Back in 2009, I was given seven weeks of paid leave after
having my baby—six from maternity leave, one from vacation time. (I kept my
few sick days for the inevitable doctor's appointment or childcare mishap … or,
you know, for when I was actually sick.)
At the time, it felt like I hit the lottery. Paid leave!
It's what U.S. political dreams are made of, the
stuff of pop-culture scrutiny and outrage. We're the last industrialized
country to offer paid leave to new parents—hell, the last country period, minus Papua New Guinea
(a place where, according to good ol' Wikipedia, is "potentially the worst
place in the world for gender violence"). So to get this kind of perk was a big
And yet as those seven weeks ticked off, one sleepless night
bleeding into the next (keyword: bleeding; my goodness, the blood!), I realized
how downright torturous it was to leave my teeny-tiny baby, still eating every
few hours around the clock and too young for a routine or schedule of any sort.
As for me, my breast milk was barely stabilized, meaning I
was still suffering from peaks of engorgement, still waking up with one breast
twice the size of the other, still phoning my lactation consultant on a regular
basis. My uterus was finally shrinking down to size, but my undercarriage was
still sore (especially for a two-hour commute). And then there were my
But like so many women, I needed the salary. Even more, I
needed the health insurance. So back I went, sobbing all the way.
Nine months later, I quit. It was a complicated decision, of
course, but the long required hours, expensive childcare and crushing
heartache were too much. I cracked under the weight of it all, leaving in
pursuit of more flexible work. (Luckily, I found it.)
While the country holds its breath for some national government
recognition and help, many companies are stepping up and figuring out how to
give new parents the time and flexibility to not only heal from childbirth, but
to transition back to work in a reasonable way. These companies—like Johnson & Johnson and Vodafone, both of which recently significantly expanded their maternity leave policies—can be an example to employers everywhere, a new standard to aspire toward.
Not all of us are so lucky. Many employers are stuck in an
antiquated "get back to work" mentality, without seeing the fuller picture. And
so on behalf of all new moms, here are some things we really wish our employers
1.We do want to work/need to work
We have mouths to feed. We have an example to set. We're going to show up for work because we have to.
You could look at motherhood as the
ultimate diluter of ambition and goals, or you could see it as a tremendous
motivator to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, and to support our
family in a way that we need.
We have mouths to feed. We have an example
to set. We're going to show up for work because we have to. I didn't quit my job because I didn't want to work; I
quit because it was flipping impossible without losing my mind.
2.We need to heal
A number of things have changed since the frontier closed, but the female body is not one of them.
More companies are expanding their
maternity leave packages for longer than the standard six weeks—the
very minimum that it takes for our bodies to heal from the trauma of birthing a
human freaking being. Silicon Valley tech companies led the way: Google offers 18 weeks, Facebook offers 17, and many
others are starting to catch up. Take Accenture, for example, which recently doubled its
paid maternity leave to 16 weeks.
But not many are.
Even among Working Mother Magazine's "100 Best Companies" list, the average length of
paid maternity leave is only seven weeks. And take it from me, those are seven
"America might begin by conceding that the
postnatal period ought to be a formal, protected, well-monitored term and that
any woman who does not adequately and restfully observe it is putting herself
and her infant at risk," Brenhouse concludes. "Perhaps if we started talking
about the time and energy it actually takes to recuperate from childbirth,
women wouldn't feel the need to return as quickly as possible to 'normal.' A
number of things have changed since the frontier closed, but the female body is
not one of them."
Dear employers: Giving new mothers more
time to recuperate isn't just nice—it's humane.
3.It's really hard right now, but it won't
always be this way
We're caring for tender helpless creatures at their peak neediness.
Telecommunication giant Vodafone recently
changed their maternity leave policy, adding 16 weeks of maternity leave, plus
the opportunity to work part-time at full pay for the following six months, after finding that 65 percent of the
women who left after maternity leave did so within the first year back.
That's because the first year is brutal,
unlike any other stage of parenting. We're not sleeping, as a rule. Our
hormones could still be out of whack—not because we're weak or stupid, but
because we're stuck in these human bodies with biological realities. We're
caring for tender helpless creatures at their peak neediness. And have you ever
known the torture that is a teething infant, dear employer?
It's harder in that first year than it'll
most likely ever be. Which brings me to …
4.The phase-back transition is important
For many moms, going back to work is like leaving a vital organ behind every day.
More companies are starting to realize the
obvious: It's not just about the maternity leave. Jumping back into full-time
work can be emotionally and physically demanding (which reminds me, dear
employer: Pumping is not a luxury; it's a right).
For many moms, going back to work is like
leaving a vital organ behind every day; we feel the ache of its absence. Good,
strong, smart women have been reduced to tears, and just as Vodafone found, it
can cause talented women to quit within that one-year time frame. I was one of
Vodafone giving new parents the
opportunity to work 30-hour weeks at full pay is huge. So is Johnson &
Johnson's new policy, which gives an additional eight weeks of paid leave (on
top of their existing maternity/paternity leave) to be used any time during the
"This new policy is in addition to our
current leave policies, which means moms who give birth can take up to 17 paid
weeks off," said Peter Fasolo and Lisa Blair Davis in their "J&J
and the 21st-Century Working Family" announcement. "The time
doesn't need to be taken consecutively, so our people can enjoy some
much-needed flexibility during such a critical time in their lives."
5.Flexibility is everything
The keys to success are institutionalizing flexibility with a company-wide policy of individualized arrangements for each woman that has support from the CEO.
In many industries, "flexibility" is
synonymous with laziness, weakness and the much-feared Mommy Tracking.
Writer Lisa Endlich Heffernan takes on this
idea of "mommy tracking" in a fresh, insightful way for Vox.com, arguing that it just might be the answer:
"Some of the companies that have been
successful at retaining and promoting women have done so with an explicit 'mommy
track,' although they don't label it as such," said Heffernan. "Rather than
shying away from creating a path for women that involves part-time work or
leaves of absence, they have embraced it."
The new policies at Johnson & Johnson
and Vodafone are good examples of this.
"The keys to success are institutionalizing
flexibility with a company-wide policy of individualized arrangements for each
woman that has support from the CEO," Heffernan continued. The end result? The
loyalty and retention of their female employees.
Case in point: The consulting firm Deloitte
has a "Mass Career Customization" program that allows employees to either dial
up or dial down their careers—their role, pace, workload and schedule—during twice-yearly evaluations. These kinds of programs offer women more
flexibility and control over their careers throughout the various seasons of life.
According to Heffernan, Deloitte's CEO
Cathy Engelbert (the country's first female CEO of a major audit and consulting firm) almost left the company when
she was pregnant in the '90s. Instead she asked for the
flexibility she needed during different points in her life, and they gave it to her. Clearly
it worked out for her and for the
And with today's telecommuting
capabilities, it's never been easier to create the flexible schedules that
6.Childcare is a problem
It's not what most moms want. Is that what society wants?
One thing I hear over and over again: "My
salary would barely pay for daycare; it just wasn't worth it."
According to a Pew Research report, more
moms are opting out of employment after they had children than in the past two
decades—and a lot has to do with daycare costs.
"This isn't a case of Sheryl Sandberg
backlash. Or of conservative values seeping into advances feminists have made
over the years. It's a business decision, especially for two-income families
with more than one child," writes mom.me editor Madeline Holler in "Taking Out Loans
for Day Care?"
According to Holler, today's families are paying 70
percent more in childcare costs than they did 30 years ago. "In many cases, it
would be more expensive to work than to give up an income until the kids enter kindergarten. It's not what most moms want. Is that what society wants?"
It's not always about the work; it's about
Many of the companies in Working Mother's "100 Best Companies"
have on-site childcare centers, including AOL, Discovery Communications and
the healthcare company Abbott. Many others, like MassMutual Financial Group,
offer subsidized tuition and discounts for childcare.