06/22/2015 05:34 EDT | Updated 06/22/2016 05:59 EDT

How to Network During Your Mat Leave

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For some women, the prospect of taking one year of maternity leave can feel like a career-limiting move. It shouldn't be, for obvious reasons, but the reality is that despite the laws in place that support a woman's return to work, some women may feel pressure to return to work early, or feel that their absence will result in being passed up for a promotion.

Their fears are not without merit. A 2010 TD Economics study examined why women continue to earn 20 per cent less over the course of their careers than their male colleagues. The study found that as much as half of the wage gap was due to women taking time off work to raise children.

Regardless of the circumstances or the length of leave, networking is important for all professionals at every stage of their career. Some of you may be wondering: how do I balance focusing on my new family and my desire to stay connected to my professional life?

I tapped into my network of fellow moms to ask how they stayed in touch professionally while on maternity leave. Here are the top tips for those of you looking to do so:

Plan, plan and plan. But be flexible.

Both for employers and for employees, it's important to craft a plan before maternity leave. A friend told me that her boss wanted to plan for the possibility that she would be away for a year, but was also willing to be flexible if she wanted to come back early.

You will have to plan for your maternity leave to ensure that your role and responsibilities are covered while you are away, but it's also important to leave room for flexibility. Some moms have a baby and decide there is no way they are going back to work until they absolutely have to. Other mothers decide after six months that they really want to return to work.

Every situation and family is unique. Having a plan in place is crucial, just know that you may need or want some flexibility.

Stay connected

This may seem really obvious, but those two-hours-of-sleep-a-night days (and there were many in my experience) don't create an optimal environment to network. So give yourself time to adjust to life with a baby and try not to feel guilty about it if you haven't pulled out the "rolodex" in a while. But when the dust settles, and it most likely will, feel free to connect with your employer or reach out to your professional network.

Maybe that means having semi-regular calls with your boss or the person that is covering your leave. But staying connected doesn't have to mean that you are attached to work. LinkedIn can help you stay on top of industry news and career movement in your professional network. While it's really up to you to determine how connected you'd like to be, being in the know about recent company news or trends in your industry may make the transition back to work a little smoother.

Surprisingly, I did hear from some moms who said their employers weren't supportive of staying connected while on parental leave. While I can understand it shouldn't be an expectation or be a factor in determining career progression, an employee who would like to stay in touch should be accommodated, in my opinion.

Build your network from the comfort of your couch

Depending on your child, there can be moments of downtime during parental leave. This could be during nap times or even after your baby goes to sleep (if they sleep). In the first few months, it felt like I was nursing my child for 20 out of the 24 hours of the day. Once I got the hang of things, I felt I had a bit of time to catch up in my professional world. I was confined to the couch at that time, so it was a good chance to get online. LinkedIn can be a great way to reconnect with people and see what your connections are up to. I used that time to reach out, research where my connections were working and make a list of who I wanted to reconnect with in-person when I got back to work. I joined a few industry-specific groups and read through the discussions, participating when I was able to.

Network with other moms

You may be surprised to read that there may be other parents in your area that would like to connect professionally while on maternity leave. I belong to a fantastic mother's group on Facebook, where other moms have connected personally and professionally. We may not all be in the same industry, but there is great benefit to growing your network beyond your industry and profession. I've heard of moms who have met while on maternity leave and those connections have led to career changes or new roles.

Some new mothers want to network and stay connected to their work place while on maternity leave. Others don't. This is a very personal choice, made for many different reasons and in a variety of circumstances. While networking can be done in person and in a professional setting, it doesn't have to be. Networking can come in many forms -- even at the playground.


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