As Caroline Ferrarone approached her first parental leave, she looked forward to becoming a mother but worried about what she might miss out on at work. Would she still have the same position, team members, and responsibilities when she returned? Could she keep her career on track?
“There was so much I didn't know about balancing motherhood and work, so I was really anxious the first time around,” says Ferrarone, a Senior Manager of US Marketing at Indeed. “I felt like I needed to squeeze everything out of me to really prove I was still pulling my weight on a team of predominantly men.”
She worked until the day she went into labour: eight days past her due date. While on leave, she felt out of the loop because she was unable to provide input on important decisions. Just weeks after returning to work, she forced herself to say yes to several business trips rather than risk missing out on future opportunities.
“It was very much a pressure I put on myself,” she says. “There was no expectation from my manager or other leaders that I had to do it all — but I felt I had to prove I was still a valuable contributor.”
For Sherrie Nguyen, Indeed’s Director of SMB Product Marketing and co-founder of the Parents and Caregivers inclusive resource group (IRG), returning from maternity leave prior to joining Indeed felt like a lose-lose situation.
“I remember that being one of the most difficult times of my life … feeling that I was not a good enough mom, I was not a good enough employee, nor was I a good enough wife to my husband,” says Nguyen, whose duties as a mother required her to spend much of the workday pumping and take multiple sick days.
“I had outsized expectations, and then policies and systems weren't helping me meet those expectations. But I took it as a personal failure instead of realizing there’s an incongruence between the World Health Organization’s recommendation for how long you should breastfeed and company policies around how much time off you should have to become a mother. That insight is what led me to found the Parents and Caregivers IRG at Indeed.”
Once she processed this, Nguyen says, “I began to realize that I'm not a failure. I was set up to fail.”
Overcoming common challenges of parental leave
These stories illustrate just some of the realities facing women who take parental leave.
In a society that values the “ideal worker” — someone who can devote themselves fully to their job and perform it without indication of their personal life — new moms are at a disadvantage. Not only can the postpartum period be one of the most challenging, but women still bear the majority of household and childcare responsibilities, and 75% of working mothers are more likely than fathers to experience mental health issues.
Knowing this, how can organizations create a work experience where these employees can thrive? Here are seven ways to improve work for working moms before, during, and after parental leave:
1. Connect working moms with mentors and community
Ensure that employees and managers are aware of your company’s leave benefits and receive guidance about best practices for parental leave and returning to work. Consider creating mentorship programs where new moms can seek advice from senior leaders in your organization who are also mothers.
Forming IRGs for parents also helps provide a sense of connection and belonging while offering opportunities for advocacy. For example, Indeed’s Parents and Caregivers IRG advocated for a 26-week continuous caregiver paid leave policy following the birth, adoption, or placement of a child, which was recently implemented under Chief People Officer Priscilla Koranteng.
2. Make personalized action plans in advance
Pregnancies often don’t stick to a timeline, so don’t wait to discuss transition logistics. Encourage moms to share how they want to be communicated with, if at all, during their leave. Many have differing views on what it means to balance motherhood and career, and no two women will require the exact same support. Whatever their preference is, let them know they’re in the driver’s seat.
Ferrarone says that setting boundaries and expectations ahead of her second maternity leave was key to reducing her anxiety.
“My biggest concern the first time around was feeling completely shut off when I was out on leave, so the second time I set those rules of engagement,” she says. “I was able to really cherish the time I had with my son while still making myself available to weigh in on important decisions related to my team. Being able to have that leave and also share my input ensured that I could still be a present mom while also having a seat at the table.”
3. Be prepared to pivot
Every woman has a unique (and sometimes unexpected) experience with childbirth and the postpartum period, especially first-time mothers. Some who thought they wanted to stay connected with work while on leave may realize this is no longer feasible — or desirable. Keep plans flexible to accommodate changing circumstances and let women dictate their leave experience to best suit their needs.
4. Build inclusive processes
Women on parental leave may miss opportunities to advance in their careers, whether they’re passed over for a promotion or self-select out of the interview process. Research from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org shows that women in the US are more likely than men to say their gender or being a parent “played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.” Meanwhile, across Canada, women’s pay drops more than men’s after having their first child, and this drop in income lasts several years after the birth of their child.
Developing promotion and review processes that are mindful of women on maternity leave — for example, pushing back the interview process for a more senior role in order to accommodate those who may be on parental leave — helps to create greater access to advancement and narrow the gender pay gap.
5. Guide their reentry to work
The “reentry phase” is when working mothers and caregivers need the most support, but it’s unfortunately where many organizations drop the ball. In addition to providing ample pumping space and amenities for breastfeeding employees, it’s also necessary to offer the right amount of flexibility and guidance to enable women to get back up to speed.
Consider implementing a one-month transitional period so working moms can ramp back up while maintaining the flexibility they need to balance responsibilities at work and home — for example, working 25% of their normal schedule the first week, 50% the second week, 75% the third and 100% by the fourth week. In addition, a structured return-to-work onboarding program similar to what a new hire would experience — in which women can refresh their knowledge of company policies and processes and their scope of work — is an effective tool for readjusting.
6. Connect them with third-party resources
Partner with organizations that provide resources for working parents, both prior to and following leave. For example, Indeed currently offers employees access to Maven, which provides an array of reproductive and family healthcare support, as well as Mother Honestly, a platform that helps caregivers better manage their work-life needs. Another company, Parentaly, offers both parental leave planning and return-to-work resources and training to help workers of all genders more easily navigate the leave process.
7. Have human-to-human conversations
The experience of parenthood looks completely different for each woman, depending on a variety of factors, such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. When managers take a genuine interest in what life is like for each employee returning from parental leave and then proactively start an open dialogue about their challenges and needs, it goes a long way to support inclusion and belonging.
“Not everyone has the flexibility to have childcare when their kids are sick,” says Ferrarone. “I don't think it's acknowledged enough that what care looks like, and what you're capable of doing in terms of how and when you work is very dependent on those circumstances.”
When in doubt, Nguyen recommends asking three simple questions: How are you doing? What do you need? How can we help?
“Whether you're a colleague or their manager, just ask working moms what they need,” she says. “While situations may be similar, everybody's needs and approach will be different. Never assume that somebody coming back from leave doesn't want to travel, and never assume they don't want the next assignment. Never assume they don't want more responsibility. Just ask.”