What You Should Know About Your Rights as a Working Mom
Motherhood is never easy, and working motherhood is especially challenging. Whether you’re returning to full-time work after a few months of maternity leave or trying to care for a flu-ridden family while meeting a major deadline, juggling parenthood and a career is undoubtedly stressful.
And while some women choose to scrap their careers in favor of full-time parenthood, many either don’t want to or can’t afford to sacrifice the extra income. “We’re living in an environment where [many families] need two incomes to make the household work,” says Danielle Atkinson, the founding director of the Michigan-based advocacy group Mothering Justice. “So we have to figure out: how can women be in the workforce and take care of their kids?”
In the United States, that question feels particularly fraught. While the Family and Medical Leave Act does guarantee job protection and 12 weeks of leave to new mothers, that leave is unpaid—making the U.S. an outlier among other nations, where paid leave is de rigueur. To date, only five states, plus Washington, D.C., have passed legislation requiring companies to offer paid leave. And even in the four where those policies have already begun taken effect—California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—there’s still the question of what happens after the leave is over and parents must figure out how to balance a full-time job with caring for a young child. The bottom line: If we want to support working moms, our workplaces are going to have to adapt to meet their needs.
One easy way to make workplaces more mom-friendly? Getting more women into positions of power, where they inform workplace policy. “The women that I know that are happiest with their situation are their own bosses,” says Anya Kamenetz, author of the parenting book The Art of Screen Time, noting that when women are the ones who make the rules, they’re able to insist on a range of family-friendly accommodations like on-site daycare, flexible scheduling, and comfortable breast pumping rooms. And that advocacy can help others at the company as well: Patagonia, a company that boasts a whopping 100 percent retention rate of moms, owes its family-friendly policies to its husband and wife co-founders, who wanted to create a workplace that would support their own family as well as those of all their employees.
Of course, not all mothers are in a position to demand a rare perk like on-site childcare (which is available at just 17 Fortune 100 companies) or the benefits provided by a company like Patagonia. But even in more typical workplaces, “transparency is extremely helpful,” Kamenetz tells me. At many companies, family leave policies aren’t written down anywhere; there will be unofficial perks made available only to employees who know to ask for them or benefits offered to one class of worker but not another. For companies, Kamenetz says, “being extremely clear and unequivocal about what your policies are is really important.” It empowers parents to take full advantage of everything that’s available to them and makes it easier to make plans to fill in the gaps that aren’t covered by workplace benefits.
And in those instances where moms just can’t plan ahead, some built-in flexibility can be a lifesaver. In the best case scenarios, companies allow new moms to determine how to structure their leave and transition back to working full-time, rather than imposing a one-size-fits all approach on every new parent. One outstanding model of this kind of flexibility? Vodafone, which allows new mothers to work part-time schedules while earning full-time pay for six months after they return from their 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.
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Companies can also help ease the burden for new moms by providing leave for all new parents—and, importantly, actively encouraging new fathers to take that leave. “Making leave mandatory for dads would be really helpful,” Kamenetz says, pointing out that this kind of initiative can help create a culture where parenting responsibilities edge ever closer to being a more even split rather than heavily women’s work. When Spotify unveiled a generous, gender-blind parental leave, it turned out to be incredibly popular with new fathers.
But what about all working parents who can’t rely on an employer to help them balance caregiving and breadwinning? One of the unspoken issues when it comes to parental benefits in the workplace is that they’re not much use to all of the mothers who don’t have a regular workplace. As the gig economy makes freelancing increasingly common, the pressing challenge is to figure out how to ensure that all moms have programs that support them—regardless of whether they’re full-time employees or full-time freelancers.
Many women assume that the flexibility of freelancing will be an ideal fit for the early days of parenthood, envisioning a blissful scenario of checking emails while bouncing a cooing baby on their knee or breastfeeding during a conference call. But balancing working from home with taking care of young kids is rarely that simple. “I assumed it would be easy because I work from home already. Wrong!” says Starrene Rocque, a Brooklyn-based content creator and social media manager.
One benefit that would help women find a little more balance? Legally guaranteeing affordable childcare for all parents, regardless of their income level or employment situation. Although childcare costs vary widely depending on where you live, it’s rarely cheap: it’s not uncommon for a toddler’s daycare to run over $10,000 a year, with full-time nannies costing over $30,000. For many parents, that kind of expense just isn’t manageable.
New York City has made tackling that issue a priority, offering cost-free universal pre-K, but the program is an uncommon one. “I'd like to see quality, affordable childcare for everyone,” Rocque says, adding that while NYC’s offering is great, many parents would benefit from childcare assistance before their child turns 4. “It's ridiculous to have to pay pretty much an additional rent/mortgage for good childcare.”
Rocque isn’t the only one who sees affordable childcare as essential to supporting working moms. It’s one of the five items on Mothering Justice’s Mama’s Agenda, alongside increasing the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick days, eliminating wage theft, and family and medical leave insurance. For Atkinson, the need for affordable childcare—whether it comes in the form of reimbursements for childcare expenses or programs like NYC’s universal pre-K—is obvious. “If I don’t have access to childcare, then I can’t go to work,” she says. And not being able to go to work isn’t an option for families who are living paycheck to paycheck.
Providing working mothers with the support to succeed at home and in the office may be expensive but it isn’t all that complicated. It requires treating working motherhood not as a choice but as a fundamental facet of our modern society.
“ We shouldn’t have to have the benevolence of a good boss or to make it into the C-suite to be able to take care of our families,” says Atkinson. Getting our society to the point where we prioritize providing moms with the support they need to be both productive workers and capable caregivers isn’t going to be easy. But we’ve seen the alternative, and it’s a whole lot worse.