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BLOG | January 5 2021

The challenges of balancing maternity leave, and your career

Work is such a big part of our identity, and leaving it for maternity leave is a challenge for many mothers. Suzanne beautifully outlines her experience with IMEX and son Finn.

Leaving for maternity leave in October 2019 felt very strange. I knew I was on the precipice of a totally new life but my old life was still right there. Stepping away from a role I had worked on for 10 years was terrifying and even weirder, for me as an American, was the idea that I didn’t need to come back to it for an entire year. I remember thinking, ‘but what will I do with my time’ (parents out there are laughing at me right now!) and swanned off to what I viewed to be a year of relaxation with a tiny person. 

Now, anyone who has ever had a child, been around a child, or has seen a person soon after the birth of their child knows there is nothing relaxing about maternity leave and so 3 months in I decided to go back to work for some rest. I’m sort of kidding, while I did go back to work 3 months in, we had already been planning for me to return part time – my job at IMEX is centred around community, both externally with our social media and internally with our employee engagement. I had worked with our CEO, Carina Bauer, to establish a schedule that would allow me to continue to work on engagement within the company as well as continue my role as Co-Chair for the MPI EMEC 2021 conference in Brighton while Finn napped, or my husband took some of his generous paternity leave. Now might be a good time to mention that my husband is the Director of Operations at IMEX Group which meant that Finn was born into Team IMEX and is now destined to host a Gala Dinner table at IMEX in Frankfurt 2036. 

We had a great plan, I was able to attend EMEC 2020 in Seville Spain and got started on site visits with the MPI team to plan what was sure to be an incredible conference in Brighton (where IMEX is based). I was working on our internal First Friday speaker series while Finn slept and spent our morning walks catching up with my team before heading off to baby sensory classes. There were so many days where I felt as though I was being pulled in too many directions – like I couldn’t stay on top of any of the things I was supposed to do but then there were days when I was giving Finn a bottle in the Brighton Museum while talking about seating charts and I felt like all was right in the world. I was able to be both Suzanne, the Senior Community Engagement Manager at IMEX Group and Suzanne, Finn’s mom – and that was a true gift. 

Then all of a sudden everything changed, we were in the middle of a global pandemic and the IMEX offices closed down. Rather than strategy meetings for EMEC 2021 we were discussing if an event could even move forward, and the worst part was, we were all at home in lockdown. It turned out to be quite lucky that I was already back at work, our engagement team was able to jump into action – we wanted to support our team during this massive upheaval and started with ‘Spread some Sunshine’ – a weekly flower delivery to each member of the team using the gorgeous letterbox flowers from Bloom and Wild. We added Workshops (including an excellent one on networking with Patrick Delaney) and industry Q&A’s. We had a Best in Show virtual pet competition, cake decorating competitions and even a company wide talent competition called the IME-X Factor. Throughout it all I was juggling being a mom – and to this day Finn lights up when he sees a computer. He loves to sit and watch the screen during our weekly company wide Monday Morning Meetings, he waves to everyone and tries to touch their faces through the laptop and squeals in delight when people make faces back at him. For Finn, virtual is the norm as he was 5 months old when we went into lockdown – his main memories of many of the most important people in his life will be on screen. 

We still had moments where I felt like I was at my breaking point, working with a napping 4 month old is very different to working with an active 9 month old so we decided to put Finn in nursery 2 mornings a week, it was incredible for my sanity and my workload. One of my biggest fears when I went off on maternity leave was that life at IMEX would move on without me, decisions would be made and strategies brainstormed and I would miss it all. I was also fearful of losing my brain a bit, if I spent all day building towers and ‘colouring’ would I really be able to sit with our CEO to plan out strategic social media content for one of the most important years in our industry?

Turns out I was right to be fearful, life did move on – our team grew and our priorities changed, there were new systems and processes that I didn’t understand and goals that I hadn’t been part of setting. Plus we were at home, you don’t realised how much you pick up when you’re immersed in office life – listening in to conversations around you or having a quick catch up in the kitchen. That’s not to say it was bad though, in reality we needed to make those changes and we really needed a lot of those processes, and none of that had anything to do with how good (or bad) my work had been before. In saying that, I realised that I had to check my ego a bit. I felt so intertwined with IMEX, how could work go on without me? I’ve heard from many friends that is a common feeling when going on maternity – you wonder if they get on without you, are you actually that important? I am happy to say – YOU ARE THAT IMPORTANT – and when you return your ideas and knowledge will still be valid and if you’re really lucky you’ll have a team of cheerleaders welcoming you (and your brain) back to the team. 

I’m now 2 weeks away from going back to work full time. Thanks to an amazing flexible work policy I’m able to still have time at home with Finn so we can go to music classes or forest school, but on the days when I am working, I get to just focus on that. I am so excited to dive back in with my team. I’m pretending that I am a new starter again, and have asked to go through some of our induction processes again – namely around our new expenses systems and our shared drives, and I’m looking forward to goal setting meetings with our newly formed content team in early January. 

As I prepare to go back to work, I do wonder how we can put more resources in place for carers returning from maternity or paternity leave, as a way to support them both while they are at home and then when they return to what may look like a very different offices space. Additionally, this year has been hard for carers in general, companies need to look at what return to work really looks like post pandemic. At IMEX we have been working to allow flexible work for everyone, whatever the situation – which we hope will allow anyone who cares for others to have the time they need to do that, no questions asked. If this year has taught us anything it is that we must find a work/life balance, it is no longer enough to just talk about it. 

Written by Suzanne Mulligan, Senior Community Engagement Manager at IMEX.

Suzanne Mulligan is the Senior Community Engagement Manager at IMEX Group, she is a Past President of MPI Greater New York and currently serves on the MPI European Advisory Council as well as the MPI EMEA Foundation Task Force. She is Co-Chair of the MPI European Meetings & Education Conference 2022 which will be held in Brighton, England. She is a native New Yorker who has lived in the UK for 4 years, she currently lives in Lindfield, England with her husband and 1 year old son.

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