What They Don’t Tell You about Maternity Leave
A look at the disruption in work and what it means for all of us
During a six-year period from 2006 to 2012, I had three children, each about two-and-a-half years apart. It was a dizzying time of diapers and breastfeeding, trying to keep them alive and asleep, all while juggling a job in tech.
To add to the stress, I had difficult pregnancies due to sciatica and symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD). My oldest and youngest children had trouble nursing, to the point where they had to be bottle-fed breast milk for most of their first years. My middle child was sick for almost a year, from 12 to 24 months, with a mysterious ailment that prevented her from being around other kids. It turned out to be addressable, but it took a year to diagnose. On top of all that, our youngest had colic for over a year, right on the heels of my father's Stage IV cancer diagnosis.
Having a child is challenging for everyone, but what no one talks about is the toll it can take on your career. Even after the physical stress of pregnancy and childbirth is behind you, you often leave your job for months to go on maternity leave. When you come back, you’re completely lost. Fast-moving companies move on, and it's hard not to feel left behind.
I remember one friend who returned to her job having been eliminated in all but name. Her team had been reorganized, and her old manager was in a new role. Nothing was even recognizable anymore. She had to look for a new job on her own, without any support, and she felt completely lost. I remember the tears she shed as we talked about how she felt abandoned and alone. I helped her the best I could as a fellow mom, but I didn't have a lot of power either, having myself returned not that long before her. I introduced her to as many people as I could, and I talked her up to anyone who would listen. Later, she told me that I was one of the few people who even cared about her predicament.
But I knew exactly what she was going through, because this had also happened to me.
What pregnancy costs
I read Serena Williams' retirement statement in Vogue with interest. Her words struck a nerve: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”
I carried the physical labor of having three children, and unfortunately, I was not one of those women blessed with wonderful, uncomplicated pregnancies. I had terrible pain during all three, likely related to my scoliosis. I was in physical therapy for months. At one point, I was in so much pain, my doctor asked if I wanted to go on disability or consider inducing.
No one teaches you how to keep a stiff upper lip while barely being able to walk up the stairs without crying. No one tells you how to lead your team when you are secretly running to the bathroom to throw up. No one explains how to influence while you are struggling not to fall asleep during meetings from the sheer exhaustion.
I struggled with this so much, I decided to do a test. I asked my manager and my team if they had noticed a drop in my work performance lately. I then shared that I was pregnant. Rather than saying, “Oh so that was why you were completely off your game,” they were (thankfully) all surprised, as they hadn’t noticed anything different. However, I still felt like I was failing them—before and after I shared the news.
This sense of insecurity is made worse by the common attitudes in the workplace surrounding motherhood. I remember a time when one prominent Silicon Valley VC asked me to join one of his portfolio companies. He said, “You aren’t planning to get pregnant soon, are you? They need someone who can really be there right now.” This was over 17 years ago (my oldest son is 16), but I still remember thinking, “I get why he said this, but I wonder if he knows I’m considering starting a family. Does he think I can’t do the job?”
What it feels like to go on leave
Each of my pregnancies took their toll long before I was ready to go on parental leave. Each time, I had been working on high-priority projects and leading a team, so I stuck it out until the very end. Part of me wondered if I was somehow not carrying my weight. I felt the pressure to show up every day, pretending everything was well, so I could prove that I had earned the time off. As each day brought me closer to the due date, I felt the tick-tick-tick of the clock. I was in a race against time, and I couldn’t slow down, even as I went careening headlong into an oncoming wall.
I prepared like crazy, including a detailed plan, which I discussed here in a previous post. I obsessively documented every single thing to make sure nothing got dropped. Fortunately, for my first two leaves, I had strong number twos, who took on the roles without any challenges. I am friends with both of them to this day.
I was not so lucky the third time. It was just two weeks before I was supposed to go on leave with my third child, and my backfill was supposed to start. She had accepted the offer, but on the Monday when she planned to arrive, she was a no-show. Google had countered her, and on her start date, she had decided to stay. It was devastating. I had no one to take over my projects, and I was in a panic. Lots of things got dropped, but I was out of time, so I patched up what I could and asked people to contact me if they ran into issues. Even after doing everything I could to set up for the transition, I was still blindsided in the end.
What it feels like to come back
When you leave a place for several months, time doesn't stand still—nor should it. But what we don't realize is that, as time is passing at home and you're caring for your new baby, an entire timeline of activity is happening far beyond your view. There are reorgs, new opportunities, and projects that get shuttered. You return to a place that is at once familiar and foreign.
The hardest part about returning is figuring out where you belong again. I often felt like a puzzle piece that had been pulled out, unable to find a place to fit back in after I returned. Somebody had taken my place and done a great job, and I was lost at sea. Add to that the disorientation of being a new parent, and it's a recipe for a sense of alienation—one that can be strong enough to encourage you to drop out of the workforce.
I loved my job at PayPal, but I also knew my successor Michael Wu had done the job capably in my absence. I returned knowing that I had the opportunity to displace him, but I didn't want to. Instead, I sought a new role in the company. Eventually, after talking to many teams, I landed in corporate strategy, working for our CEO, the late Rajiv Dutta, on his speechwriting, and on our new digital strategy. But we all knew this job was just a placeholder for me. I was a builder and an operator. Eventually, I developed the strategy for charity and social commerce, and I went on to build a team. But the challenge still wasn't there. I missed what I had lost, and I was unable to get my groove back. That was when I went to the VP I had worked with previously and resigned. Maternity leave had created a gap that I couldn’t fill.
How we can address this broken system
The uncomfortable truth is that, even with a great support system, having a child can take a toll on your career. Yes, I chose it—I chose to have a family and expand that family—but what I didn’t want to choose was my career stalling out for six years. I didn’t want to choose to come back without a role because my old one no longer made sense. I didn’t want to choose to restart my career time and time again. But that is exactly what it is like to return from parental leave.
I have spoken to dozens of women over the years who have gone through this. Two PMs shared how they had parts of their teams and products transitioned (the polite word for “taken away”) while they were pregnant to prepare for maternity leave. They both felt frustrated and upset, but also powerless to change the outcome. Another woman shared that she returned after a few months to a massive reorg, which ended with her manager and support system no longer in place. In fact, her role had ping-ponged around until she landed in a new org, in a job she was unfamiliar with. Technically, she still had a similar role, but she was unsure if she had the skills to thrive in it.
Another mother came back after the birth of her second child, only to be told via chat that the org had changed, and that she was being layered by someone she had never met. Her wry message to me was, “It was like being broken up via text.” Yet another came back and was told to find a new job within the company. When she referenced a man in a similar situation who had returned from leave at the same time, but to a promotion, her manager became defensive and asked if she was “threatening them”. Her years of dedicated service had been disregarded, and she had returned to an environment where she felt unsupported. This ultimately led her to leave, and she no longer actively works full-time.
None of these women felt the power to speak up or protest their situation. They all accepted the outcome, given everything else going on in their lives.
There has to be a better way.
I encourage companies and managers to make a proactive effort to help those who go on leave (regardless of gender) settle back into productive and fulfilling roles. I have tried to model this: whenever someone who worked directly for me went on leave, I took care to ensure they could choose to return to a role on our team. I also supported them going to another team if that was their preference. The work may shift and change, but as managers, the least we can do is try to make the reentry as seamless as possible. We are losing talent from high-performing leaders if we don’t show care during this vulnerable time.
We can (and should!) also take things into our own hands when we go on parental leave. I wrote this response on Quora just after I had my third child, when it was fresher in my mind. I have updated it for this post, and am sharing my advice with you here:
Meet with your manager before you return to work. Learn what your role will be and what the expectations are. Each time I returned to work, my role had changed, so it helped to know what my managers wanted and what I was going back to. Take the time to have lunch with your manager and reaffirm your commitment to coming back and leaning into your role. Most managers are very understanding about your apprehension, but do not let that overtake the conversation. Focus on your contribution and your career ahead.
Keep in touch with your coworkers. It helps to meet up with coworkers while on leave. Get a sense of how your workplace has been evolving while you are gone. Try talking to a couple moms who have been through it already about the logistics of making it work. Your first days back will be a lot easier if you have friends who can give you the lay of the land.
Make sure you arrange backup childcare. One huge worry is what happens when you are left at loose ends, either because your child is sick and cannot go to daycare or because your caregiver is sick. It will put your mind at ease to have a backup plan worked out between you and your partner.
Start on a Thursday. If you have concerns about the transition, try going back to work on a Thursday. That way, you can ease back in, and if there are issues at home or with childcare, you are only a couple days away from the weekend.
Expect it to be hard. Brace yourself for a bumpy transition. That way, if it ends up being easy, you will be pleasantly surprised. If it ends up being hard, you’ll have already planned for it.
Returning to work is an important transition for you, your family, and your team. Plan for your return as much as you planned for your leave.
In case it wasn’t obvious by now, creating human beings while thriving in the workplace is more complex than many of us think. The challenges of juggling motherhood and work are something a lot of us only whisper about amongst ourselves for fear of judgment. I wrote this post in order to peel back the covers from something that is very human and yet very fraught.
85 percent of women who work outside the home will become mothers at some point in their careers (ref), and more than 60 percent of new mothers with a college degree are back in the workforce within 12 months of giving birth (ref). Either you or someone you know is probably in the middle of this massive life change right now.
Making more humans is hard work, and while it is a personal decision, it has real costs and consequences. I hope that one day, we reach a point where having a child is not a detriment to one’s career. Until then, I hope this article builds some empathy for those who have never had an inside view of this all-too-real experience.