Having recently returned to my full-time job after three months of maternity leave with my second baby girl, Emma, I have been thinking a lot about how we support moms when they return to work. As a manager or employer, our posture toward mom when she first comes back to work can be a huge factor in her decision to persist or quit.
One posture that is particularly discouraging is when colleagues believe that maternity leave was vacation. I understand why this misconception exists. Mom is away from the office for somewhere between 6-12 weeks during which time other people have to cover her duties and responsibilities. While other people are shouldering the load, it’s easy to imagine mom at home resting and having hours on end of baby snuggles and mommy bliss. If this were the case, it would make sense that when mom returns everyone else would expect her to immediately be back “on” – and making up for lost time.
But maternity leave is not vacation. In fact, the whole process from pregnancy to birth to post delivery is arduous on the body, mind, and spirit. First, mom has already gone through a challenging nine months of pregnancy. The easiest pregnancies bring nausea, fatigue, sleepless nights, swelling, emotional swings, etc. Harder pregnancies can take on a variety of forms. One woman I know had nausea so bad that she threw up regularly throughout the workday in the office bathroom. She’s a beast so she’d just handle it, vomiting on a regular basis and then getting back to work. This went on for nearly her entire pregnancy.
Then comes labor and delivery, which can best be summarized this way: even though the idea of pushing a human out of your body is terrifying, you eventually get so miserably uncomfortable you are dying for it to happen. The baby is finally born and however that process happens – the body is broken and needs healing. Think major surgery, but instead of being able to focus exclusively on self-care and recovery you’re now responsible for a small human who is completely dependent on you for everything. Pregnancy was a marathon, but you finished it and ((surprise!)) now you’re in an Iron Man.
At best mom will spend a few days in the hospital and then go home, where the remainder of her maternity leave will be spent nursing (or bottle feeding) round the clock (every 3 hours or less), diapering, pumping, and trying to figure out when to fit in luxurious things like sleep, bathe, drink water, or make a sandwich. I’ve heard of women who decide to return to work early because “they were going crazy at home”. I get it, there is a certain cabin-fever that sets in because leaving the house with a newborn is a herculean task…although deep down I wonder if they went back because work felt easier. In my experience, between work & maternity leave, work is what feels like vacation.
As maternity leave comes near its end, mom’s heart starts aching and feeling torn. How will she leave this precious little baby she’s become accustomed to spending all day with? How will she possibly be able to handle everything she used to do AND this huge new addition? Where will she pump and how does that fit in to the schedule? It takes some pretty beastly mental skills for mom to get into a good place when she returns to work. She’s back, but she’s still healing and probably (because of sleep deprivation and postpartum brain) not as sharp as normal.
So what can employers do to help ease the transition from one form of hard work (being home with baby) to another (coming back to the office)?
To support mom’s anxiety about returning to work:
- Meet as a team before mom comes back and discuss creating a posture of support. DON’T refer to her maternity leave as a break or imply that she was slacking off. DO ask about her baby and her family while affirming your glad she’s back.
To support mom’s physical exhaustion:
- Allow mom to use PTO time just to rest (not sick, not vacation, just continued physical recovery). Understand that if this is mom’s first baby and they are in daycare, the whole house will struggle with colds and needing sick days.
- Provide creative schedule options such as letting mom telecommute 1-2 days per week, or work a different daily schedule to better accommodate her new responsibilities at home.
- Give mom a break on early morning meetings and early morning start times, when possible.
To support mom’s adjustment away from baby:
- Ask mom what flexibility options would help her transition. Be open to arrangements such as mom taking an extended lunch hour to visit her baby during the day for the first few weeks.