In the summer of 2014 I was sitting in my bed nursing a three-week-old baby and doing all I could to manage during those first days-- the fabled "fourth trimester."
I remember calling my sister (already a mother) and asking, "Why didn't you tell me how hard this would be?" She paused and said, "Because it's not something you can ever understand until you live it. You'll get through it."
She was right; I got through it and even gained the confidence to do it three more times. Today, I am nine months pregnant with my fourth daughter and preparing for my last-ever parental leave. (Editor's Note: Amy gave birth to her daughter on Monday, June 3, but this article was written prior to her delivery) Even all these babies later, I still have questions about the fourth trimester. I will not call my sister this time around, though that call has been made by millions of new mothers in the middle of millions of almost impossible days with almost impossible newborn babies.
There are vast resources telling me how to care for myself during this time, but I am haunted by a new question: Has anyone ever told a corporation how to support employees during this intense transition? In a country where we do not guarantee a single paid day to new parents and where almost half of highly-trained women leave the workforce after welcoming children, the question seems relevant.
With men still holding the majority of leadership positions in corporate America, maybe the reason corporations today don't understand the necessity of aiding their employees' transition to new parenthood is because the people making decisions about it have never experienced it like the majority of Americans do, with both parents working or as single parents.
I don't have all of the answers, but I can think of no better place to offer recommendations than here, a business publication where businesspeople (and hopefully decision makers) can read them.
Call it "Parental Leave"
Let's start here: it is critical that we nix "maternity leave" and instead use the term-- and offer-- "parental leave." If we offer only benefits for the mother, but not the father, we buy into the outdated notion that children are the mother's responsibility.
This, of course, contributes to a host of biases in corporate America that manifest in outcomes like the wage gap and the fact that men still hold something like 97 percent of CEO seats in America. (And, trust me, these biases exist. Just recently, I found myself in a back and forth on Twitter with a prominent American venture capital investor who asserted that he would be reluctant to start a company with a "woman with small children"-- but, apparently, not a man. Come on, people. It's 2019. We have to think differently.)
Offer Paid Parental Leave
If you've never given birth, here are a few things to note about why we should consider it basic corporate policy. First: birth is physically traumatic. During the birth of a child, a mother loses at least 500 ml of blood. There is also the more mundane, like the fact that most women experience perineal tears. (Ask any mother for tales of ice in underwear. It's a thing.) Yet, only 14 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave.
While fathers do not experience the same physical repercussions of birth, they are-- and should be treated as-- equally responsible for a brand new life. And that new life needs help with everything, all day long.
Parental leave is also good for business. The loss of a single worker can cost a company an average one fifth of an employee's annual salary, due to "productivity losses when someone leaves a job, the costs of hiring and training a new employee, and the slower productivity until the new employee gets up to speed."
Paid parental leave improves worker retention, productivity and morale. It also "allows smaller businesses to compete better with larger businesses." As the founder of a two-year old start-up, The Riveter, I agree: We offer 16 weeks of paid parental leave. While we can't compete with the generous benefits offered by the Fortune 500 giants in our Seattle hometown, this is one place in which we beat out, for example, Amazon.
Why, again, is this not standard practice in America?
Make Corporate Policies Easy to Access
I worked at a Fortune 500 company while pregnant with my second daughter and had a tough time discerning my benefits. I made at least five phone calls to HR and my supervisors to gather the basics of my company's parental leave policies. Scrambling for a straight answer was added stress for me and a waste of administrative time and cost for my employer. Companies should publish policies in one place that employees-- and potential hires-- can access with a click of a button.
Provide Flexible Return-To-Work Options
Parents are more likely to return to work after having a child-- and stay working-- if they can take on a flexible work schedule. A recent study found that 67 percent of women who are not working by choice would be more likely to if they had the option of flexible work hours. And every CEO knows that employee retention is better for the bottom line.
A company's policies should reflect that. It's also the humane thing to do. And 25 percent of women face the reality of going back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. It's hard for all mothers, regardless of any time outside of work, who are breastfeeding and must figure out how to pump and maintain a milk supply.
Companies should also consider "ramp back" solutions for new parents, including flexible work hours and days.
Make Pumping Easy
Many mothers elect to feed their babies breast milk. This is hard enough when you're with your baby all day and night, and more so when you're away. The first weeks of breastfeeding bring a list of ailments, like cracked nipples (which feel like razors on the skin), engorged breasts, and infections caused by thrush or mastitis.
If it's uncomfortable to read about it, imagine living it while navigating your day at work. Science tells us that breastfeeding is good for both baby and mother, and so corporate America must facilitate mothers who elect to pump milk while at work. However, only 47 percent of moms believe that their work has a mother's room adequate for their needs, and an additional 12 percent say that while a room is (or was) available to them, it is inadequate for pumping.
This is unsurprising given that there are no legal requirements for mother's rooms in the workplace. Corporations should provide permanent, private, easy to access spaces dedicated to lactation with, at least, a fridge, chair, table, and outlet. If I had known prior to returning to work after welcoming my child that the company I worked for supported my breastfeeding goals, the return would have been much smoother and caused far less stress for me and my family-- and I'm not alone in that sentiment.
Corporate America Can Do More
What more must we show to convince every CEO to implement the (very basic) practices outlined here? Not only is it the right thing to do for our employees, it's the right thing to do for our shareholders and investors. Maybe, working together, we can find a way to make the early days of parenting-- and all that come after-- better for everyone.