the experience of becoming a parent as an unique personal and professional development opportunity.

After all, there are few experiences in one’s adult life that are so utterly and essentially transformative, and which offer such rich pickings for reflection and change.

In this article we want to share some of our experiences of working with new parents during this life changing, and life affirming, experience; to demystify, if you will, what maternity coaching is, and to explain why we believe it is an incredible opportunity that more organisations, and individuals should be tapping into.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the issue of identity.

As we get progressively older, big identity shifts tend only to be triggered by personal crises - illness or injury, the unexpected loss of a loved one, for example - or as a result of biology; the aging process; the changing chemical and hormonal balance in our bodies.

Becoming a parent is different, but just as seismic.

The Dr Pepper question, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’, suddenly has myriad permutations.

You might argue that becoming a parent is a biological change, starting as it does in a woman’s body, but what’s different from other biological changes is that it also exits the body, in the form of a tiny, separate, and totally dependant human being.

For a whole host of reasons - the rising cost of living, difficulties getting into the housing market, the changing expectations of both women and men about life and careers - women are having babies later in life.

The average age of a woman having her first child is now 30, and thanks to advances in health technology, it’s even possible for women to have children when some of us might be thinking about when to start drawing our pension.

It’s even possible to freeze eggs, for later fertilisation and implantation. Facebook famously hit the headlines two years ago for introducing as a benefit the offer to fund the cost of egg freezing for employees who wanted or needed to delay having kids.

At the time, Sheryl Sandberg explained she’d been inspired by an employee with cancer, whose only chance of ever having children was the freezing of her eggs prior to the start of her chemotherapy, and had later decided to extend the option to all employees, regardless of their personal circumstances.

New parents typically have a well-developed sense of their personal and professional identity by the time they become parents.

There was quite a hostile reaction from some quarters - those who regarded this as a cynical move to keep employees working for longer - but there were others who saw this as positive recognition by Facebook that times are-a-changing, and that women, and families, don’t necessarily conform to the models of past generations.

With recent changes in society such as these, new parents typically have a well-developed sense of their personal and professional identity by the time they become parents.

They will probably have been a productive member of the work force for at least eight years or more and, if they are career minded, will have been progressively advancing their careers, by increasing the scope and scale of their professional roles.

Does your household have operating rhythm?

They may also have been in a relationship with their partner for some time, to the extent that they have developed an ‘operating rhythm’, where roles and expectations of each other have become subconsciously defined.

It’s not unlikely that the last significant identity shift they experienced will have occurred when they exited the education system and entered the world of work, or when they moved from being an ‘I’ to being part of a ‘We’.

Then along come the kids, and the world as you know it fundamentally and irrevocably changes. Suddenly you’re not just Alison and Tim anymore, you’re now mum and dad as well.

This change of identity is an incredible opportunity for personal reflection and development.

Furthermore, parenting necessitates the rapid development of new skills and perspectives - you’re learning on the job, and learning fast - which have enormous potential to expand your professional repertoire.

As all parents know, leadership skills are never more essential than when you’re raising inquisitive and adventurous kids with no concept of personal risk. Employee engagement is chicken feed compared to maintaining the interest of your children.

But as well as being an amazing opportunity, a failure to fully explore and integrate these new identities can contribute to self-limiting hurdles for new parents, particularly for the primary caregiver.

Employee engagement is chicken feed compared to maintaining the interest of your children.

Time away from a career, and those all-important networks of colleagues and peers, and the emotional tractor beam emanating from a helpless tiny infant can, can in some cases, make choices that were once simple and effortless feel unbearably ominous.

The Dr Pepper question, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’, suddenly has myriad permutations.

The importance of clarifying boundaries

Oftentimes in coaching engagements, our work is about helping career parents clarify their personal and professional boundaries, and developing their skills and techniques to deal with infringements.

For high performing individuals with, say, a strong perfection drive, the thought of leaving the office at 5pm every day when their prior work identity was that of a ‘first-to-arrive, last-to-leave, go-getter’, is a remarkably consistent cause of pre return-to-work anxiety.

Like any significant leadership transition - say from head of a business unit to enterprise leader - we’re often helping individuals come to see that their attitudes and behaviours, which had been key to their success prior to having children, are no longer sustainable, or indeed suitable, for driving their future career progression.

The quality of personal relationships is a critical enabler of one’s career progression, particularly post childbirth.

In our many interviews with successful business women, operating at the very top of their professions, when we’ve asked how they’ve successfully balanced their careers and family life, they always speak about developing their skills of prioritisation and delegation, and getting comfortable with letting go.

They simply don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.

Although our work is primarily focused on an individual’s professional relationships and identity, what we’ve also come to see over the last few years is that the quality of personal relationships is a critical enabler of one’s career progression, particularly post childbirth.

Equality in the workplace and equality in the home

It’s been said before by a number of high profile commentators, that equality in the workplace is only achievable if there is equality in the home.

Part of the work we do explores interpersonal communication and dispute resolution, with partners and the wider support network that so many families rely on these days.

It is only once these barriers and anxieties have been uncovered and resolved, that the exciting work of exploring newly developed and highly transferable skills can really begin.

We completely respect everyone’s right to make the choices that are right for them, at that moment in time.

As I said at the start of this article, the term maternity coaching can be offputting to some. In our experience of working with talented, high performing individuals, often the last thing they want is to feel needy for additional support. It’s one of the reasons that we try to frame our work as an unique development opportunity that can, if you want it to, maintain and accelerate your career progression.

Finding balance isn’t easy, and we completely respect everyone’s right to make the choices that are right for them, at that moment in time.

We’re also very proud of our growing community of new parents who’ve secured promotions either during or shortly after returning from their parental leave. It gives us hope that there is a growing belief in business that becoming a parent doesn’t need to mean the end of a promising career.

It's HR in Retail month on HRZone! We're focusing on all things retail - check out our HR in retail hub to read all our great content!

About Daniel Godsall

Dan Godsall Founder of WOMBA

Dan is founder of WOMBA Group. He spent twenty-seven years of his career in financial services, where he rose to the level of Managing Director at Barclays Bank plc. In 2014 he made the decision to take a break from corporate life to spend time at home with his six month old son, Jesse. That experience led Dan to found WOMBA - an equality and diversity training consultancy with particular emphasis on making the world of work a better place for working parents. Dan also coaches senior leaders and executives.

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