Did you know that mothers are the fastest growing segment of the American workforce. And yet, there’s so much about being a new mother in the workplace that many people aren’t aware of.
Take the all-too-common annoyance that working parents “get to” leave work at a reasonable hour, just to pick up their kids from daycare. You might be surprised by how many of those people regularly put in “split shifts”–getting up early to get work done in the mornings and getting back online after the little ones are in bed. For example, I know of a working mom who regularly left the office before 5 PM every day. But the invisible truth was that she was up at 4 AM almost every morning, doing conference calls to Asia, and then back at her computer late into the night.
Because I have faith in people, I like to think that after dragging my body back to work just weeks after getting another human out of it (thanks, America, for being the only industrialized country in the world with no national parental leave!), my colleagues will want to be helpful—it’s just that they don’t understand the realities of working parenthood, and they don’t know how to be an ally to the working parents around them.
Of course, there are a lot of very knowledgeable bosses and co-workers out there, people who get that you’re trying your best in a very challenging time, and who value all the skills and knowledge you still possess. But there are still some workers, managers, and business owners who could use a little dose of understanding on the new-mother front. So I’m here today to share a few thoughts with you on how you can better understand the working mothers in your workplace, and how you might even make their lives a little easier–because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s good for business.
1. She Wants to Keep Being Great at Her Job
It takes a lot of daily willpower to leave your baby behind each day (or at daycare) to go into the office. Yes, a new mom might take a moment to ugly-cry in the bathroom—it really is excruciating to make a new person and then leave him or her behind so quickly. But becoming a mother does not signal the death of ambition, or of taking satisfaction from a job well done. While a return from maternity leave will always require an adjustment period, start out by assuming that a working mother wants to be at work, and wants to keep being fantastic at her job.
2. This Is a Physically Demanding—and Sometimes Painful—Job
Raising a child is a job in itself. You probably get that, but you might not realize what it means in practice. From the second that little person wakes up to the second he goes to sleep, parents are responsible for keeping that child alive–even when they’re away at work. Exhausting is an understatement. New parents are not trying to pawn that exhaustion off on you, but it is a human reality–remember that moms are the fastest growing part of the workforce!–so you ought to know that it takes its toll.
For example, simply feeding a baby can be filed under “really demanding.” Taking a baby’s food source to work can be painful. Nipples may bleed, especially early on. And a new mom’s breasts are filling up with milk in between every nursing or pumping session, which can really hurt. Go too long without pumping—say, more than three hours— and that stuff hurts. So if you’re in a meeting and announce that it’s going to run long, you could be dropping a pain-and-anxiety bomb on that new mom.
3. When She Leaves to Pick Up Her Kids, She’s Not Asking You to Pick Up Her Slack
Leaving the office at a reasonable hour—because daycares close, and that’s not really negotiable—is not the working mother’s attempt to make you do her work. She has boundaries that are impossible to ignore, related to keeping one or more small humans alive. But nothing’s stopping you from setting your own work-life boundaries too, kids or no. She’s doing what she has to do— and rather than resenting her, you can probably speak to your manager about a flexible schedule, too, if that’s something that matters to you.
4. A Bathroom’s Not an OK Place to Make Baby Food
Many working breastfeeders end up pumping in a restroom at some point, out of sheer necessity. But telling one of them to pump in there because you have an important call to take in the room designated for moms is simply not OK. Think about it: Would you like me to cook your lunch in a bathroom?
Not to mention, she (probably) has the legal right to pump at work. The Affordable Care Act extends the legal right to take breaks to pump at work to many working mothers (although many salaried workers are not covered). Many states extend further coverage. And many employers have policies in place to support workplace lactation.
5. There Are Some Really Easy Ways to Help Her Out
If you want to be a hero, bring a new mom some snacks. Like we discussed above, she’s exhausted and she might’ve forgotten her lunch at home, again.
Granola bars aside, there are many simple things you can do to be awesome, at no cost to you:
Remember those “split shifts” many working parents are putting in? Make it a point to look for ways your new-mom co-worker or employee is getting the job done, even if it’s on a different schedule than she had pre-baby. And once you’ve noticed, make sure others see it, too.
Shut down anyone who decides to comment negatively on working motherhood – especially if they’re not parents themselves. “Not cool” would suffice. So would “I think she’s doing an amazing job, and she made a whole human!”
Take your own parental leave, if or when the time comes—especially men. Don’t hide the fact that you’re picking up your kids either (or taking time off to care for an aging parent or ill spouse, for that matter). We need to model respect for family needs as a norm of working life, at all levels. This isn’t just about moms and babies, it’s about being human in the workforce.
6. She’s Still Good at Her Job
You might be tempted to be annoyed at her tighter schedule–a schedule now heavily dictated by family needs. You might grow annoyed every time she posts another photo of her baby on Facebook, assuming that means she’s slacking off. But please realize that almost every single working mom’s stressed about being productive, as well as what impression she’s making at the office.
Know this (and memorize this): She still has all the skills and smarts she had before she brought life into this world—her own world just has a slightly different shape now. All workers are human, and life is going to happen to all of us. Show up with a bias toward assuming the best—it’s likely that some day you’ll need that same kind of grace yourself.
Now get out there and just be a normal, non-offensive co-worker to a lady doing a hard second job. You’ve got this.
Photo of people at work courtesy of Hero Images/Shutterstock.
Jessica Shortall is an advocate for working parents and the author of Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.More from this Author