The Blog

Before Maternity Leave: Giving Birth and Getting (Right) Back to Work

It was astonishing to realize that just one generation ago almost none of today's modern -- albeit often mediocre -- maternity policies even existed.
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I met a fascinating woman this week.

Now retired, she raised four (!) children with her husband while simultaneously building an extraordinarily interesting and successful career as a lawyer. While our meeting was happenstance -- we met at a backyard barbecue -- our conversation seemed to be anything but.

The whole conversation felt like a scene from the movie I Don't Know How She Does It. While we casually conversed, my mind was reeling: how had she managed to raise a big family and pursue a big career at the same time? I met three of her five children at the cookout. They appeared to be happy, healthy, productive members of society. So how did she do it?

Apparently she just did.

And not only that, but she did it with absolutely zero of the perks and benefits afforded to many mothers these days, including maternity leave.

Yep, that's right. While eating bacon cheeseburgers and Brussels sprouts, she mentioned that she found out she was pregnant with her second child two days after being accepted to law school.

Good grief.

Well, she went to law school anyway, determined to make a new career for herself (she had been a medical lab tech for nearly a decade). Very cool. I was already impressed. Then came her hallmark comment of the evening.

New friend: "I was so lucky to have given birth on a weekend. It allowed me to be back to school on a Wednesday."

Me: "Wait, back up. What did you just say?"

As the story goes, when she had been accepted, the dean of the school had told her she could take a year off after baby #2 was born, but that dean was long gone once her labor pains started.

This seems crazy today, but this was three decades ago, and the world didn't know what to do with moms who continued working or learning after they gave birth. So, these women just had to push through -- literally and figuratively.

But completing her studies wasn't the only challenge this mother faced. There was no maternity leave policy at her law firm when her other two children were born.

After all, she was the only woman practicing law there. Once again, the world didn't know what to do with her.

I didn't quite catch the details of the last two birth stories because my head was swirling with the 152 questions I wanted to ask. But I'm certain that she told me that she was again "blessed" to have given birth on a weekend, which allowed her to be back at work by Wednesday.

My head nearly exploded.

I spend a lot of my time studying corporate maternity leave policies and work-life balance. I consult with companies who want to smooth the path for new moms re-entering the workforce, to retain this talented pool of women. So, this was a timely conversation for me.

It was astonishing to realize that just one generation ago almost none of today's modern -- albeit often mediocre -- maternity policies even existed.

There was no Family and Medical Leave Act, nobody encouraging dads to take time off upon the birth of a child, no "Lean In" circles, on-site daycares or "mothers' rooms."

My new friend's pregnancy experience and perspective gave me pause. She had been a quiet revolutionary, but we no longer have to be quiet. And we should rejoice in that.

For years, managers and supervisors danced around talk about pregnancy and family planning for fear of violating HR policies. But this don't-ask, don't-tell policy has become counterproductive. A recent poll found that 47 percent of pregnant workers were afraid to tell their boss they were pregnant.

That's crazy.

An employee (not to mention her company) cannot succeed if this topic remains taboo. Cultivating and retaining talented working moms takes planning, and the first step of planning is having an open, honest conversation about this major life transition.

Bravo to Netflix, Microsoft and Adobe for coming out recently with remarkably generous maternity and paternity leave policies.

Now, here's what the rest of us can start doing.

If you're a manager, be proactive. Speak openly and often about your company's leave policy and family-friendly benefits. Make sure your employees know your door is open and that you're there to support them and help them succeed.

If you're an employee, make sure you understand your company's benefits and policies so you can plan accordingly. The insight and advice of other working moms in your company is invaluable: if your company doesn't already have a new parents' support group, ask about starting one. It can be as informal as a monthly brown-bag lunch in the corporate cafeteria. And don't forget to encourage your partner to do the same. Maternity leave is a family issue. Deciding how you'll handle these first few important months of your child's life is great practice for the teamwork of parenthood.

This chance meeting with this powerhouse of a woman was a great reminder of how strong mothers are. Which, in my mind, is all the more reason businesses should devote more resources to attracting and retaining this kind of talent. I left that backyard barbecue more determined than ever to get mothers the support they deserve.

Now go have a baby and get back to work on Monday.

Just kidding. That makes my insides hurt.