No man’s land: Navigating job loss after mat leave and reinventing your career
By Natalka Haras
Natalka is a lawyer living with her husband and daughter (18 months) in Montreal. With experience in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors, she's passionate about women's empowerment and best practices in the workplace.
My maternity leave did not end as planned. Turns out, there was no job for me to return to.
This was scary; disorienting. So much anxiety and emotion. How was my family – my tiny daughter, my devoted and creative husband, and me – going to get through this? We depended on my income. I am a lawyer with many marketable skills; my husband is an artist who had recently gone back to school.
Our original plan was that I would take just a little over a year off – as is protected in Quebec – to look after our child until we found a good spot for her in daycare. I took this relatively long leave so that I would have a good foundation established with my kid before I went back to work, and my husband, who is self-employed, would then take over lead parenting.
I had been out of the work force for a year, deeply engaged in caregiving work, when I found out my position had been abolished. I had been looking forward to returning to work while also feeling a little jittery about redefining my identity as both a mother and a professional. And now that transition was going to be more complicated.
Googling my situation was not reassuring. I found articles about the prevalence of mothers losing jobs after mat leave, how mat leaves damage careers, and how mothers returning from mat leave are marginalised in the workplace. There were comments about how little the mat leave job loss issue is openly discussed by women who experience it – maybe from fears over the perceptions of future employers or the silencing effect of agreements with former employers.
General articles about bouncing back from job loss didn’t capture the nuances particular to moms who’ve already been out of the workforce for a while.
Yet, since jobs are lost after mat leave, it strikes me this social issue should not be as mystifying, shame-ridden, and overwhelming for new moms to find their way through as it often seems. I decided to distill and share this rough guide/personal essay about getting through the process of job loss as a new mom, but also as a professional with a background in employment law.
Before I launch into these suggestions, I’d urge you to remember that every case is different because we’re all unique. What worked for me may be helpful, or it might need tweaking for your situation, or it may not be appropriate for you at all.
My wish is for you to take what I share and see if it sheds light on your own challenges, or helps you see the issues in a different way. Here is what I would want other career moms to know, if their jobs turn out to be less secure than they had planned for.
1. Get professional advice for the best outcome in your situation. I was thankful for my education and training. With a background in employment law, I understood the principles around my position being abolished. Rationally, I understood why employers may need to make this decision. I also believe that all parties should act reasonably.
Ask around discreetly in your network for referrals to lawyers who have good reputations, relevant experience, and offer reasonable fees.
A competent employment lawyer should help you understand your rights and what a reasonable resolution to your case should look like. They will help you pick out what are the relevant facts in your case. They can help you figure out strategy for negotiation and help you to act rationally. They may shed light on possibilities that you have not thought of. They should also look out for you by minimising the risks- helping you to get a good outcome without making dubious claims that will damage your reputation or pushing you to litigate unless it is truly in your interests to do so. Their job is to be your advocate, as well as a trusted advisor.
As workplace lawyer Sharaf Sultan points out, “Wise litigators know when to fight and when to talk. Employment matters are… meaningful to the person involved and that requires a blend of technical legal skills with [a sensitivity to] human relations.”
Spending a few hundred dollars to speak with an effective and efficient professional for an hour or two, and get your head around your matter, is worth it when your family’s financial wellbeing is at stake. Value yourself and your career; remember that you often get what you pay for.
One of the things that surprises people is not only can positions be abolished while you are out on parental leave, Canadian parents usually can’t claim unemployment benefits (EI) if this happens because they’ve already used up their insurable hours during their leave. That means the settlement you agree on with your employer usually needs to carry you through until you find a new job. This loophole in the law can disadvantage families badly when they are already vulnerable.
At one point I spoke to another mom who had also lost her job during mat leave; I was troubled to find out she decided not to consult a lawyer, because of the cost and because she was afraid that she would not get a good reference if her former employer saw her as difficult. She took the basic package offered to her, and it took her about a year to find a comparable new job.
In another case though, a mom I know well negotiated a strong resolution with the help of counsel and turned her job loss into an opportunity to launch the business that she always wanted to have. It wasn’t easy, but she is now building her practice on her terms.
You need to come out of this able to look at yourself in the mirror. You almost certainly will be judged on how you conducted yourself, but be careful about whose judgement you value. Maybe it’s OK to have boundaries and a strong professional reputation. Maybe being a strong woman is a better space to inhabit than being a nice girl.
That’s the practical part.
Then there’s the emotional side.
2. Do the work to process, learn, and heal. Our work may not define us, but it’s a big part of our identities, especially if you’ve invested years of study and training into your career.
I had to face my bruised ego. Then I needed to accept what had happened, so I could move on.
It was a bit like navigating the stages of grief or recovering from a break up. I doubted myself: no matter how good a job I thought I had been doing, no matter how good the feedback I got, it was hard not to take this personally. I felt rejected. I felt angry and disappointed. This was different from the achievements I was used to. I couldn’t believe I was living this vulnerability. Where had I gone wrong? How could I have let this happen? Why had this happened? These thoughts didn’t really help, but I needed to sort through them and let them go. Looking for answers to questions that can’t be answered can be crazy making.
I am thankful for the smart people around me who were willing to advise and offer moral and practical support. They were a sort of personal advisory board who, when I felt overwhelmed, reminded me that being a decent person and being a doormat is not synonymous. That while I may not have felt my most confident, I had to ensure that I (and by extension, my family) was treated fairly.
I felt motivated by what I wanted to be able to tell my daughter if ever she faced a similar challenge in her life: only you can stand up for yourself and circumstances like these demand toughness, integrity, and courage. You may not be able to babysit others’ feelings as you claim your voice and your space. And that’s OK. That’s not your job. Your job is to be a good citizen and also look after you and those you love. This is a hard lesson if you’ve been socialised, like so of us women, to be nice, to be likable, to be helpful, and not be demanding. You are probably going to feel messy and very alone.
So how did I cope?
I consciously took some time to heal. I read a lot: about adversity, about forgiveness, about life purpose, about career strategy, about feminism, about making the most of one’s innate qualities. My husband has long teased me that I am a self-help connoisseur. Reading, for me, is quiet therapy. So is walking in nature. So is connecting with friends and advisors. So is journaling and vigorous exercise and crying and singing and dancing it out. Do what works for you and remember it isn’t a linear process.
I faced my fears, which were not always rational. The big one was the fear of the unknown- at some point the future really felt like a no man’s land- full of uncontrollable hazards and unpredictable horrors. I also feared loss of income, loss of opportunity and losing relationships I had come to value.
I had to get over myself and start to believe in myself again. This did not happen overnight. I had to move through the discomfort to let the past go. I dreamt a lot of vivid and troubling dreams, from revisiting old workplaces to witnessing and intervening in injustices. I decided to watch for old patterns like approval seeking, unrelenting standards, negativity, and self-sacrifice that don’t lead me to the best outcomes. I had to learn to see setbacks as feedback rather than insurmountable failure. Processing the experience is crucial and you need to be real with yourself to do that.
My next step was to start asking myself better questions: What can I learn from this? What do I now know about myself? What no longer serves me? What qualities do I want to deploy in my next role? How do I want to meet my needs- for work, income, caregiving? How can I use this as an opportunity to move my career in a positive direction? What do I want to be able to say about my working life at the end of my career? What contributions do I want to have made?
I’d advise anyone going through this to work with a career coach if you can. Get counselling if you feel lost. Just like becoming a mom, change is tough. It helped me a lot to connect with people in my network who I trust and respect and who have lived similar situations and come out the other side.
3. Get clear on your criteria around your next career move and get back in the game. The healing process takes time, and it’s helpful to do it as you also take action on your career.
In my first interviews, I was nervous about how to tell my story; it got easier after a few tries. Explain your situation directly and factually, without any dramatic gloss. I found it helpful to practice this at home (I don’t think my husband enjoyed playing the role of a hard-nosed interviewer, but it helped me get back on my feet). If possible, interview widely, even for jobs that you’re not sure about at first; this takes the edge off that initial anxiety.
Outside of the interview scenario, I noticed sharing my current reality with others, while honest and brave, could also kill conversations. People may get nervous about how to respond. After talking it over with my career coach, I realised it opened the door in more interesting ways if, instead of mentioning the career transition full stop, I asked my conversation partner if they had any advice or ideas about career options. This made me aware of possibilities I had never thought of and led to interviews for positions that had not been posted.
Once you start asking for advice, you realise many people want to help. Humility need not be humiliating. My main caveat on advice, though? Be discerning. Remember most people can only meaningfully advise on what they have experienced. Most of us cannot truly imagine ourselves in another’s shoes. Don’t assume someone else is so accomplished that they can know how to live your life and career better than you.
That said, remember to express your appreciation for what people offer you. Your life may feel overwhelming and chaotic, but a sincere thank-you note or other gesture lets people know that you value their time and effort – and helps them to feel good about looking out for you.
Learn to trust yourself again. Take responsibility. Bet on yourself. Take the time to figure out what you want. And then go out there and ask for what you want. The decisions you make now are deeply personal, but, in my experience, the more I stretched myself, the more interesting my options got.
The safest, most obvious choice - a lateral move in the industry where you have been working- may not feel right at this point in your career. That’s OK. Slowly and steadily, try to separate the unhelpful noise in your head from valuable signals. Get creative about how to frame your skills. Do your best to act out of love rather than fear so that you find a fulfilling, stimulating, and sustainable way to make a living. Be practical, but not to the detriment of your long-term wellbeing.
Doing the work to find a new role that better aligned with my vision sometimes took priority over the mundane stuff of daily life. Laundry piled up (my husband’s a real partner, but his standards for housekeeping aren’t quite mine); reno projects we envisioned doing this spring got put off. Delayed gratification is the name of the game.
My thoughts around the substance of my next role shifted a lot since I started this process: I’m currently looking forward to a new chapter in my career that I didn’t have on my radar at the start. Keep the balls rolling as you interview. Even as you move toward an offer, you don’t know how things may go; it’s good to have options. As much as I wanted to have secured the next thing yesterday, I needed to sort through my options and make an informed choice that will not only be a good fit for now, but also for my future. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should not be a panic-induced decision.
"Learn to trust yourself again. Take responsibility. Bet on yourself"
4. Give back. During this process, one of the best things I did was offer two hours a week of my time to anyone who wanted it to help navigate the challenges in their lives, whether about career, relationships, legal information, or wherever else I could meaningfully assist.
It helped me remember that everyone has their trials and that I have skills worth sharing. In the midst of my uncertainty, I wanted to connect and help where I could- to engage with the world from a place of service rather than a place of victimhood or entitlement. I hope to keep this engagement going as best I can as I head back to work.
And now it’s on to new challenges. If I didn’t know it already, losing my job after having a baby has shown me that I can get through just about anything. I could either get stuck and stay scared, or I could heal and choose to grow. I even surprised myself by enjoying parts of this process more than I could have ever imagined.
And that big scary unknown? I now see it not so much an empty wasteland, as a frontier full of possibility and courageous souls who have found their strength.