In 2016, I gave my 11-month old daughter a push in her swing and turned to say something to my husband. I caught the scent of the sweatband in his baseball cap and knew immediately that I was pregnant with our second baby. We stopped by the drugstore on the way home and shortly thereafter confirmed my suspicion. We were happy. And I was nervous.
I wasn't nervous about the physical toll of two pregnancies in two years, the months of nausea that surely lay ahead, or the question of how we would find (or afford) childcare. Those were, of course, concerns. But I was nervous because I was set to leave my job at a law firm to start a new job as an in-house litigator at a corporation. I wondered if I would qualify for the seven weeks of paid maternity leave the company had just announced. I was also nervous about telling my new boss -- and nervous about the question that I immediately wanted to ask, could I take more unpaid leave? This is America, after all, where the majority of workers have no right to paid or unpaid leave to care for a new baby or recover from the trauma of childbirth. Seven weeks didn't feel like enough time: for me, for my new baby, for my family. (I cringe at this memory, knowing that seven weeks is far longer than the most of my fellow mothers could even contemplate. And I'm so sorry for that.)
Three years later, I am 35 weeks pregnant with my fourth daughter. (What can I say? We make girls.) Back in 2016, I ended up telling my boss about the new baby when I was four months pregnant, and she graciously approved 13 weeks of unpaid leave on top of the seven weeks of paid leave I was granted under our corporate policy. Even after all of this, though, I decided to leave my job the following year.
I couldn't find my footing in a corporate America built by and for men. I didn't understand how I could show up day after day and year after year when I knew about the realities of the wage gap; about the near-impossibility of climbing the ladder to a C-suite when men are more likely to be promoted than women (and women without kids more likely to be promoted than women with kids). So I started my own venture, a company inspired by the Lean In footnote statistic, "43 percent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time."
I knew upon signing the documents to incorporate my company, The Riveter, that I wanted more children. I also knew that in my new role as a leader, I had a very clear duty: to acknowledge that pregnancy is hard, to hire and promote women, and to ensure that all of my employees benefited from paid parental leave. I instituted a policy of 16-weeks paid parental leave -- because parenting isn't just for mothers -- and in spite of this move that most of corporate America would see as radical, we've managed to grow the company from idea to over 50 employees in less than two years and raise over $20 million in venture capital funds to grow (even though women still receive less than 3 percent of venture capital dollars year after year).
I take very seriously my role as a leader and the privilege I have to push for parental leave. And so the other week, I was crushed to read yet another article where an executive brushed aside pregnancy and birth as if it isn't something that should even be considered in the working world. The New York Times reported that Deciem's CEO, Nicola Kilner, welcomed a baby in December and "took no leave from work; she answered emails . . . from the hospital. She said she loves her job so much that managing the company does not feel like work to her."
While I support Kilner's choice to take no leave and share the sentiment that managing my own company often does not feel like work, we have to unpack this decision and this privilege. At the very least, we have to acknowledge it. Anything less is a disservice to all parents. The plain fact is that Kilner had a choice about how to handle the arrival of her baby. This is a privilege I, too, carry as the founder of my company. But the stark truth is that most Americans have no choice. And this is unacceptable.
It isn't a newsflash to state that corporate executives enjoy financial status and choice that most will never see. Marissa Mayer famously took two weeks of leave with her first child when serving as the CEO of Yahoo, and subsequently installed a nursery in her office. I'm pretty sure that Jane in Accounting will not be invited -- or allowed -- to bring her baby or childcare providers to work. (In fact, she'll likely have to fight to find a consistent place to pump breastmilk every day because we're failing at that, too.) So while that's a fine choice for Ms. Mayer, it must be incumbent upon corporate leaders to ask: What does it say if I set this as my example without acknowledging my privilege and offering alternative solutions to my employees?
The job of a corporate leader is to build a profitable company. Companies cannot exist without employees. So shouldn't we all be working like hell to create cultures where at the very least a birth mother can have a guaranteed and paid recovery from birth? Birth causes a stunning physical trauma to a mother, as does any medical event where someone loses between half to one quart of blood. Have you ever seen a quart of blood? That's a lot of blood, and it's the amount lost in a typical childbirth. Not to mention that blood loss continues for some weeks after the baby arrives.
And let me be clear: this responsibility does not and cannot land solely on the shoulders of women. We are giants, but we cannot do this alone. We live in a present where there are still more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies named John than there are women CEOs. It's pretty clear, then, that John has to step up, too. Have you read any articles lately about whether this or that male corporate executive took parental leave? I have not. We need to ask male leaders to model both providing leave to employees and, where possible, taking leave themselves. Without this monumental shift in action, we will never see the monumental shift in perception this country so desperately needs, surrounding the very thing that keeps humankind growing.
An obvious question is what I plan to do after the arrival of my fourth baby next month, who I affectionately refer to as "the last child." I plan to take eight weeks of leave where I will not schedule meetings or come into my office. I will be available by email, though this is not something I would ever expect of my employees in a similar situation. I will then bring the baby to work with me over the next two to three months. I am choosing to take a leave shorter than that allotted under my corporate policy (16 weeks) because many aspects of my role cannot be filled in by others, because I want to, and because I can monetarily afford to do so. I am sharing my plan with all of my employees. I hope, also, that by seeing me model our "bring your baby to work" policy -- under which all teammates are welcome to bring in babies under six months of age -- others will feel comfortable in doing so as well.
I'll leave you with this: Despite the fact that the majority of American women have no right to paid or unpaid parental leave, the truth that men are more likely to be promoted than women, the consequence that 43 percent of mothers with college degrees off-ramp at some point after having a child, and the stubborn wage gap that will take an estimated 100 years to close, women are the primary breadwinners is almost half of American households. Just imagine how much we could boost the American economy if we built a corporate landscape that not only acknowledged the difficulty of pregnancy, birth, and new children, but embraced a system that invited workers to be both parents and employees. This is the future I believe in.