Kate and her daughter Ramona
Conventional wisdom says pregnant women should wait until they’ve passed the 12-week mark —when the risk of miscarriage significantly diminishes—before sharing their news with anyone but close family. When I learned that I was pregnant with my first child, I texted pictures of my positive pregnancy test to my neighbors and rushed to inform my cheesemonger–how else could I avoid unpasteurized camembert?
But my extreme openness about my condition contracted when I thought about the conversation I would have to have with my then boss–a fiercely capable woman who had worked through her own pregnancy and emerged from her labors with a phenomenal kid and an impressive promotion. Refusing to be mommy side-tracked, she seemed to bend time to her will–finding extra hours for pilates classes and regular nights out while leading our department to success and gaining ever more influence with upper management.
What would she expect of me?
It was a fair question. In a Harvard Business School study, social psychologist Amy Cuddy found that working mothers were perceived as “less competent” than childless women with otherwise identical qualifications, and were subsequently “less likely to be requested, promoted and trained.”
And according to a recent Pew survey, 55 percent of Americans think that it is somewhat common for workers to abuse paid time off policies like maternity leave, and over 50 percent of respondents said they’d taken less time off after having a child than they would have liked, citing reasons like fear of losing their job or guilt over co-workers’ increased workloads.
In my case, I knew that my peers would be kind and supportive, and I feared neither job loss nor overt discrimination from my superiors. I simply expected to take my mandated 12 weeks leave–mostly unpaid–and then return to my full-time work. Perhaps I’d regret the time away from my new baby, perhaps I’d be held to slightly different standards, but I’d return committed to my job and reliant on the livelihood it provided. I’d so internalized this as the standard progression from “ideal worker” to “working mother,” that it didn’t occur to me to ask for—or even imagine—anything different.
I’d observed this progression several times and I knew that it sometimes went smoothly–new mothers relished their return to jobs they loved, children thrived in daycare, fathers did more. But I’d also witnessed bumpier transitions. I’d watched a co-worker–recently back from her own brief leave–wipe away secret tears. For a month or two, she tried to make it work, vanishing at intervals into the mysterious “mother’s room” and sharing the sweet photos her babysitter sent each day. But although she was as capable and reliable as ever, the tears never subsided, and eventually, inevitably, she quit to stay home with her child.
Would my course run smooth, or was I headed for that SAHM path? And if I did decide to become a stay-at-home-mom, could my family ever afford it?
At my former workplace, it was difficult to find a middle way between fully leaning in or stepping out entirely. For although I worked alongside many professionals who balanced jobs with family obligations, and my boss was not the only mother in a high-powered management position, the organization’s culture and official policies were not so progressive as its demographics might suggest. Parental benefits were adequate, but hardly generous, and flexible schedules were occasionally tolerated, but never encouraged.
This rigidity seemed to come from the top. The company’s founder—a self-made woman who’d built a high-value brand on her incomparable domestic competence—reportedly had ironically little patience for the prerogatives of 21st-century parenting. She’d raised a daughter and navigated a divorce while building her business—and if she could do it, so could her employees. Like too many business leaders, she seemed to assume that success in work and life was only for extraordinary individuals expending extraordinary effort to overcome the odds, requiring little support from employers or society.
Luckily, it turned out that my own boss thought quite differently. When my belly burgeoned, forcing me to finally confirm the obvious, she couldn’t have been more supportive. She encouraged me to take the time I needed for my prenatal appointments and shared cabs home with me when I couldn’t face the Westside trudge to the subway. “There’s a pregnant woman back here, take it easy!” she scolded more than one stop-and-start driver.
On my behalf, my boss negotiated with HR to get me the slightly more generous maternity benefits normally reserved for more senior employees. She looked the other way when I “worked from home” for the anxious week past my due date I was confined to bedrest. The meager official policies stood; but my boss did all she could to minimize their impact on my experience, and I thanked her for it.
After my daughter was finally born, my husband and I lost ourselves in the exhausting, fascinating minutiae of a baby’s earliest days. Through the day-to-day of diapering and midnight nursing we learned that from now on, really, she would come first. She would have to be fed before we could eat, she must sleep before we could rest, and she must be safe in competent hands before I could get myself back on my Q-train commute.
As parents, we had to either do the round-the-clock work of caring for her ourselves, or do the managerial work of delegating those responsibilities–and both jobs seemed impossible. I should have been touring daycares or interviewing nannies, but my attempts to plan ahead for the date of my return to work yielded nothing but emptiness and anxiety. I literally could not imagine how my old job was going to fit within my new reality.
Once again, my boss came through. A month into my leave she called me to ask if I was interested in returning to work on a part time schedule. She’d arranged for me to maintain full benefits and had adjusted my job description and responsibilities to suit the reduced hours.
I could barely understand what she was offering. At first, I heard it as a signal that I wouldn’t be needed as much when I returned. Paranoid, I worried that this was a first step toward an eventual phase out, or a dare to get me to quit. But that wasn’t logical. “Why go to so much trouble for an employee who’d been absent the last three months, and who would inevitably have more demands on her time going forward,” I asked my boss.
“Because I was afraid that you wouldn’t come back,” she replied. Then she explained that she also meant to use her position and influence within the organization to help change the culture and prove that the time of one dedicated, experienced employee was more valuable than that of ten clock-watchers stationed at their desks eight hours a day, five days a week.
After hearing that, I was honored, relieved, and oh, so grateful to accept the three-day-a-week schedule she’d proposed. My husband and I did the math and determined that our family could get by on my three-fifths salary for a time—especially since this meant that I would remain in the workforce at the same level and hourly pay I’d earned before motherhood. When I was ready to return to a more standard schedule, there’d be no gap in my resume to gloss over, and no need to settle for a lower-paying, less senior role as too many women are forced to do after taking time off to raise children.
Thinking of my return date no longer induced panic attacks. After months of baby talk, I actually looked forward to the smudged whiteboards and over-brewed coffee buzz of a three-hour planning meeting. When the day came, I packed my new breast pump in its case, kissed my daughter and husband goodbye and rode that Q train back into my workday routine. Of course I missed my baby, but I never felt like I was missing out. And at work, I got my own promotion and managed to achieve things that made me proud while maintaining the boundaries I’d set with my boss between personal and professional time.
While the story of my maternity leave and subsequent return to work ended happily, I’m well aware that for many working parents, the idea of comfortably integrating their home and professional routines may read like no more than a creative-class fairy tale. I cannot presume to know how much others have had to sacrifice in order to provide for their families, but I know enough to understand that I have been very, very fortunate.
And while I appreciate my great good fortune, I know that too much of it depended on the good graces of my fairy god-boss to ever serve as a model for others attempting to navigate the transition to working parent.
In a perfect world, I would have had the foresight and confidence to ask for a modified schedule on my own. And in an even more perfect world, neither me nor my boss would have had to negotiate flexible work arrangements–flexibility it would be standard in all workplaces, and society would understand that supporting working parents begets healthier children, more productive, loyal workers, and a culture of cooperation and understanding that benefits everyone who needs time and space to be human.
But until we live in that perfect world (or relocate to Scandinavia), if we want balance for ourselves, we have a responsibility to fight for other parents and caregivers—to help make the privileges and accommodations like the ones I received standard practice, not special favors to be granted by understanding supervisors.
In my case, after two and a half years of happily working my part time schedule, my company re-organized and my boss shared with me her plans to move on. I knew that the arrangements we’d made were unlikely to hold through the changes, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay at a company that would not fully support working parents, even if I was ready to return to a full-time schedule. So I planned my own exit.
Soon after, I arrived as a content strategist at Cake & Arrow, where I happily work (still part time) with more women, like my former boss, who believe in the power of individuals to help shape and influence the workplace culture and policies. During our regular “Archery Club” meetings, we discuss gender equality issues in the workplace.
Recently, I shared my story with the group and we discussed steps individuals can take to forward our own work/life integration goals, to support others in theirs, and to influence a shift in the broader culture of work. Whether one is actively planning a family, considering going back to school, pursuing a passion project, or just needing a break–everyone benefits when employers accept their workers as both people and professionals.
If you’re thinking about a major change in your work routine–taking time off, working part time, going freelance, or something else consider this:
1. Get serious about your priorities
Don’t follow my example and wait for someone to ask what’s important to you, figure it out. Put it on paper, map out the trade-offs, be honest about your needs. Ask the hard questions—if you’re expecting a child, how do you feel about daycare? Can your partner play an equal role in caregiving? How will that affect your relationship? How ambitious are you? Can your ego handle a career plateau or valley? Can your wallet?
2. Do the math (all of it)
Taking unpaid time off or working fewer hours will obviously affect your bottom line in the short-term, but sometimes the costs of childcare can seem so high that it feels like you’re only working to pay the babysitter. Before you quit, make sure to also consider the possible effect on your future earning potential, and the total amount of money you’ll make in your lifetime. Every year you’re not earning money (and contributing to interest-earning retirement accounts) your lifetime earnings are taking a hit. And stepping out entirely means that you may have to return to a less senior position and a lower salary.
It’s well known that there is a gap between what equally qualified men and women earn in similar positions, but a closer look at the data may show that this difference is less an outrage of outright discrimination, and more a product of structural biases that don’t account for the burden of caregiving that often falls more heavily on women.
Overcoming these biases is a job for broader society, but if you are considering taking time off for caregiving, you can try to combat them in your own life by considering ways to remain relevant in your field. Can your partner also work less to share caregiving responsibilities more fully? Can you freelance, or work part time to maintain your job skills and network?
3. Seek progressives employers
It’s not always possible to pick and choose your employer, but it’s infinitely more difficult to do so when you’re visibly pregnant. Every time you consider working for an organization, ask about family leave policies. Look for explicit policies, women in leadership roles, and cultural cues that this is a place that recognizes the human needs of its workers. You may not need the support now, but companies that make space for families make space for everyone.
4. Cultivate allies and be an ally
Do your best to be understanding and supportive of others when their personal responsibilities affect their professional availability. Support doesn’t mean continuously “covering” for absent co-workers or taking on additional workload. It means being open to working with them to find ways for everyone to be productive. It means standing up for policies that make it easier for everyone to work more flexibly. And if you are the one who needs support, make sure you are honest with yourself and your co-workers about what you can realistically manage, and work with management to make sure that your advantages do not disadvantage others.
Now, several weeks after sharing the experience of my first pregnancy and return to work, I find myself once again avoiding raw cheese and re-learning how to dress a business casual baby bump. But this time, I did not hesitate to share the news with everyone at Cake & Arrow right away. I know now that the only way to truly get support for yourself is to align yourself with organizations that exhibit the values you share, do everything you can to support others in their work-life goals, and to trust that they will do the same for you.