Friday, March 2, 2007
I thought I knew what I was doing when I planned a three-month maternity leave after the birth of my first child. I was 30 at the time, with a decade of work experience under my belt. I thought Id be anxious to return to work after 12 weeks with a newborn. And then, the baby came. The first two months were a blur of sleepless nights, colic-induced shrieking and a learning curve for breastfeeding that was like being taught to juggle with my feet. Then, two weeks before I returned to work, my baby started smiling, stopped crying and helped me understand why people have more than one child. The night before I returned to work she slept through the night.
The next morning, I became a working mother. Had I known then what I know now, I would have never agreed to a three-month leave. I have few regrets in my life, but one is not spending more time at home after her birth. I can never get that time back and I left when I was just discovering the joy of motherhood. Despite this, I consider myself lucky. I worked at a place that provided paid leave, I had support from my boss and co-workers, and I was able to plan longer leaves when I had my second and third children.
What my employer got in return for supporting my leaves was a level of loyalty and commitment that translates into dollars: money saved in not having to recruit and replace my position, money saved in training, money saved by not losing institutional knowledge that occurs when a long-time employee leaves a company. In addition, during my second and third leaves, I stayed connected with my staff and company via e-mail and even attended meetings, baby in tow. It made it easier when I returned to work full time because I didnt have to be brought back up to speed on every project and my staff had access to me when they needed it.
Working mothers have become the norm in our country. More than 72 percent of American mothers work outside the home. And in 61 percent of American families, both parents work. Yet, according to a Harvard University study, the United States is one of only four countries in the world without a national paid family leave plan. Our partners in shame are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
This lack of support for working parents can be contrasted with countries such as Canada, where there are 50 weeks of partially paid family leave available for parents to spend with their new child. Sweden has about a year of paid family leave and some time specifically reserved for fathers. Swedish women, supported by many national family-friendly policies, on average have higher incomes, vis--vis men, than women anywhere else in the world. According to a Columbia University study, worldwide, the average paid leave is about 16 weeks, typically including six weeks before birth.
Studies show countries with paid parental leave have lower infant mortality rates and that such leave results in better pre- and postnatal care and lower accident rates the first year of life.
Despite our lack of a national paid family leave system, some states (including California) and companies have realized the economic and job satisfaction value of providing paid leave to employees. Yet, even in these cases, more than half of mothers return to work after three months of maternity leave. I know from personal experience that is not enough.
Even so, I was fortunate that my boss actually understood the value for the organization and me in supporting my leaves (which I find particularly admirable considering he has no children). Im always amazed when managers with older kids or grandkids express frustration about the needs of families and flexibility in the workplace. Its sometimes chilling to realize theyve either already forgotten how they, their families and society benefited from such leaves or they dont want to be inconvenienced, even if it can mean an investment in the future.
According to a Harvard Business Review research report, businesses are starting to worry about talent constraints as a potential labor crunch looms: Our population is getting older, and the number of workers aged 35 to 45 is shrinking. With women among the most well educated people in our population, comprising 58 percent of college graduates, the opportunities could be endless for working mothers. That is, if society could address the needs of modern families and face the reality that while one income families arent extinct yet, the breadwinner these days is as likely to be a mother as it is a father.
Proponents of paid family leave want to take the subjectivity out of the equation so that all parents (not just those in progressive workplaces) can expect the support they need when caring for children. However, many proponents are also advocating for flexible workplaces and other benefits for all employees, to improve quality of life for all working Americans. This is a platform of MomsRising.org The organization has a goal of bringing millions of people together, who all share a common concern about the need to build a more family-friendly America, as a non-partisan force for 2008 and beyond. This grassroots, online effort is mobilizing mothers, and all who have mothers, across America as a cohesive force for change. Started last May, MomsRising already has more than 50,000 citizen members and more than 50 aligned national organizations.
Co-founder Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner says Americans underlying philosophy of rugged individualism has contributed to a workplace where mothers and everyone else are just expected to take care of themselves. However, in modern America, where so many employees are parents or caregivers of family members, that attitude is not economically sound anymore. Rowe-Finkbeiner says there are proactive ways women can address balance in the workplace.
Talk to colleagues and bosses with or without children about what theyre experiencing, she says. These issues dont just affect mothers. Flexible work options dont necessarily mean working less but working smarter. Everyone needs this option so theres not a backlash against mothers. Companies who do this have a better bottom line, lower turnover and better performance reviews. These companies pay less for recruiting and training. Its a win-win and it doesnt have to be legislated.
Rugged individualism can also result in negativity against policies that support families even though paid family leave, workplace flexibility and affordable child care result in healthier, academically successful children, which has a positive impact on the finances of companies (less absenteeism and turnover) and the United States overall (healthier children, better prepared for school).
Rowe-Finkbeiner says working mothers who manage people and have the ability to influence schedules should lead by example and show it is possible to balance work and family and excel at your job. Bear out what the studies show that performance increases and people are happier at their jobs if they are able to take care of their families.
In The Motherhood Manifesto: What Americas Moms Want And What To Do About, the MomsRising founders write that the primary myth surrounding flextime is that it always means part-time or reduced hour jobs. One of the most important types of flextime is flexibility in the time worked during the day. In fact, that very type of flextime was listed as one of the top ways for companies to accommodate the nonlinear realities of womens work lives in an extensive March 2005 Harvard Business Review research report.
MomsRising cites numerous case studies on companies that have reaped the rewards of employee satisfaction and retainment by offering flexible schedules. But, in the end, while the bottom line is important, the decision seems to come down to values. In The Price of Motherhood , author Ann Crittenden writes, The most important job, even economists agree, is raising the next generation. Like other social issues, its difficult to refute that claim, but so hard for many to put into practice.