I recently heard an analogy around obstacles in the workplace-- likened to stairs in the city when you are on crutches. You all of a sudden notice all of the stairs-- a couple to get into the front door, a bunch to get to the second floor, and even breaks in pavement that are now more difficult in your walk. If you aren't on crutches, you don't notice or think about these stairs unless you're winded from tackling several to get on your way. Think about a large city, too-- all of the stairs that folks go up and down all day long without thought-- while someone on crutches must plan and calculate every move, while also facing the surprise of stairs that they couldn't possibly have planned for in advance.
I hesitated to write a post on momhood, seeing that I'm only 4 years into it. But the thing about challenges and obstacles is that we sometimes forget what it felt like or what we had to think about so often.... or we even harden our minds and hearts to develop somewhat of a "martyr" mentality-- as in, "I made it through that and it only made me stronger, so can you." I've found that mindset in the workplace and beyond does no one any good, and forgetting the past is a blessing and curse for me, so I write. And also as I write, I know that I write from a standpoint of privilege on this subject.
Almost 4 years ago, my husband and I found out we were expecting our first. Excited as we were, there was also uncertainty as all parents feel (and still do feel). Focusing this experience specifically on the workplace, I could all of a sudden 'see the stairs in the city'. You hear other women talk about the challenges of morning sickness while also trying to lead a meeting; the literally dragging of your body to get out of bed to go to work 6 six weeks after giving birth; the year of stress, planning, humiliation, and pride of breastfeeding and pumping; And amidst all of this, you hear about women who are navigating this as single parents or in a far more challenging and difficult situations than your own.
You hear all about it but now it's real life. And it means something for you. And while some of this is the beauty of motherhood and the challenges one faces, there are some things you want to see changed.
I work in a male-dominated industry, most especially when it comes to the leadership of companies and organizations. What is encouraging to me is that our industry sees the impact women have upon the progress of agriculture and therefore recruit, develop, and retain women in traditionally male roles. When we aren't recruiting, developing, and retaining 50% of our population's gifts, we are losing as an industry.
Where I see progress to be made is that crucial stage of motherhood-- the first few years when a mom returns to work and is navigating a whole new area of life. I could list article and link and post after another on this; the data is there and worth your time to review. Essentially, 43% of women with children leave the workplace. Many women want to leave and work from home full time. For women that want to stay in the workplace, how can we retain them and to do so well? In a way that says we not only have company values but we live them out down to the granular detail of our conversations and efforts for mothers returning to work?
This is somewhat of a buzz topic right now, so I don't attempt to delve in as a expert but more so, recalling the past 4 years as a woman in the first few years of her career with two little children reflecting on what went well and what can go better in the future. I also recently heard a comment around "accessing the halls that only we walk to represent those that might never walk down our halls." May it be the agricultural community or a young professional or whomever might read this post, my hope it that this message gets into the halls of some places to start a conversation around improvement and engagement. Be the carrier into your sphere of influence, even if this season of life and the experiences that are mentioned are ones you might never personally experience or haven't to date.
1. Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Friends and family members say one of the most difficult things about grieving the loss of a loved one is when people won't talk about them, even hesitant to use their names or talk about their qualities. It was always strange to me that the workplace environment operated this way with mothers of newborns: don't ask, don't tell. This also leads you to not feel open to bringing up your child in any capacity on your own accord. Going back to work after maternity leave does involve grief-- grieving that time away from your newborn baby that feels like a part of your body is elsewhere. By asking and telling, we open the conversation up to more than just "oh yes, she is doing great with her bottles this week" (while that's also pretty significant!). We open our employees and co-workers up to sharing the challenges and new perspective she has in a way that doesn't tell her that part of her life is non-existent.
Practically speaking, it could look like:
- Hey, how you are doing with the transition back to work? Anything I could help with to make your transition go smoother?
- Now, tell me about that little one-- what is he/she discovering or doing right now? Remind me of his/her name again.
- It's an exciting and tiring season of life. Please share any opportunity that we can do to make your transition go well and please share your pictures of (insert name of baby) as often as you take them.
Oh man, some people are squirming in their seats. And that's quite unfortunate seeing that it is the 21st Century. (Ok no more sarcastic remarks.) This is not a breastfeeding vs formula conversation-- a "this or that" thing. It is merely a "this" thing. So when we have women in the workplace that are breastfeeding and pumping, how can we act like we've never heard of, thought of, or processed that this is an actual thing. (Ok, I lied about the sarcastic remarks.) Companies and organizations and churches and any place of public that say their women are important to the progress of the work being done must think through this one. Just like stairs in the city, gather your female influence and ask them if conferences, daily workplace environments, and other aspects of the role and work accommodate. She is seeing the stairs in the city and planning around them approx. every 3 hours, so odds are she can give you a hour by hour overview of your accommodations and systems in a snap.
Practically speaking, it could look like:
- We want to support you during your time pumping in the workplace (or insert affiliation). Can you see any challenges now to accommodate this?
- This can be uncomfortable at times to navigate so if you ever experience any issues or a lack of support, please reach out and offer your feedback and ideas.
- (Seriously men: if your face turns red at this subject and you manage or lead women, I would ask a close friend or your spouse to have a conversation about breastfeeding out loud. This is not shared to belittle anyone-- practice it outloud so that if you have a female employee that shares she is now breastfeeding after having a baby or brings up ideas to improve the current accommodations, your face doesn't turn bright red. It happens oh-so often and it communicates that as a people leader, you are not able to have this conversation because you are embarrassed which communicates to the female that you think she should also be embarrassed.)
Now, more than ever, your team mates and employees need your feedback. I'm not going to say that only the positive feedback is needed-- it is all needed. I always felt like the 'room to improve' felt better than the positive feedback only because it showed I could still do it and my work was valued. Managers, co-workers, etc. etc. please keep this in mind: use of the "before or after you had a baby" to frame up feedback is most likely not helpful. Not always, but most likely there are far better conversation openers. I've heard it all personally and from friends in the workplace post-baby-- before you had a baby, you did a better job with this; before you had a baby, we saw you more often to just drop by or drop in; after you had your baby, you seem laser focused and so serious. While I think feedback needs to be honest and helpful, framing this up for a woman who has experienced birth, recovery, and is now assimilating back into the workplace is worth thinking through vs. chin wagging. (Shout out to you, Ian, for this phrase.)
Practically speaking, it could look like:
- I just wanted to take a minute here to affirm your work and the (fill in the blank) that you've been bringing to the table this week. Where do you think the gaps are in that project you're working on and how can I help?
- One thing that I think could be helpful to you is thinking through (insert area for improvement). Your ability to (insert area of strength) is so strong, you have such an ability to accomplish phenomenal work. How can I help?
Want brownie points and to communicate that you care about your mothers returning to work?
- You've been back to work for about 6 months now. Can you offer us feedback on what we did well to support you during your transition? How could we have done a better job? We certainly want to be doing the things that help support our mothers returning to work like yourself because you are such a valuable team member here.
I recently heard a comment that we need more politicians and policy makers that know the price of a gallon of milk. I'm not pigeon holing mothers into doing the grocery shopping for their families solo but I also recognize that moms of little ones are in the know-- in the know of social injustices, especially toward children and families; the cost of basic needs that it takes to provide for a family, and most often, they know the price of a gallon of milk. We can't lose mothers, especially during those crucial years after having children, because of our lack of engagement with them-- the conversations and improvements and progress to be made in our businesses, organizations, and communities. We need the gifts, talents, and influence of these women and as we think about the stairs in our cities, let's be mindful not only of the barriers to helping these women take the next steps but also making the changes that help them move ahead and make us all better as they do so.