4 Ways Employers Can Support New Moms at Work
Here's how we all benefit from inclusive new-parent policies.
There’s something no one really tells you about being a new mom: it can be lonely.
I remember bringing my twins home from the hospital on a gray, chilly Tuesday in October. I was giddy to get them back to the house, an epic finish line of sorts after a long battle with infertility and then unexpected time in the NICU when they were born preemies. On the other hand, settling into my new normal at home — the experience of going from zero to two babies overnight — felt impossible to explain to another person. I am a control freak who likes to keep it together, but I was suddenly behind the eight ball on everything, lacking sleep, a routine, and a sense that I knew what I was doing.
My loneliness wasn’t for a lack of visitors or helping hands, and it wasn’t because there weren’t other moms around. In retrospect, I see that the loneliness stemmed from destructive, unrealistic expectations, expectations that moms should transition seamlessly into motherhood and that there is “one way” to be. The idea that this should all be natural. Women in particular, are subject to “bounce-back culture,” in which society expects us to look, act and feel like able, instant caretakers.
Now take what we’ve established is arguably one of the biggest life transitions a woman can face — becoming a mom — and add to it the experience of returning to work. While it’s true that more than 75 percent of expecting mothers say they’re excited to return to work, a shocking 43 percent end up leaving their jobs, and for good reason. Earlier this year, WalletHub research found Pennsylvania to be one of the worst states for working moms, based on measures of childcare options and costs, the gender wage gap, and the ratio of female to male executives.
Even so, new moms are becoming an increasing presence in the workforce as more and more women either can’t afford to take an extended maternity leave, aren’t offered one in the first place, or otherwise choose not to take one. Which means, if employers want to boost their new-mom retention rates they need to find ways to help reintegrate new moms into the workforce in a way that helps them grow in this new phase of their lives.
What’s an employer to do to help new moms out? Here are four culture shifts that can improve workplaces and empower new moms during this crucial life phase.
Make empathy a cornerstone of your culture.
Empathy is more than a nice platitude to promote at work. In fact, according to Dr. Daniel Goleman, empathy is one of five core components of basic emotional intelligence. Plus, empathetic employees, and companies that promote empathetic cultures, outperform ones that don’t.
To build empathy, companies can start by teaching and rewarding employees to engage in “perspective-taking.” This means you don’t assume how a person feels. Instead, you learn to ask questions to elicit a person’s perspective. For example, don’t assume a woman won’t take on a project because she’s “too busy” or “too stressed” without actually talking to her about it. Include her in the discussion about her workload and choices that affect her career growth. Companies can also ask returning moms to tell their stories — via forums and intranets — that can expose others to the messy, demanding realities of the gig. While we tend to think of empathy as something you have or don’t, it can be taught. Train employees on the fundamentals of empathy and they won’t just extend it to colleagues, they’ll extend it to partners, clients and customers, too.
It’s time to admit that in U.S. culture the person who comes in earliest and stays the latest gets the gold. Yes — even in 2019. I see companies continue to make this mistake all the time. While remote workers, for example, are known to be more productive than in-office workers, remote workers are still less likely to be promoted. Not only do many companies reward workers for their in-office facetime, but often the most celebrated stories told around the office, only reinforce the message of one employee’s “epic all-nighter to lasso in a new client.”
Walk the walk by valuing contribution and quality rather than playing up the “80-hour-workweek” fanaticism. Don’t overvalue people who show symptoms of classic workaholism. Instead, showcase and reward people who have boundaries or use flexible options. Take it a step further and set targets to help men use flexible work so that it’s less gendered and stigmatized.
Offer moms human support, not just policies and reference information.
I see it all the time: companies that shower workers with the best policies, yet seem to forget that in the end, they are dealing with a complex, individual person. Surface benefits like directories and concierges only address the situation at face value and fail to address the pressures and concerns new moms may have as they learn how to balance their careers with their new responsibilities at home.
For example, it’s one thing to offer a generous amount of leave. It’s another thing entirely to sponsor New Mom Circles that offer peer coaching and support before and after maternity leave, and graduated returns for new moms so they can taper and ramp up their hours at their own speed with the help of a coach. Diapers to Desk is another resource equipping both employers and expecting or new moms with training on critical transition points. Some of the best support comes from people who can normalize and accept a new mom’s experience judgement-free.
Incentivize men to take parental leave.
If you really want to help a mom out, give her the support and uninterrupted attention of a co-parent. For men to play a role in taking on an equal share of home life, they need and deserve real leave programs, yet even when they’re provided, only one-third of men take parental leave. Employers can set the expectation that men should take all of their parental leave and create forums that spotlight working fatherhood. One tech company holds quarterly fathers’ lunches to exchange tips and ideas, while another has normalized dads who post stories of working fatherhood for all employees.
If you want to incentivize men to use their leave, then think about how you talk to (and about) new parents. Creating a culture of acceptance, camaraderie, and teamwork is a day-by-day practice that starts with the senior people in your organization. Make sure that the C-Suite of your company is a model for using flexible time and leave, not just evangelists of it.
Remember that when it comes to accommodating working moms, one size fits none. Offering real support means creating a culture that allows moms to parent and work differently from each other, so avoid templates.
Creating a supportive, empathic work environment isn’t rocket science. It’s also not slapping a band-aid on the post-maternity phase and calling it good. It’s about treating new moms with respect for what they’re pulling off everyday. It’s extending to them the care and consideration they actually need to feel truly supported by their colleagues and bosses.
Because the truth is, we all benefit from more inclusive new-parent policies. And companies that don’t accommodate and adjust to this critical part of life will lose out on the talent and commitment of some of the most vetted multitaskers and doers on the planet.
This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Magazine on 11/5/2019.