As Caroline Ferrarone approached her first parental leave, she looked forward to becoming a mother but worried about what she might miss out on at work. Would she still have the same position, team members and responsibilities when she returned? Could she keep her career on track?

‘There was so much I didn't know about balancing motherhood and work, so I was really anxious the first time around’, says Ferrarone, a senior manager of U.S. marketing at Indeed. ‘I felt like I needed to squeeze everything out of me to really prove I was still pulling my weight on a team of predominantly men’.

She worked until the day she went into labour: eight days past her due date. While on leave, she felt out of the loop because she was unable to provide input on important decisions. Just weeks after returning to work, she forced herself to say yes to several business trips rather than risk missing out on future opportunities.

‘It was very much a pressure I put on myself’, she says. ‘There was no expectation from my manager or other leaders that I had to do it all, but I felt I had to prove I was still a valuable contributor.’

For Sherrie Nguyen, Indeed’s director of SMB product marketing and co-founder of the Parents and Caregivers inclusive resource group (IRG), returning from maternity leave prior to joining Indeed felt like a lose-lose situation.

‘I remember that being one of the most difficult times of my life … feeling that I was not a good enough mum, I was not a good enough employee, nor was I a good enough wife to my husband’, says Nguyen, whose duties as a mother required her to spend much of the workday pumping and take multiple sick days. 

‘I had outsized expectations, and then policies and systems weren't helping me meet those expectations. But I took it as a personal failure instead of realising there’s an incongruence between the World Health Organization’s recommendation for how long you should breastfeed and company policies around how much time off you should have to become a mother. That insight is what led me to found the Parents and Caregivers IRG at Indeed.'

Once she processed this, Nguyen says, ‘I began to realise that I'm not a failure. I was set up to fail’.

Overcoming common challenges of parental leave

These stories illustrate just some of the realities facing women who take parental leave. 

In a society that values the ‘ideal worker’ someone who can devote themselves fully to their job and perform without indication of their personal life, new mothers are at a disadvantage. Not only can the postpartum period be one of the most challenging, but women today still bear the majority of household and childcare responsibilities, Anne McMunn, who led a University College London survey looking at household chores and gender, found that women do more housework than men in 93% of British households even when both parties are working full-time.  

The time spent working in addition to a full-time job can lead to burnout. The question is how can organisations create a work experience where these employees can thrive? Here are seven ways to improve work for working mums before, during and after parental leave:

1. Connect working moms with mentors and community

Ensure that employees and managers are aware of your company’s leave benefits and receive guidance about best practices for parental leave and returning to work. Consider creating mentorship programs where new mums can seek advice from senior leaders in your organisation who are also mothers. 

Forming IRGs for parents also helps provide a sense of connection and belonging while offering opportunities for advocacy in the US. Paid parental leave in the UK is a highly detailed topic, from entitlements to when the maternity leave actually starts and rates of SMP (Statutory Maternity Pay). 

2. Make personalised action plans in advance

Pregnancies often don’t stick to a timeline, so don’t wait to discuss transition logistics. Encourage mums to share how they want to be communicated with, if at all, during their leave. Many have differing views on what it means to balance motherhood and career, and no two women will require the exact same support. Whatever their preference is, let them know they’re in the driver’s seat. 

3. Be prepared to pivot

Every woman has a unique (and sometimes unexpected) experience with childbirth and the postpartum period, especially first-time mothers. Some who thought they wanted to stay connected with work while on leave may realise this is no longer feasible, or desirable. Keep plans flexible to accommodate changing circumstances and let women dictate their leave experience to best suit their needs.

4. Build inclusive processes

Women on parental leave may miss opportunities to advance in their careers, whether they’re passed over for a promotion or self-select out of the interview process. Research from The House of Commons Library shows that the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that ‘most of the gender pay gaps can be traced to “child penalties” or parenthood’. It finds also that the average earnings of men are almost completely unaffected by parenthood and that women’s earnings fall sharply when they become parents to stabilise a much lower level with little growth. 

Developing promotion and review processes that are mindful of women on maternity leave — for example, pushing back the interview process for a more senior role in order to accommodate those who may be on parental leave, helps to create greater access to advancement and narrow the gender pay gap.

5. Guide their re-entry to work

The ‘re-entry phase’ is when working mothers and caregivers need the most support, but it’s unfortunately where many organisations drop the ball. In addition to providing ample pumping space and amenities for breastfeeding employees, it’s also necessary to offer the right amount of flexibility and guidance to enable women to get back up to speed. 

Consider implementing a one-month transitional period so working mums can ramp back up while maintaining the flexibility they need to balance responsibilities at work and home — for example, working 25% of their normal schedule the first week, 50% the second week, 75% the third and 100% by the fourth week. In addition, a structured return-to-work onboarding programme similar to what a new recruit would experience, in which women can refresh their knowledge of company policies and processes and their scope of work, may be an effective tool for readjusting.

6. Connect them with third-party resources

Partner with organisations that provide resources for working parents, both prior to and following leave. For example, Indeed currently offers employees access to Maven in the US, which provides an array of reproductive and family healthcare support and has more than 70 employer UK clients, as well as Mother Honestly, a platform that helps caregivers better manage their work-life needs. Another company, Parentaly, offers both parental leave planning and return-to-work resources and training to help workers of all genders more easily navigate the leave process.

SilverCloud is a digital mental health wellbeing platform with solutions that can help empower users to think and feel better faster. The CIPD has some advice on back to work support for all cases including parental leave.

7. Have human-to-human conversations

The experience of parenthood looks completely different for each woman, depending on a variety of factors, such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. When managers take a genuine interest in what life is like for each employee returning from parental leave and then proactively start an open dialogue about their challenges and needs, it goes a long way to support inclusion and belonging

‘Not everyone has the flexibility to have childcare when their kids are sick’, says Ferrarone. ‘I don't think it's acknowledged enough that what care looks like, and what you're capable of doing in terms of how and when you work, is very dependent on those circumstances’. 

When in doubt, Nguyen recommends asking three simple questions: How are you doing? What do you need? How can we help?

Whether you're a colleague or their manager, just ask working mums what they need’, she says. ‘While situations may be similar, everybody's needs and approach will be different. Never assume that somebody coming back from leave doesn't want to travel, and never assume they don't want the next assignment. Never assume they don't want more responsibility. Just ask.’