Being a working mother is like walking a tightrope; you struggle to stay centered. Working mothers are not better employees than non-mothers, but they do share a universal trait of uniform guilt. “Did having a child limit my career potential?” “Did prioritizing my career limit my parental potential?”
Unfortunately, the same questions that are levied at leaders who are mothers are rarely directed at leaders who are fathers. A man’s value as an employee skyrockets when he gets married and has a child. He is viewed as the pinnacle of stability. A woman’s value plummets in the same scenario; she is the wracked-with-competing-priorities liability.
The United States has one of the worst parental leave cultures in the world. Paid leave of any kind is a luxury, and no one — male or female — is occupationally rewarded for becoming a parent in the short-term. However, forward-looking companies in recent years have made more of an effort to keep mothers in the workforce, and the cloud computing company for which I work, Bullhorn, was on the leading edge of that, offering four months of fully paid leave to the primary caregiver of a newborn child.
Parental Leave Programs Show Talent Their Value
Four months of fully paid leave tells employees that they are valued. The policy tells me that the time I spend with my child in the first formative months of her life is as valuable as the time I’d spend in the office working full-time, and it will be business as usual when I come back. With its turnkey leave policy, Bullhorn is saying, “you’re a part of our figurative family, and it’s important that you now go take care of your literal family.”
I recall the opposing experience of my sister, who was a physician when she had her two sons. She received six weeks off from work and had no lactation room to utilize when she returned as an OB/GYN, taking care of new moms and babies. She could attend to the needs of other moms but not her own.
Three months of paid primary caregiver leave is thankfully common at tech firms, but Bullhorn’s extra month was crucial for me. My first daughter, a baby easy to care for, nonetheless wasn’t sleeping long stretches until three months of age. If I had to wake up early and drive on a highway every day from three months onward, I might have crashed the car. That fourth month helped me stabilize my schedule, and every month you’re not pumping at work is a win. Even if a mother’s room was surrounded by natural rainforests and with Enya personally serenading you, pumping at work would still be awful.
The Importance of Leadership Support
Part of what makes Bullhorn a haven for working parents isn’t just the paid leave policy; it’s the attitude of its leadership. The chief executive officer and chief marketing officer at Bullhorn are both great fathers who respect and admire the role of motherhood, and they’re genuinely supportive of the struggles mothers endure. When you are a working parent who takes their role as a parent very seriously, being surrounded by other working parents who also take their role as a parent very seriously is a godsend.
And I will say something controversial for the sake of rabble-rousing: It’s easy to assume that women leaders would be more understanding about a new mother’s struggles. That isn’t always the case. In fact, among a certain generation of working women — a generation who were categorically not supported when they were starting families — expectations of what a working mother can endure can sometimes be skewed.
Will They or Won’t They? The Quandary of Returning
A February 2018 feature in Harvard Business Review reported a finding that stay-at-home mothers were half as likely to get a job interview as mothers who had been laid off. This doesn’t surprise me. Employers generally view mothers who choose to stay at home in a few simplistic ways: economically well-off enough that they don’t need a job; intellectually un-curious enough that they don’t want a job; voluntarily, versus involuntarily, distant from cutting-edge skill sets, a flight risk.
Obviously, this logic is simplistic and oftentimes inaccurate. Women aren’t binary. They can both take an extended period of time off of work to raise a child and be an amazing asset to an organization upon return. Some of my stay-at-home mom friends are not only smarter than me, but their previous careers were unabashedly more prestigious than mine. However, old habits die hard — and old stereotypes with them.
Some of the hesitation is on the part of the mothers themselves and not necessarily the employer. I’ve managed women who had every intention of returning to work after having a child only to change their mind. I was certainly not one of those mothers. Even as I was enjoying bonding with my children, I was truthfully counting the days until I could lock myself in a quiet office and eat my lunch in a continuous stretch, uninterrupted by a toddler lamenting that the green apples I gave her were, in fact, too green.
But there is no one-size-fits-all rule, and women don’t always know which decision they’ll make long-term. Subsequently, neither do employers. Investing in a longer parental leave is an investment in the belief that the employee will return, yes, but it’s also an act of faith. Faith that tells us we’re worth the wait.
Aravinda Souza is vice president of marketing communications at Bullhorn. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.