After giving birth to my son in February 2021, the thing that scared me the most as a first-time mother wasn’t the sleepless nights (though they still exist). It wasn’t the complete and total paradigm shift that every new parent experiences. It wasn’t even the responsibility of keeping this tiny, fragile new being alive in the midst of a global pandemic.
The single most terrifying part about being a new mother was coming back to work, at a company that I co-founded and have successfully run for nearly a decade.
I didn’t know what work my professional life would look like after welcoming my baby until I was living it – and looking back, I know I returned too soon. At four months postpartum, I was still not sleeping well at all, was nursing multiple times a day and night, still adjusting to having this baby and a brand new identity. Though I am one of my company’s leaders, I didn’t have the confidence to be as upfront as I needed to because I had no frame of reference. I never went into the full reasons as to why I’ve had to make adjustments on my calendar and the reality of coming back as a working mom. There have been many times over the past two years that I’ve wondered if it’s even possible to be the mother I want to be and do my job, let alone run a $50 million business.
As I’ve gained confidence as a working mother in a leadership role, I’ve reflected on our society’s need for a massive shift in culture and policies to be more flexible and supportive of working parents – we need this at the federal level, particularly given racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to paid leave. I’m also thinking about ways I can use my leadership position to enact change within our company. I knew our family leave policy needed an overhaul, and becoming a mother myself only made this all the more glaringly obvious.
My co-founders and I started our company in 2014, as young professionals in our twenties (of the three, I’m the only female, lead the US arm of a company headquartered in Europe and was the first to become a parent). As our company matures and as the labor market grows increasingly competitive, I’ve found myself laser focused on finding ways to offer better benefits – like generous paid family and medical leave.
Sure, we don’t have the government resources that my European counterparts have – but from my lived experience, I’ve realized there are ways to be creative and help set new parents in our industry up for success in meaningful ways. And so, the following are four key realizations I’ve taken into account as I shape and roll out our new Paid Family Leave Policy.
1. We owe it to our colleagues to be as generous as possible with the paid leave we can offer and how we can continue to support parents long after they’ve returned to work
The creator industry is dominated by females. We have a high concentration of amazing young women who will be thinking about family planning in the coming years (over 80% of our US staff identify as female).
Caregiving for infants is a long term endeavor that remains crucial throughout a child’s early development – well beyond a few weeks or months. Parenthood is likely the biggest transition many of us will make in our lifetime, and studies show that most parents don’t start getting the hang of parenthood and feeling confident before the 6-month mark.The need to support our employees certainly doesn’t stop after their maternity leave has wrapped up.
After experiencing the fourth trimester and subsequently moving into the toddler stage with my son, I’ve realized:
- The US norm of 0-12 weeks of paid maternity leave is outrageously insufficient. We all deserve more. This is why I’ve pushed for the most generous paid family leave policy we can offer of 16 weeks (with a supportive return to work plan, and an option to take up to four more months unpaid for those who need more time.)
- Parenthood doesn’t magically get easy when the baby is no longer a newborn. I specifically pushed to make our family leave policy as flexible as possible and to support a parent’s transition back to work, easing into half time at full pay across two months. I’ve also included flexibility around scheduling for breastfeeding parents and have emphasized to team leaders we need to continue to support parents by offering permanent flexible working environments.
We also can’t ignore that this is all the more important for our BIPOC colleagues, who have been historically underserved with access to paid parental leave. Consistent with prior research, a recent study on Racial/Ethnic Inequities in Paid Parental Leave Access found that Black women on average receive 3.6 fewer weeks of paid leave than white women.
2. We need to instill a culture of flexibility for working parents helps them stay comfortable, happy and successful
The research is clear: dedicated postpartum care is crucial for supporting the mother’s overall mental and physical recovery and wellbeing (WHO urges quality care for women and newborns in critical first weeks after childbirth). I firmly believe that employers can and should contribute resources towards the postnatal period for their valued employees.
However, paid leave is just the start, and it can’t be limited to just the immediate postpartum period. As leaders in our industry, we need to behave like a forward-thinking, innovative organization. From a business lens, as we think about recruitment and job retention, we need to find ways to offer real and valuable support to parents. From a cultural perspective, it’s the right thing to do.
Truly supporting employees means things like offering flexible working and deemphasizing the hours worked vs. productivity (for some people, the ability to work flexibly is the choice between holding down a job or being forced out of the workplace altogether.) It’s creating policies that support all genders and methods of family formation (birth, surrogacy, adoption etc.), offering fertility benefits, designing a great return plan to support parents, etc. It all ladders up to happier and healthier working parents who are able to do their jobs more effectively and with greater satisfaction.
3. Men have a right to parental leave and should not be judged for taking it, though the role of the mother or birthing parent is fundamentally different
One of the hardest days of my life was the day my husband went back to work, full time, in an office. We had a blissful 7-8 weeks together at home during COVID where he was able to check in remotely. When he went back, I felt so alone and our relationship suffered from the extreme imbalance of our lives.
In heterosexual relationships, we often hear about the mother’s mental load – the act of preparing, organizing and anticipating everything for their child. This is important because the more invisible labor moms do, the less they can balance high demands in their jobs leading to further gender pay and progression disparity and a higher likelihood of burnout. But we can certainly try and normalize fathers or non-birthing partners taking the time they need and the fundamental support they provide their birthing partners. (I strongly believe this also applies to alternative ways of building a family like surrogacy, adoption, etc.)
A colleague recently shared that while she commutes from Bristol to London several times a month (a two-hour trip each way), if she gets a call from daycare that her child is sick, her husband who is in an office 20 minutes away feels reluctant to leave, because of optics. Another US colleague told me that her husband took three days off of work to welcome their new child; his paternity leave was two weeks, but no one at his male-dominated workplace ever takes the full leave.
A big part of this push starts at day one, with the concept of gender neutral parental leave. Our family leave policy is identical for fathers or non-birthing partners, in hopes that they can help share the mental load with their partners from day one. Through our paid leave policy and supporting fathers as much as mothers, we need to keep attacking this gender binary.
4. A paid policy should kick in from day one of the job
When formulating our new plan, I tapped my network for insights for inspiration and to ask about mistakes they’ve seen from other companies’ policies. One of the common themes I heard about is the struggle of starting a new job with no paid leave, and the incredibly tricky position this puts a person in. We have a policy that will kick in immediately on hire, and then expand when employees reach six months with the company.
This element of our policy in particular needed a lot of thought and discussion, given we also need to protect the business. But we can’t ignore the fact that the stars don’t always align perfectly between family planning and career opportunities. Timelines around fertility, adoption or surrogacy are often out of our control. Women in technology have become all the more vulnerable given the ongoing layoffs in big tech. The last thing I would want is for our policy to be a dealbreaker and turn off an incredible new employee if it’s not aligned with their family planning.
We’re Just Getting Started with a Family Friendly Work Culture
These changes are really the tip of the iceberg on a larger conversation around supporting paid leave for all employees – everything from bringing home a new baby, to taking care of a sick parent, to coping with chronic illness and so much more.
Encouraging federal action is a major piece of the puzzle and would be a huge boon for so many businesses like mine. There are many simple ways to make our voices heard at the federal level. For example, I’ve been so inspired by Paid Leave for All and Glamour’s recent campaign featuring a series of satirical interactive baby books “teaching” newborns how to care for themselves while their parents are forced back to work. (You can sign the petition here).
In addition to encouraging federal action, I believe that employers have a responsibility to help employees, particularly working parents, be comfortable and adjusted, and I’m proud to make our new paid leave policy a reality today. I’m excited to continue this dialogue and lead by example in making our culture truly family friendly. In the future for my company, we are introducing Billion Dollar Mother’s Club, a bimonthly meeting that will spin out into a mentorship program and will introduce a return to work guidebook.
My goal is to be more open and lead them in showing that they can maintain their positions and not be forced to leave the workforce once they have a family. In turn, I hope to retain top talent who are the driving force of our business. Because the future of our company – and more importantly, our working parents – depends on it.