“The only thing you should say is: Congratulations!”
That was the advice my boss gave me the first time I had an employee tell me they were going out on maternity leave. I was a young first time manager with no children and very little understanding of how I was going to make it work to have one of four of my employees out on leave. Fast forward two years later and I was the one letting my boss know I would be having a baby. In May, I introduced myself as a JV mom – a Junior Varsity mother who took to parenting a little less positively than a fish to water. This is the story of this JV mom’s maternity leave and the hidden gems I discovered.
According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March 2016, 13 percent of all private workers had access to paid family leave. I was one of the lucky twenty-four percent of workers in a professional role that had access to paid family leave. The US track record for granting paid family leave remains dismal compared to other developed countries. We remain one of eight among the UN’s 193-member states that do not have a national program for paid parental leave. This has been a priority for the Trump Administration who in its 2018 budget proposal included a provision for six weeks. However, expanding paid parental leave in the US won’t be a priority until more employers recognize the benefit it brings to their organizations, beyond those taking leave.
My experience with maternity leave taught me three things:
#1 Irrelevant = Opportunity.
Like most first-time moms, I was terrified that by going on maternity leave I would be rendered irrelevant. I spent the first of my maternity leaves intermittently checking into work – only to be scolded and told to go away. By my second leave, I got the message. When I returned from both of my leaves, I remember feeling disoriented, roiling with all sorts of emotions – missing my babies and equally relieved to be back. I had committed to being a JV mom, but wasn’t quite sure that I was still a Varsity Professional. But, instead of letting me continue to be mired in self- doubt, my boss seized on the opportunity to offer me new opportunities to expand my scope of responsibilities and take on higher paying roles. Mind you, I greeted each of these offers with tears; but, with a bit more coaching, it worked out.
#2 Maternity leave is good for parents and good for organizations.
With both of my maternity leaves, my team members were able (Read: had to) to expand their responsibilities. We were a small team in the world of professional services. Our clients expected timelines to be met and the quality of work to be maintained. The same boss that recognized an opportunity for me also recognized an opportunity for the team to grow. The team delivered, and each of them found their skill set expanded which, in turn, accelerated their promotions within the organization.
#3 Varsity Bosses are those that recognize maternity leave as a #win.
It may seem that I had an exceptional boss, but I don’t think my boss’s reaction needs to be the exception – rather it should be the rule. What separates a Varsity Boss from a Junior Varsity Boss is his/her ability to see opportunity and turn what could be a stressful situation into one that creates opportunities to invest in the person going out on leave and those left behind. These opportunities build an organization’s resilience and keep all their talent engaged and motivated.
So, I issue a challenge to all employers out there: We don’t need heroes. We just need our bosses to recognize maternity leave as a #win for parents, the team in place, and their organizations.