This Is What No One Tells You About Taking (And Returning From) Maternity Leave

People may not expect you to return to work. And they won’t think anything of saying so.
Courtesy of Mary Kearl
Courtesy of Mary Kearl

One of my first conscious observations of the wrongs new parents — often women — experience in the workplace was as an early 20-something at an office in midtown Manhattan.

I was part of a tight-knit team with a female exec at the helm. I received mentorship and felt valued. That’s why it was a shock to find that my co-worker, who had just returned from having a baby, for whom we had thrown a shower where we lovingly decorated onesies and collectively gave a generous gift from the team, was using a storage supply closet crowded with floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with dusty boxes to pump.

Because having children was far from my mind and I soon left that company for another, this became a memory, pushed to the back of my mind.

It didn’t consciously resurface when I became pregnant in my early 30s. But this memory – along with all the other minor to major slights I’ve seen my mostly female co-workers experience throughout my now 11-year career – have been on my mind now that my baby is 18 months old and I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned.

I’m thinking about the things we don’t talk about. Like the not-so-hushed complaints I heard from co-workers at another company – this one a nonprofit focused making fitness more accessible to kids of all backgrounds – about two recently returned mothers who were “always gone at random times of the day” (that’s what’s involved when mothers pump, of course) and who were leaving work at reasonable times of the day instead of logging longer hours like the rest of us felt pressured to do.

The old phrase “children should be seen and not heard” comes to mind. In many ways, in the US workplace today parents of children are also expected, to some extent, to be seen but not heard. Like my colleague who had to fit pumping in whatever way she could without inconveniencing the company, no matter her own personal inconvenience.

I didn’t speak up when I was in my 20s. I also didn’t speak up during my own pregnancy and after my return. But I’d like to now.

I’d like to speak up about my co-workers who kept asking why I was still working when I was only seven and eight months pregnant. To them, I’d like to say, do you know how much maternity leave the US is required to give? (Unlike in other countries around the world where the most generous offer a year and a half paid leave – employers in the U.S. are not required to offer any.)

Since I had a relatively safe and healthy pregnancy, I felt strong and capable of working up until the end – until one week after my due date, when I was induced – and was able to save the time I was given for recovery and child care. Many co-workers found this to be surprising – and something they could weigh in on. It shouldn’t be. It should be up to every individual to determine how long they want to work. And that should be respected.

For new dads, people may refer to their upcoming parental leave as a vacation. (Really, this happened to my husband. Multiple times.) Because women still carry more than their fair share of balancing child care and work, when men take time to bond with their kids and take on the burden of child care, that should be encouraged, not dismissed.

I’d like to let other new parents know that coming back might feel like a new job, and that it’s okay to feel frustrated by that. For me, it took about a month and a half until I was caught up on what had changed since I was out of the office, had a full plate of work and was back into a routine. I had to find ways to contribute and demonstrate my value and leadership (yet again). I also had to get permission to be invited to meetings I’d once run, and I found myself a director with no direct reports, after once having managed a team of four.

While I’m being frank, let me say that people may not expect you to return to work. And they won’t think anything of saying so. When you do return, people may be vocal about expecting you to feel guilty about being back at the office. This is probably more true if you’re a woman.

I was happy to leave the seemingly endless tasks of diaper changing and loads of laundry (a bi-product of cloth diapering) to my capable husband who took the rest of his leave upon my return, but people seemed to want me to feel conflicted. To these co-workers, I’d like to say: When I was at work, I could go to the bathroom and eat whenever I wanted, have meaningful conversations with other adults, get important work done, and still go home and have time to play with my baby.

Courtesy of Mary Kearl
Courtesy of Mary Kearl

Just like every individual path to parenthood is unique, experiences of getting ready for and taking leave from working full time to care for a child will be different for everyone. The changes that happen while you’re away and when you come back may be obvious and small – from seating arrangements and work perks to team structures and company policies.

Or the changes may be subtle and big.

That was the case for me as I found myself being put on the “mommy track.” It wasn’t a fast track. But a slow, painful one. It began with being invited to fewer meetings and being overlooked for sharing feedback.

The hard slap came after my manager, who had been a senior director, quit and I was left to oversee the team. Having been given these new responsibilities without any offer of a title increase or pay raise, I gathered the courage to ask my new manager about the possibility of being promoted.

She was a co-founder of the company and had just had a child one month before me. While I took the 16 weeks of fully paid leave the company offered, she and her husband, the CEO and co-founder of the company, took less than four weeks together. When I asked if I could be considered to be promoted to a senior director, something I had been working toward before my leave, she told me that “some people reach a given stage in their lives where stability is more important than career growth.”

That answer, meant to make me feel like being a parent was at odds with having a successful career, hurt the most of all the things I experienced as a result of becoming a mother. More than an ovarian torsion that required me to get surgery at 22 weeks. More than my 40-plus hours of labor.

Her answer was another reminder that no matter how far we as a society have progressed, there are still structural and cultural norms in place that can have a way of holding parents, and women in particular, back. That our society and businesses have a lot of evolving to do.

And as for me and my career, there’s a happy ending – or new beginning – to my story. After navigating the return to work in an environment where I felt overlooked for new opportunities, particularly those for leadership and growth, I’ve moved onto my next challenge.

At the start of this year, my husband, one-year-old, and I set out to travel throughout South America for six months while I launched a full-time career as a freelance writer and digital marketing consultant. Though it’s long been a dream of mine and something I’ve worked on on the side, it took the distance and perspective I gained upon having a child to give me the courage to take a big leap.

There has been plenty of soul-searching, self-doubt, and times of struggle, but for now I’ve solved our child care problem without either my husband or I having to work 40-hour weeks. And not once have I felt like being a mom has been a detriment to my career.

But parents shouldn’t have to give up full-time jobs (regular paychecks and benefits are more than just nice to have, after all) to make things work. Our government and employers should be doing the work of accommodating families, especially women, who, more than men, adjust their careers for their loved ones. Leaders should be encouraging us and helping us through this time of transition.

I’ll always remember my former manager’s words, but I won’t listen to them or believe them. And if you hear or see something that is intended to make you feel bad or less than, simply for wanting to be a parent, I hope you won’t either. More than that, I hope you speak up. I hope we all speak up.

This article first appeared on HuffPost US Personal

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