When it comes to supporting women as leaders, there is not a whole lot I find more important than the topic of parental leave. After hearing a great conversation about the topic on the Harvard Business Review's podcast Women at Work, I reached out to share more personal story and thoughts. Please find that original story below and a link to the follow-up podcast which features my story.
My personal story:
I had a pretty easy time returning from my first maternity leave (12-weeks) with my daughter. Upon returning, my daughter slept well and while I felt the guilt discussed in the podcast, I feel I managed the return well. Fast forward 17 months to the birth of my son and the return could not have been more different.
I took 13 weeks off with my son. While I had no paid maternity leave from my company, I did have short-term disability and was able to cash in some saved-up paid time off. Within 3 weeks of returning to work, my son got RSV. I ultimately made the difficult decision to go back on FMLA so I could get my son healthy enough to return to daycare. During this process, my son had severe respiratory issues and it’s safe to say none of our family was sleeping adequately.
Upon returning from FMLA, my son regained his health but our sleep did not return. In addition, I made a decision to introduce formula to supplement my breastfeeding so my husband could better assist with nighttime feedings. My son fully rejected the idea of formula by projectile vomiting it up.
In the 18 months that followed, I lost count of my sick days. I eventually took my FitBit off because when I saw an average sleep duration of two hours and 45 minutes felt it was mocking me. My son continued to suffer from respiratory issues at the slightest sign of illness in part due to the lasting effects of RSV. He was diagnosed with asthma, had surgery to get tubes in his ears, regularly broke out in hives and NEVER slept through the night. We removed him from his daycare center environment for three months in an attempt to regain his immunity, put him on a daily steroid medication to proactively ward off respiratory issues and cleaned up more throw-up at 2 am than I care to admit.
Almost two years after my son was born, I left my job in part due to exhaustion. I had no immediate new job lined up. I was burnt out and walked away from a good job. At the time of my departure, I was the only female on the executive leadership team. A note I feel is important.
Ultimately, we learned that my son has food allergies. He is anaphylactic from coconut (all infant formulas that I have checked include coconut oil as a key ingredient). Many of his respiratory issues can be connected to this fact and the contraction of RSV at such a young age.
I know this is not the average example, but I do think it’s an important one. I was fortunate. I could afford to spend 13 weeks with my son despite no paid maternity leave policy at my employer. I also benefited from a flexible work environment that allowed me to work remotely while my son was sick quite often. And, ultimately I was lucky to be able to walk away when I did.
What I’m left to wonder, however, is whether a better parental leave policy could have helped me, my family and my employer. While it’s certainly hard to prove anything in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if I could have taken more time off with my son if he would have gotten RSV (he contracted this at daycare). Without the RSV and with more time at home, I don’t believe we would have made the decision to supplement with formula and therefore would not have exposed him to coconut so early. While there were many hard costs associated with a child who was chronically sick for the first two years of his life, there are also countless soft costs – damage to relationships, self-esteem and confidence.
For my company, they had a leader who was exhausted, stressed and regularly suffering from both absenteeism and presenteeism. Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder what opportunity cost existed upon my departure in regard to collective IQ at the executive leadership team level.
What has occurred to me since this situation is that we can do better. If not with more paid parental leave programs than with better processes to help women return to work. I wish there would have been an outlet for me to utilize to discuss the fact that I did not feel I was ready to return after 13 weeks. In addition, I wish someone would have asked me how it would have been best for me to return. Did I want to work a big project or would I rather ease back in? I tend to always want the former despite most assuming the latter.
Finally, I did raise the white flag to my employer. I voiced the fact that my return wasn’t going well on numerous occasions, and, honestly, they were very supportive. Another very important note. I just truly don’t think anyone knew how to help.
I believe this conversation is at the center of helping push women forward. I believe the cost is too great to families, females and employers. And, I am interested in hearing your story over a cup of coffee. Please reach out!
You can find Amanda on LinkedIn.