By: Mary Beth Ferrante
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Nothing can ever prepare you for becoming a parent. Yet, many of us dive into a tireless pursuit of preparing for motherhood. We approach parenting systematically: we take classes, do research on what to expect, what to buy and how to best prepare for baby. Many of us set expectations for ourselves and devise plans to: give birth, nurse, and return to work. We check off each box on our list, sometimes twice. However, nothing can truly prepare us for delivery, baby and beyond.
It’s no easy task keeping another human being alive and thriving. The process is so uniquely complicated and fraught with unforeseen circumstances. We don’t contemplate the minutiae of motherhood and despite our best efforts; it’s impossible to fully prepare for life with your baby. Mothering is in the details. It’s in the number of ounces per feeding. It’s in pounds your baby has (hopefully) gained in the first 12 months. It’s in the hours your baby has slept through the night. It’s in the minutes ticking away on your maternity leave as you navigate a myriad of daily issues that ultimately determine the general health and well being of your child. Motherhood is constant, demanding and exhausting.
Yet, for many career-driven women, myself included, while we know that going back to work after maternity leave is going to be tough, many of us find ourselves overwhelmed, unprepared, and often at a crossroads. That’s why it was unsurprising to read in a recent New York Times article, what researchers in a recent study found: “…women underestimate the costs of motherhood. The mismatch is biggest for those with college degrees, who invest in an education and expect to maintain a career.” Women who plan to return to work after maternity leave, brace themselves for bumps along the road. What they fail to consider is the premium our culture places on perfection at home and at work.
New moms have the incredible gift and curse of too much information. We use apps to track our baby’s development and worry when they seem slightly off. We devote our precious time and energy to any class we can find on the weekend that will enrich our children’s lives and perhaps give them an edge. We are inundated with blogs and social media accounts sharing all the ways to be a better parent. We feel pressure, even if it’s self-imposed, to keep up with other moms and too often focus on what everyone else seems to be doing right.
Yet when Monday hits again, our responsibilities and concerns at home continue to mount as we resume our duties at the office, all while trying to secure a private room to pump before milk leaks through our shirt. For many new moms, they feel there is an expectation at work to act as though nothing has changed. I know I felt that I had to prove to myself and to my team that I had it all together and wouldn’t miss a beat. But the reality of being available in the late evenings, on weekends, and what feels like all hours, is already draining before baby. Add sleep deprivation to the mix and it becomes overwhelming.
Eventually, the baby gets sick, childcare falls through, we run late to daycare pick up too many times and we ask ourselves if it’s all worth it.
Given this level of pressure, it’s not surprising that while only 2% of working women plan to leave the workforce for family reasons, yet 43% of highly qualified women opt out or off-ramp on their way back to work post-baby. Millennial mothers are feeling overwhelmed and unsupported during the transition from motherhood to working mother.
Our disenchantment with integrating motherhood and work undermines the expectations of our generation. No previous generation has applied more effort in creating a harmonious co-existence between work and life. For Baby Boomers and Gen X, it was normal to draw a line in the sand and expect family life and work to be separate. But with technology significantly changing the way we work today and into the future, it is increasingly difficult to separate the two. Our ability, and now expectation, to respond to emails late into the evenings and weekends, has us wondering why flexible hours are still something to negotiate, or why we feel judged when we leave the office at 5pm to pick up our children, even though we are often getting to work hours earlier than others.
EJ Dickson, millennial mother/writer/editor summed it up: “I am constantly frustrated and frazzled, and — to be honest — angry that having children and a career is still such a heroic feat.”
Something has to give. The biggest issue for working mothers is the idea that they must be available around the clock both at home and the office. And while most are up for the challenge, they will only be successful if employers and managers who shape office policy and work culture support them in all aspects of their life, at home and at work.
In 2014, Fashion Designer/Mogul, Rachel Zoe had five staff members in her company who were pregnant and due within the year. Her response? She built a nursery adjacent to the office, to retain her valued staff. She explained, “…I feel good sending the message to my team that they work for a company that supports and celebrates who they are in their personal lives and that we isn’t afraid to let those truths influence the culture in the office in order to make us more productive and happy on the whole.” As a mother of two children, Zoe empathized with the dilemma of juggling a career and family: “I wanted to create an environment where these new mothers wouldn’t have to make a choice between career and motherhood. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to grow my company from just a few people to more than 40 while having my kids (and my husband) by my side, and so I knew I had to do everything in my power to give my staff that same luxury.”
While most companies can’t install nurseries, there is another way to help loyal employees in need of flexibility: hear them out. More than anything, working mothers flourish in environments that support their growth and development both professionally and personally. We’ve all heard the adage, people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. This is especially true when a new mother is transitioning back to work. Honestly, it’s true when any employee is dealing with a major transition at home. Working mothers benefit greatly and achieve the most success if their managers are equipped to onboard them back onto the team, remain open to common accommodations (e.g. breaks for pumping, light travel, flexible hours temporarily) and are willing to truly listen and work with the employee to re-engage them.
Female employees who become working mothers are no less committed to their job. They want to be professional, get their work done, and spend a couple waking hours a day with their babies. Is that too much to ask?