It’s 1998, and I’m playing a 16-bar melody over and over on my trusty Cabart oboe. It’s a humid day in Central Ohio, and I’m sweating as I hit record yet again. We have to submit a tape for section leader auditions, and after over 50 takes, stopping to listen for inconsistencies, I finally get the right one. And I end up as first chair.
I’ve always been ambitious. The Lorelai to my Rory, my stay-at-home mom relentlessly supported me and even tried to loosen me up when I was too serious. Though we talked often about careers, what strikes me now is that we rarely talked about motherhood.
When I was 25, my mom passed away. My now-husband and I planned our wedding in three months so she could be there. I’ll never forget falling asleep on her shoulder after that exhausting day, her whisper in my ear telling me that she loved and believed in me and all my potential.
Nine years later, I accepted a position as director of marketing at a high-growth startup in the Bay Area. Two months into my new role, I announced I was expecting my first child, making me the first new mom in the history of the new company.
After incessant questions from people asking if I’d be leaving the workforce after my baby was born, I realized what was not being said. Though we’ve made great strides around both parental leave and female leadership, we’ve treated these as separate conversations. New moms still often return to work environments that view us as liabilities, based on an erroneous assumption that the trials of motherhood have made us less, rather than more, capable of crushing it at our jobs.
For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Having a baby actually raised my bar for career fulfillment, and I came back to work after maternity leave ravenous for more opportunities to grow my leadership. Now as a marketing vp, here’s my advice for new moms, managers and companies who are grappling with the question of how to make the return from maternity leave fruitful not just from a logistical sense, but a professional one as well.
Be proactive about planning post-maternity leave
In Lost Leaders in the Pipeline, authors Lisa Mainiero and Bonnie Marcus share that 74% of women surveyed self-identified as very/extremely ambitious and expressed a desire to continue working during motherhood, given they felt supported by their company. Yet the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is because of poor management.
If you have a highly ambitious employee on your team going on maternity leave, resist the all too common urge to take a wait and see approach. Focus not just on prepping for the time she’s away, but also for when she comes back. Get specific together, either by listing out possibilities for high-impact projects she could take on or exploring other areas in which she can gain more responsibility. This role visioning will help you create a future you can both buy into, one that respects her skills and ambitions for her own growth while simultaneously addressing your company’s most pressing needs.
As more and more mothers return to the workforce and are themselves becoming managers, we have a responsibility to pay it forward. I strongly urge fellow managers to think beyond the timing and logistics and will bring career growth into the conversation around maternity leave.
Support new moms by taking your culture from theory to practice
When new employees join any company, there’s a warming up period when they’re learning about the existing culture. Similarly, when a new parent comes back from leave, there’s an opportunity for re-norming your office culture. If they don’t see parent-friendly actions play out in your company firsthand, new moms might develop unrealistic expectations for themselves and their work and end up putting their career growth in jeopardy.
An easy way to lean into a parent-friendly office culture is to adapt your HR policies from paper to real life.
For example, many of us emphasize flexibility as a key brand differentiator to attract strong candidates. But what does flexibility actually look like at your company? Do your employees at all ranks feel empowered to be transparent in taking time off for a mental health day or take a toddler to the pediatrician? Are your team events scheduled during the workday to be mindful of the limited evening and weekend availability of new parents? Can new moms choose a work schedule and location that works best for their family upon returning from leave?
Consider whether your company’s social norms (not just your on-paper policies) welcome and support new moms or unintentionally push them away.
You don’t have to hide your ambitions because of motherhood
Being the first new mom at a startup allowed me to push boundaries. As I learned what worked and didn’t for me and my family, I was grateful to be in a supportive work environment where I could experiment without putting my professional growth on the back burner.
My experiences may not be the norm for all new moms, especially those in executive positions, but I desperately want them to be.
I would encourage new moms that have the means to be bolder in thinking through how they want to shape their careers following maternity leave and to not be discouraged by our society’s antiquated notions around motherhood and identity. And I would remind managers and leaders that it is possible (and great for employee retention) to think beyond the how much of maternity leave and thoughtfully consider the what-comes-next after leave, in support of both the new mom and her career.
New moms may go on leave, but their ambition doesn’t.