After reading a recent article in Forbes Magazine titled, “Working Moms Are Doing their Part, Employers Need to Do Theirs,” it brought to mind a sense of shared struggle many women face in the workplace and about being a working mother. Topics like maternity leave, breastfeeding, and paid time off are important issues affecting women in the workplace today. By examining some of the issues and situations that can arise for a woman in the working environment, businesses and organizations can help to make those issues manageable for everyone involved. Perhaps, there is even an opportunity for organizations to foster loyalty from their employees and give the employees who need the support less stress transitioning away from, and then back to work. In return, organizations can boost morale, as well as retain a valued employee.
I remember what being a new mom with a new job was like in the early 1990s. Back then, six weeks was the normal length of maternity leave. Although the new Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had been passed, some employers were still working on ways to implement the new policy, which requires that employers provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to qualifying employees.
My new job also offered two weeks of paid time off after a person worked for a specified amount of time. However, since I started working about a month before my due date, I had zero time available for any paid leave. Five weeks into my leave, my boss called to ask if I was interested in returning to work a week early. She knew I wasn’t getting a paycheck and it would be a win-win as I would get paid and she would get her employee back.
I remember my first maternity leave vividly. I was impatient, hurried, stressed, and not able to relax and enjoy motherhood at all because of my impending return date to work. Also, with the needs of others coming at me from every direction at home, I wasn’t able to care for myself the way I should have. I decided to accept an offer to return early. When I returned to work, I found a bit of peace because the demands of the workplace were much less than the demands I had at home. Nevertheless, I wanted to be at home with my family and the stress of needing to be in two places at once was challenging.
By the time I had my last child, the company had extended their time off from 6-weeks to 10-weeks. They also allowed a person the option to take 12-weeks, however, the extra time would need to be in the form of personal time or leave without pay. I can attest that there is a huge difference between having 6-weeks versus 10-weeks at home with a newborn baby. After a 6-week leave, I was not ready to separate from my infant. I worried about who would watch him, who would feed him, and to what my baby would be exposed to. I worried about him getting sick or hurt. I just felt stressed transitioning from having 24-hours a day with my new baby to around 12-hours, most of which would be sleeping time.
With my youngest child, I had ten weeks off and it was amazing. My stress level was much lower and we were able to bond more effectively. I was able to focus on breastfeeding and making sure he had what he needed. I was not stressed about trying to balance my work and home life. The 10-week maternity leave was a much better option by far.
The more time a mother has to prepare, the more likely she is to be less stressed with returning to work.
Here are some tips on preparing for maternity leave:
- Once you become aware of your pregnancy, educate yourself on the policies in place, and the options available at your place of employment.
- Make your boss aware of your pregnancy as soon as possible, discuss your maternity leave plans (6 weeks, 12 weeks, etc.).
- Based on your due date, plan ahead for maternity leave.
- Assist in the training of your temporary replacement.
- Even if you are not interested right now, ask your boss about flexible work arrangements (i.e. telecommuting and/or half-days) post-pregnancy.
Paid Time Off (PTO)
After the baby gets older, there is still a necessity for time away from work. Mothers will need to be present for events at school and at home when their children are sick. This is where PTO plays a significant role.
As time progressed, I quickly found the two weeks of vacation time given to a new employee was just not enough for a new mother. I used the time when the kids got sick with ear infections, allergies, and other illnesses. This was the norm for the first five years of my career. I remember working out deals with my boss by bringing boxes of paper and envelopes home that needed to be folded and mailed. Our family would all pitch in and help and that would make-up for some of my missed time at work. Starting in my sixth year at the company, I was given another week of paid time off. With three weeks of PTO, I finally had a little room to breathe when it came to missing work for my children. I was even able to take a little time for myself, like a mini-vacation.
Susan Heathfield, management and organization development consultant, explains that “A PTO policy creates a pool of days that an employee may use at his or her discretion. When an employee needs to take time off from work, the PTO policy enables a certain amount of the time off to be paid time off.”
As my children got older, I used the time off for visits to their schools, taking them to camp, and participating in their sporting events. Looking back, I realize that there is just not enough time for a mother to fully participate in their child’s life and work. There must be a sacrifice, and it is often a difficult decision to stay at work while your child is living their life without you.
Paid Time Off is an important piece in managing both parts of life.
In 2005, we lost a child during the fifth month of my pregnancy. I remember walking out of the doctor’s office and into the parking lot. One of the first phone calls I made was to my manager since he was expecting me back to work that day. I was blessed with a boss that had great empathy, compassion, and understanding. He told me to do what I needed to do and not worry about work. I can’t remember how much time I took off from work, but I remember the support I got from management and coworkers. There was a true sense of community, but more importantly, a sense of family. Having the option of paid time off was essential during that time of grief.
Bottom line, time away from work is not a want, but a necessity for working moms. While these benefits may seem like a high cost, the greater cost for these organizations is losing a hard-working and valued employee. Finally, by supporting their employees, businesses foster loyalty, which can lead to higher retention and higher productivity.
Are you aware of the maternity and PTO policies at your place of employment? This information is usually found in the employee handbook or Human Resources packet given at the time of hire. Review the policy and map out your time off for the year considering the time you’ll need for school events and extracurricular activities, sick days when the kids are not well, and vacation days. If you are expecting, be sure to review the maternity leave policy and discuss all options available to you with your manager and/or Human Resources representative.