The unspoken fears of maternity leave

June 23, 2014

Photo by Fernando Landeros used w/Creative Commons license politicians have always given plenty of lip service to family life. Yet families are supported by parents who work, and more and more by mothers who work. They do their jobs in an increasingly pressured 'always on' environment. Today, the White House is holding a summit on working families to address some of the issues parents face when work and life collide.

Which tallies with a conversation I had last week with Karen Rubin of the company Talking Talent. It helps companies - and women - with maternity transitioning: settling women back into the job after they've had a child, and keeping them happy at work. I'm planning an upcoming show on that particular intersection of work and life.

While many women can’t afford to stop working once they have kids, others can and do. Perhaps, like Karen herself, they went back to work initially, but after a year or another child or two, their life seemed to be exploding at the seams. Childcare was a problem. Work was demanding. They were exhausted. Their husband or partner could support the family, so they quit. The company lost a good employee, often with years of experience under her belt. It then had to spent tens of thousands of dollars replacing her.

Karen says here’s the issue, especially in the litigious US: HR is afraid to ask women what they want when they come back to work. And women feel they have to be on top form, just as productive as they were before, or they’ll be looked on as slackers. If they’re having difficulties managing their new lives, they keep them to themselves. Until they quit.

“No one is talking about it,” she says. “People feel scared and alone.” 

Her company gets managers and employees to communicate with eachother about what women want before they go out on leave, and after they come back.

I have one friend who didn't want anyone to think of her as ‘a mom’ ahead of being a worker. She wanted all the same newsroom assignments she got before. She never wanted to hear anyone excuse her from anything “because I know you have two children,” as one editor once did. She made clear she needed to go to the Middle East for a story. Whereas, Karen Rubin says, other women may actively wish for less travel for a couple of years after having kids: “But if they don’t have that conversation others may make assumptions about what they might want.”

And assumptions there are.

“Sometimes managers may think, 'Well, here’s a young woman, she’s recently married, I might not want her to take this position because she’s gong to have a child and I’ll lose her anyway,'” says Karen. In that example, the bias went unsaid. But sometimes managers’ biases are overt – as in this stunning example. That guy simply assumed his employee wouldn’t be capable of doing the job once she had a baby to care for.

Karen says it’s tough to upend our ingrained assumptions about what mothers want and need. And not every manager is open to this idea of maternity transitioning. One potential client told her, “Why should the company pay for this kind of thing? Shouldn’t the woman just get a therapist? If people choose to have children, that’s their business.”

She persuades companies it is in their best interests to talk to women before, during and after their maternity leaves to ensure those women are not burning out and leaving the workforce like she did, taking years of training, experience and institutional knowledge with them.