I had my daughter, Beatrix, just five months ago. The first week after she was born, my husband was able to use PTO and stay home with me (Paternity leave — say what?), and it was a full-on tag team effort of feeding her, taking turns power napping — because full-on sleep is not an option — and trying to keep the dog from getting too jealous and the house from getting a knock on the door from the producers of “Hoarders.”
It was one of the best weeks of my life.
The First Half
After that first exhausting but blissful week, a week in which I wasn’t sure if I was forming coherent sentences or speaking in tongues, I had a routine down (let’s be honest — a mish-mash of activities that sometimes included taking a shower) to figure out with Bea, and a recovery to deal with when it came to my own body and mind.
As a new parent, my days were long and busy, though I couldn’t tell you what I did half the time. The first six weeks was a lot like Groundhog Day: eat, sleep, change diaper… repeat. Soon I forgot what day it was, and then I didn’t really care. Hormones were still out of whack, and I would sometimes cry while marathoning “Hart of Dixie,” simultaneously feeding Bea and having a sip of the coffee I’d heated up for the fourth time that day.
Then there was the other part — the moments that made me feel like no amount of time with her would ever be enough time. I remember leaning over her crib in the middle of the night one night, my eyes fighting to stay open as I tried to soothe her to sleep. As I peered down at her, begging her to just go to sleep, she suddenly looked up at me and, wide awake and bright-eyed, gave me a bigger smile than I think I’ve ever given anyone at 3:30 in the morning. At that moment, I felt like I understood happiness in a new way.
The “Oh Sh!t” Half
Before I knew it, all this time I thought I had was quickly screeching to an abrupt end. I had a month! I had two weeks! Holy sh#t! These are some of the phrases that may have come out of my mouth during those last few weeks of leave:
“We have to figure out childcare.”
“I can’t stand the thought of leaving my 3-month old with a stranger.”
“How are we going to make this work?”
“I’m not ready.” (This was often said both in a literal and figurative sense.)
“That episode of ‘Hart of Dixie’ was soooo good.”
“Oh look — she pooped again.”
It was an overwhelming set of adjustments and compromises and anxiety and sadness when I had to stop being in denial: My 24/7 time with my new child was over, and I didn’t know when I would get that much uninterrupted time with her again. I wasn’t ready to go back to the “real world” yet. I was just starting to feel like I was getting the hang of this new parent thing — or at least like I was no longer speaking in tongues (though I still could have used a shower). She was finally starting to interact with us, and the days were spent taking as many pictures and videos as I could while still doing all of those other things (see “The First Half).
The new parent work-life struggle
I am so grateful I had the opportunity to stay home with Beatrix for the first three months of her life. I was fortunate that my company gave me some paid time, and the FMLA granted me the rest of the (unpaid) time. Yet, I’m also frustrated that 1) too many new parents don’t get any time off after a baby, paid or unpaid, 2) it’s not legally required for companies to give it to them, and 3) we’re putting up with it.
Instead of celebrating this wonderful event and giving new parents the time and the support to not only take care of their new children and themselves, workplaces seem to penalize new parents. It’s as if work should continue to happen, and life shouldn’t get in the way — though we know that that’s just not realistic. At least not anymore.
While companies may be focused on whether supporting parenthood impacts their bottom line, they may be forgetting about all the costs associated with employee turnover — and that good people can’t always easily be replaced. Stylist and designer Rachel Zoe realized this and decided rather than lose good employees, she would build a nursery at the office so they could work, be near their children, and ultimately be more productive. And you know what? She says it’s “one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made.”
Can’t build a nursery? That’s OK — as a talent advisor, you still have the opportunity to help push new policies and practices within your own company walls.
Here are four things to consider:
Not maternity leave, but parental leave.
Matthew Stollak has a ton of great reasons for you to consider paternity leave. Better yet, why not promote gender-neutral leave and help spread the word that traditional roles have evolved, and it’s important for both parents to have opportunities to bond with their babies? I had my husband home with me for a week, and I can’t imagine how much harder that week would have been by myself. Yet, many women have to do it all on their own. Bringing more men into the fold also helps ease the burden for women as they transition back into the workplace. Sweden realized this back in ‘74 and shifted its vocabulary to “parental leave” to “ensure that women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all areas of life.”
2. Longer leave.
Companies like Google, Reddit and Facebook are blazing the path toward better parental leave. (UPDATE: Netflix’s new parental leave policy just blew everyone else out of the water.) Longer paid leave gives new parents time to bond and adjust to the transition of both parenthood and of returning to work — and it eliminates a potential financial crisis. It makes employees happier and more productive when they actually do return. My hope is that the generous types of policies common at tech companies trickle into other workplaces all over the U.S., but it can’t happen without advocacy from talent advisors everywhere.
3. Treat parenthood like onboarding.
Helping new parents adjust after leave should be treated in a similar way to successful on boarding of new employees. It shouldn’t end after the first day back — after all, most parents are still waking up throughout the night and in a semi-zombie-like state. They’re trying to figure out logistics of childcare and time spent at the office, commuting woes, who’s doing what when, how dinner will be made (let alone consumed), and how to squeeze every last possible moment in with the baby before it’s time to do it all over again the next day — while still being productive and valuable employees.
Consider building in more flexibility for ALL of your employees around things like expected business hours and working from home — after all, it’s not just new parents who struggle with work-life balance.
4. Create a nurturing environment.
If new moms are breastfeeding, they’re pumping at work — and while you legally must provide the time and space for them to do this, don’t penalize them for it. In fact, make it as pleasant of an experience as possible; it’s stressful enough carving out time to do it, and it can be a pain. It’s not so hard to provide rooms that lock, as well as a fridge, sink and comfortable seating. Work to foster an environment that doesn’t make employees feel guilty. I’m a member of a “working moms” group on Facebook, and I’m amazed and saddened to hear about employees having to pump in the car on the way to work because their employer discourages the practice at work. This shouldn’t be the norm, but it is.
You get what you give
Parenthood is beautiful, and life-changing, and challenging — and employers can help ease those challenges by giving new parents the flexibility they need to be happier, better and more productive employees. By giving employees the space and energy they need to give back on a personal level, they’ll find it easier and more rewarding to give back at work, too.
Throughout the month of July, our resident talent advisors have been discussing issues around work-life balance. Subscribe to Talent Advisor to stay on top of the latest blog posts and discussions — and catch up on July’s posts around unlimited PTO, modeling good work-life behaviors as an employer, working from home, gender differences and PTO, maternity and paternity leave, and more.