Recently, a friend who was pregnant asked me for advice as she started to think about maternity leave. As I began to make a mental list of helpful tips, I had a difficult time remembering my own maternity leave experiences. Both my leaves were a hazy dream: I need pictures to remind me of that time. There are a lot of things I don't remember, but I do distinctly recall the ways in which my then-bosses didn't show up for me and my career when I decided to start, and later expand, my family.
It would appear that companies are in a race to have the most progressive maternity leave option, to partner with providers like Milk Stork, to ensure state-of-the-art mother's rooms, to have flexible work options, and to provide back-up daycare options. But none of these policies matter if leaders don't show up for women and support them when they announce their pregnancy and go on leave.
Here are the ways in which I wish my bosses had supported when I was on maternity leave, and the ways in which I strive to continue to support women expecting.
1. Be supportive when an expecting parent announces their pregnancy
"You waited 4 months to tell me," my boss reprimanded me when I shared my pregnancy news. "You should have told me earlier," she lamented. "We all suspected anyway."
Here's the only response needed: Congratulations! Be supportive in the moment. Let's respect the hard choices moms-to-be make about when to tell us the about their pregnancies. We don't remind them the business is on fire, we have a hiring freeze or that two other colleagues just also announced their pregnancies. Let pregnancy announcements be about the family, not about the business.
2. Don't write employees off once they announce their pregnancies
"You will be out on leave when we have the national sales meeting," my boss said, shrugging her shoulders. "No need for you to present our innovation plans to the VP of sales."
Months before my due date, I was pulled off major initiatives, taken off meeting invites, and told I no longer needed to present. I remember fighting for the opportunity to be able to present to a major customer while seven months pregnant. The fact that someone is pregnant doesn't mean they can't continue to work and deliver. Don't take opportunities away from expecting parents.
3. Do check in on employees' career plans before they go on maternity or parental leave
I was on track for a promotion before I announced I was pregnant. As soon as I disclosed my pregnancy, those interview opportunities vanished. "You'll want to come back to this role, take it easy, and adjust to motherhood," my boss reassured me. "You won't want to go to lead another business and travel."
For all the times leaders have tried to make career decisions for me that they decided were in the best interest of my children, I wish I had asked: Who gave you permission to slow down my career?
Don't assume what new mothers want. Don't put them on the "Mommy Track." Ask them what they want from their careers, and how the company can support them.
4. Don't pressure employees to work while they're on maternity or parental leave
"Hi, sorry to bother you," the first text began. "I need you to go into the performance review system and enter in ratings for your team, the system won't let me," my boss pleaded. This was a few weeks into my maternity leave. I felt bad, so I did it immediately.
And then the flood gates opened. My boss, and then my temporary backfill, texted me periodically when they needed something. I felt pressured to comply.
Don't pressure employees to work on maternity leave. Reaching out to check in on how your employees are doing is fine—just don't sneak in a work request while you're doing it (or two or three).
5. Judge new parents' work performance fairly
I came back from maternity leave to receive one of the lowest possible performance ratings of my career. When I asked for rationale, my boss couldn't provide any. I hadn't worked for six months of the year, and even though the company set their own maternity leave policy, they'd held it against me when I took advantage of it.
Ensure you have policies in place on how you rate new parents who have taken leave. Stand up for fair treatment of new parents, and hold your colleagues accountable to doing the same.
6. Have a plan in place for addressing team issues while a manager is on maternity or parental leave
When I came back to work, I came back to six months of unaddressed team performance issues. On my very first day back, I had a meeting with HR to discuss it. My boss's response was, "I waited for you to come back to handle this, I didn't have time." In six months, no proper feedback or coaching was given to team members and an agency relationship had been put on thin ice as a result.
Don't wait for your managers to come back from maternity leave before you address issues. Before they go on leave, make sure that there's coverage for their work and duties are delegated appropriately. And if worse comes to worst, higher-level managers need to be willing to step in and address performance issues themselves.
7. Stop microaggressions against new mothers in their tracks
Here's a sample of the questions I was asked when I came back to work after maternity leave:
- "How was your vacation?"
- "Who is home with your baby if you're at work?"
- "You must be working part-time now."
- "You decided to come back to work so soon?"
All of these questions imply something incorrect about being a working mother: That childcare isn't hard work, that you're a bad mother or parent if you go back to work, that new parents won't work as hard as they did before.
Stop biased language and every day microaggressions in its tracks. If we wouldn't ask these questions of working fathers, don't ask them of working mothers coming back to work after expanding their families. Don't be a silent bystander. Speak up when you hear people asking moms these questions, and be the ally that all working mothers deserve.