Conversation: Parental Leave and the Workplace

Here is the promised synopsis of the mommy conference we had at Melons coffee shop last week. Along with Samantha Cockburn, I was a guest speaker for Concordia’s University of the Streets Café and we were each chosen to speak about:

“The Parenting Profession: What impact does taking parental leave have on our ability to work and plan a career?”

We covered a lot of ground, considering issues of parenting and the workplace, which I’m dividing up here into the major subjects.

The Guest Speakers: Me and Samantha

We kicked it off with an intro from Samantha Cockburn, a successful entrepreneur and business-owner of Baby Auric, a cloth-diaper service in Montreal. Before embarking on this adventure, Samantha was climbing the corporate ladder at a pharmaceutical company. After her first baby, she realized that she just wasn’t the same person at work anymore. So she put her MBA to good use and launched her own business, giving her flex time to manage her family life, which now includes a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old.

What an incredible leap of faith! Leaving a full-time, well-paying job to start something new takes tremendous courage and I admire her for it.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am the mommy who went back to work full-time. That wasn’t a difficult decision. I’m a researcher for CTV News, producing investigative reports and daily news for over 10 years and I love my job. But at the end of the year-long leave, I didn’t feel my baby was ready for daycare. Having saved my money the moment I knew I was pregnant, I was lucky to extend my parental leave by an extra 5 months. Even so, returning to work was a difficult adjustment, despite having an understanding boss, quality daycare and flexible hours. Ultimately, leaving my 17-month old in the care of others for over 8 hours a day feels unnatural, like I’m neglecting my duties as a parent. And I miss him so much all day long. I’m still coping with these feelings, and it’s getting easier, partly in thanks to the daycare’s webcam. I can see he’s in a nurturing environment and that frees me to do my job without constantly worrying about him.

The Conversation Begins About Choices

Every mother has to face the decision eventually and we all handle the countdown to work differently. We were about 24 people, and only two dads, and the following were their thoughts as the conversation unfolded.

Hildy says she decided long ago how to handle her work life when she put all her cards down with her husband. Before having a baby, they planned what kind of lifestyle they wanted and calculated ahead of time how they could pull it off without a burnout.

Nicola had a plan too, but her maternal feelings took her by surprise so she adjusted by extending her leave. She says, “Women are in a difficult position and we’re not quite there in terms of equality. Plus we’re faced with the biological mechanism of being mothers.” She feels women end up making the concessions.

I noticed that we never know how we’re going to react until we’re there. The changes in our lives can’t be anticipated. There are the logical choices we think we’ll make and then our emotional response to motherhood.

Even before returning to the office, many women are feeling the impending doom of their parental leave coming to an end. A school teacher who came with her little baby confessed to feeling constantly stressed. Her time at home is slowly slipping away and going back to work is always at the back of her mind.

On the other hand, Nadine was looking forward to going back to work. “It’s nice to rediscover that part of your brain again.” But she still dreads leaving her daughter in daycare, not knowing what she is doing all day.

Work / Life Balance

Elizabeth pointed out how many of us grew up believing that we can do anything. Now we’re facing the traumatic realization that we can have it all, just not all at the same time. “And do we realize what’s at stake in the long run? How are we building this future generation? What do we want? We have to decide what’s important.” She adds, there’s a disconnect between what we want for the future of our kids and it doesn’t match our short-term vision.

Samantha agrees. As a mother now, she can’t think of anything else. “I don’t know how to make the shift in society. But if we don’t, there will be serious repercussions.”

For my part, I don’t believe in work / life balance. What really happens is you end up making difficult choices and then you need to accept the consequences. The brutal truth is you can only give 100% to a few things in life. For my part, I chose to let my house go to heck. Clean dishes and underwear is as close to clean as I get.

Where are the Dads?

I’ve also come to believe that we’d enjoy a better transition into the workplace when we include men in the conversation. It’s true; we’ve come a long way. My father never changed a diaper in his life, yet my husband is an expert at it. Stay-at-home dads are not an unusual trend anymore. And all this in just one generation. I think there’s hope for a lot more change.

Another mom brought up the example of Sweden, where paternity leave is extremely generous. This political policy has increased equality for women. It has also decreased divorce rates as men, increasingly primary caregivers, have more empathy for their partners when they learn how difficult it is to manage a newborn and household tasks like the never-ending pile of laundry.

Elizabeth cited a study from Concordia, how “hands-on” dads make for happier, more well-adjusted children.

In addition to the rewards for society and children, I think more-involved dads will also force employers to be more accommodating to parents in general. It can’t be just a women’s issue. (At this meeting, I think we only had two or three fathers present.) It has to be a family issue. Just by sheer numbers, we’ll get equality and respect for either parent, and bosses won’t be able to lump women in a category of problem employees.

Fathers Getting the Short End of the Stick

A mother brought up the example of her husband, who barely had time to be with his newborn. The irony is that he’s a lawyer, but the last man in his firm who made a stink about taking the full paternity leave was “unofficially fired.”

Another father shared his experience with parental leave. After returning from his due 5 weeks off, he was told “never to do that again” and got a lot of flack. And while he was gone, he could feel the nipping on his heels as two younger workers were eager to jump on his job. “I’m just a number, and I know it.” Without the support of his boss or his co-workers, one could understand why so many dads struggle to take the time off.

Social and Legislative Changes

One lady asked, “What will it take on a legislative level, something strong enough so dads don’t get flak and it becomes normative?”

Nicola would also like to see a change in legislation and believes there needs to be a shift in society. “We need to figure out how to get there.”

Though women still are discriminated when they are pregnant, as one mother explained her job being conveniently abolished, I think we were all surprised to hear fathers having a hard time too. Yes, we are luckier than families in the U.S., who get little to no time off. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. We need more family-friendly laws to support both parents.

Sarah also thought up of a couple of ideas to encourage employers to shift their focus away from the bottom line. Businesses that respect family values could be given a prestige symbol, a sort of certification label that could attract employees. And to denounce the worst businesses, she suggests the government set up an anonymous whistle-blower hotline, to report places not respecting the law.

Expecting More from our Employers

One woman says she has very little tolerance for companies and employers who can’t find a way to deal with parental leave. “Make it work. If you can’t, then you’re not good at your business. I think our definition of success needs to change.”

A mother, who has run her own business for the past 8 years, says “We have a lot of power to make demands that we couldn’t before.” If an employee says she has to leave at 5pm to pick up her child, an employer has to respect it, if they want to retain talented workers. “These are their values – take it or leave it.” And you can find a way to make concessions, such as agreeing to work later once a month. She thinks employees should be more demanding upfront. Employers will have to pay attention, whether they like it or not.

Someone else proposed that the workplace could do more to come up with creative solutions to help new parents, like work-sharing programs.

Freelancing

Not all of us are going back to 9-to-5 jobs. One pregnant woman who is a freelance artist explained how she’ll lose clients by taking any time off. “If I say no for a year, I won’t have a job,” so she can’t afford to pass up a gig. She’s even afraid to let contacts know that she’s pregnant because “they’ll think I’m off the radar.”

Samantha suggested using the government payments for parental leave for subcontracting. Another entrepreneur says she did all her work with her child strapped in a baby carrier. Sure it was difficult to have a toddler undo all the work in the store, but it was worth having her daughter around.

Changing our Careers to suit our Family Lifestyle

Many women are freelancing or starting their own businesses because they felt pushed out of the office where their values as a parent were not respected. It’s even more worrisome when young women, before even having children, downgrade their career choices so they can later “settle down” easily, but instead end up damaging their lives in the long run. I really don’t want to start a mommy war. Whether you decide to be a stay-at-home mom, or start a business, or go back to work, these are all good choices, but we shouldn’t have to limit ourselves.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO for Facebook, makes this important point in her speech recently for Barnard College. She also asks, how is it that after years of women getting university degrees, we don’t see equal numbers of them in the boardroom? Sandberg thinks that young women, even before having kids, are choosing jobs that remove them from high-level positions so they can have a better quality of life.

Case in point: Sarah, a young lady in her early 30s working on her MBA, says she worries about her future work-life balance, though she doesn’t have children yet. Concern for the future is affecting her present decisions, because she sees that the workplace doesn’t always relate well to mothers. At the same time, she notices that there’s a huge shift in men wanting to take on the role of caring for their children. But she was a little miffed when her ex-boyfriend told her he wanted to take the year-long parental leave. That was something she didn’t want to share.

Why share? Men should get a year-long leave too. I think that will revolutionize everything! When men are given a chance to nurture and women make their place at work, then we’ll get more accommodations for parenting life.

The Privilege of Motherhood

Towards the end of the conversation, a couple of moms wanted to point out that ultimately we are the lucky ones. “We are privileged as women to birth babies. We’re not emotional wrecks for nothing.”

Samantha definitely feels that way too. “Aren’t we lucky to have this role? I used to think I’m never going to pick up dirty socks. But at the end of the day, I’m the mommy. We play to our strengths. We don’t count hours to see who does more work. We’re trusting each other that we’re doing the best we can for the family.” It’s normal that we can’t cope with all of this. It’s tough. We should pat ourselves on the back.

Thank you Melons & Clementines for hosting and thanks Elizabeth for organizing a very interesting debate! It’s great to have these events to share knowledge. It’s one thing to find information online, but it’s really energizing to exchange ideas in our community. Two hours just flew by. Everyone that was there had something valuable to say. It was a great experience for me to hear we’re not alone in this. It really is an adventure.

Check out these links:

Concordia’s University of the Streets Cafe

Concordia’s study about dads

The Dark Side of Maternity Leave

Sheryl Sandberg’s speech at Barnard College

NY Times article about parental leave in Sweden.

The United States remains one of three countries that don’t mandate paid maternity leave.

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13 Comments

Filed under Daycare, Parenting

13 responses to “Conversation: Parental Leave and the Workplace

  1. teprine baldo

    I also think it is important to mention how there is no support for part-time work for mothers out there, especially in government jobs. Why can we not split our work week with another mother? Even daycare’s do not support a part-time lifestyle and make it that parents have to pay full price even if they are using it part-time, at least that is our experience in the CPE environment. If there were more part-time opportunities in well paid and interesting jobs, you might see more mothers returning to the work force and feeling like they do not have to leave their children all day, all week.

    • Good point! I would love to see more job-sharing opportunities in the workforce. Unfortunately, part-time work is seen as scheduling nightmare for many bosses… but I’m sure it can’t be that complicated. No wonder many moms decide for the higher priority of caring for their babies.

  2. Tammie Quinn

    Great topic! After juggling three kids university and work it feels very supportive to see so many wonderful women and men address this issue. Social perception and policy need to reflect changing values. I love the idea of parental leave for both parents, especially since many good daycares do not accept children until they are two.

    • Juggling three kids and university and work? The Minister should hire you as a consultant! No doubt you have the expertise of a thousand moms.
      I’m glad you agree about the parental leave for both parents. Wouldn’t that be heaven?

  3. It’s exhilarating to imagine having been a part of this! My thoughts on these matters could fill entire novels of their own, so I’ll hone instead on one area in which you and I are very similar:
    For my part, I chose to let my house go to heck. Clean dishes and underwear is as close to clean as I get.

    Amen! I can’t take a clean house with me, or leave behind a house that will stay clean when I’m gone. What I can do is revel in the love and energy returned by carefully investing my time in love.

    I seriously used to be tidy. I loved a spotless house. In the wake of becoming a parent and returning to work, ensuring i have a little time to breathe in the evenings is much more important to me. Taking that time out means I have so much left to give, in all facets of my life.

    • I used to be tidy too! And I’m amazed at how quickly I adapted to the joyous mess. Occasionally, Alex will point out the dust bunnies with his chubby finger and I’ll be shamed into vacuuming the house. Luckily, my husband is more diligent than I am for these things. I’m the nurturer, he’s the maid! Sounds equitable enough.

  4. CJ

    Hi Karla – thanks for the update. I was wondering how it went and wishing that I could have been part of the discussion. I was struck by the suggestion that men are the answer to this conundrum. If men were ‘expected’ to take an equal share of the domestic duties then employers would follow suit. I agree that motherhood (and all it entails) is a privilege but I believe that the cultural shift should start at home. Parents should expect to share the duties and the privileges equally, so that those difficult choices are made by both mothers AND fathers. I really hope that by the time my daughter is a mother, the debate between parenthood and career is not so polarized.

    Thanks for keeping us in the loop. It was also interesting to have some insight into your situation and the choices you’ve made. – Carolyn

    • These community discussions are vital for change. I’m amazed to see how we were all on the same page, wanting the best for our families. I think there’s a revolution happening. Like I said, in just one generation so much is already changing with parenting roles. Thanks for your interest Carolyn! I’m so happy to share my ideas and stories with online friends. I love hearing about you too.
      Take care,
      Karla

  5. This is a WONDERFUL blog Karla!!! So well said. Thank you for sharing. All the best, Catherine

  6. Ah ha! I see you are a researcher. I had a feeling. (I have worked 10 years in research myself 😉 Good stuff in this post. I am living proof to support many of the points you have made. For starters:
    * I agree that it’s all about choices and not about having it all. I give a good part of myself to my job, my immediate family, and my physical fitness. The rest of my life is accumulating dust bunnies for the time being…and I’m okay with that.
    * Having a nice system with a hubby/partner is essential. Right now, my husband is home with Jacob while I work all day. He cleans and cooks during Jacob’s nap. Then, when I get off work, he goes to his evening and weekend jobs, and it’s my long awaited shift with our toddler. We take turns with both the disgusting/annoying stuff that neither of us wants to do as well as the fun/relaxing things we both need. It makes life a lot more manageable.
    * I’m with you all in reminding ourselves often that being a mom is a gift and that we should feel proud for managing everything simultaneously– it’s no easy feat.
    Thanks for this fantastic post and all the effort behind it!

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