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In 2012, when I was a new mom of just eight weeks, I flew alone with our firstborn from Los Angeles to Canada to visit my best friend. The trip changed my life. Not only because I found my confidence as a new mother making that trip alone or because I reconnected with the best parts of myself as we do in the company of a best friend, but because — just north of the U.S.’ border — I saw first-hand how mothers and families can be whole when given time to adjust to a new baby. Paid family leave is very different in the US than it is in Canada and other countries.
On that trip abroad, mothers told me how wonderful their “mat leaves” had been. In Canada, mothers get a full year or more to recover, adjust, and assimilate to family life. Mothers there were confident that their jobs would be waiting for them upon return to professional life. They didn’t fear resentment from a team cursing their absence.
On that trip, one mother, holding a cupcake at a kids’ birthday party, looked at me with a mix of astonishment and pity when I said I’d be heading back to work in only a few weeks’ time.
I can still feel the longing I experienced as I digested the contrast between their stories and my reality. It lit a fire in me that led me to the best work of my life: fighting for mothers’ rights in the United States.
But there was a lot of sadness along the way.
A few weeks after I got home, I returned to the startup where I worked. I was severely sleep deprived, still learning the cues of our newborn, adjusting to the biggest hormone shift of my life, and facing the toll new parenthood took on my marriage. I was in no way ready to show up whole at work.
But I did, all the while bursting with breastmilk between meetings, pumping in a public bathroom, crying in the car.
In my first weeks of new motherhood, I loved being with our baby, being a mother, slowing down and easing into my new role. But at work, I was discombobulated. I judged myself harshly. After only a few months back, I turned down a C-suite role and left the company, giving up half of my equity and all of my salary.
Among American women without access to family paid time off, nearly 30 percent do what I did: they leave the workforce within a year of giving birth; one in 5 do not return for over a decade.
Eventually, I did go back to work. And in 2017, I began my heart’s work, founding Totum Women, a workplace advocacy platform to help modern mothers be whole. I’ve also recently co-founded the Chamber of Mothers, a nonprofit organization to unite mothers as advocates to create the kind of America they want to live in and bestow upon future generations.
Throughout my work, I’ve learned terminology that’s helped me understand what I was experiencing during that first year of motherhood. “Matrescence,” coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael, describes the overwhelming physical, psychological, and emotional process of becoming a mother.
Looking back, there was a physical and hormonal tidal wave engulfing me during that year. I thought I just didn’t have what it took to be a “working mother.”
Having studied the impact of new motherhood and having immersed myself in the U.S.’ paid leave structure (or lack thereof), I now realize that the problem wasn’t me. It was — and still, a decade later, is — our country’s abysmal support and incentive structure for new families.
American culture largely ignores the costs of parents, especially mothers, returning to work too early and without support.
The United States is the only wealthy country in the world that provides no federally-funded family leave. This sends a strong signal: Caring for a family is of no value.
In this country, millions of American mothers are left with a sense that the work they contribute to care is both required yet unimportant. A new mother who goes back into the office is generally rushing her personal recovery and bonding time with her new baby, paying someone else to take care of the new life she’s brought into the world, and cramming in family life between the demands of her job. Only 5 percent of new fathers take any absence from work at all.
Leaving the matter of paid family leave to lawmakers and hoping that our culture will shift without pressure is no longer an option.
I’m convinced that change will happen more quickly at the corporate level, where there are fewer special interest stakeholders. So when asked to help herald Bobbie’s leave policy — which they’ve open-sourced for company leaders to view, borrow, and adopt — I was thrilled. This is a culture-changing move by a company that’s placing its bets on new parents.
Here are some highlights from the Bobbie baby formula paid leave policy:
- The policy encourages (note the language – not “offers” but “encourages”) all new parents to take parental leave and will pay for four months’ leave plus an additional eight months of unpaid bonding leave. This adds up to a full year of job-protected focus on care.
- Bobbie connects parents with a paid leave specialist (on an as need basis) to make sure they’re taking the full extent of leave under the law and will make employees whole when their state does not provide leave.
- Bobbie provides a support infrastructure for parents before, during, and after giving birth or adopting.
- Bobbie offers three weeks of paid leave to support Bobbie employees who have experienced miscarriage. Employees are also able to take time off near their due date.
What strikes me most about Bobbie’s leave program is not the numbers, however. As a mothers’ advocate who helps companies support and retain working parents, I’m always asked about best practices. My advice is that policies must be integrated into the culture. Bobbie’s leave manifesto flies straight to the heart of that issue.
From the leave handbook: “An impactful parental leave policy isn’t just about checking boxes; it needs to be integrated into company culture. At Bobbie, inclusion is at the core of our culture, and we’ve made the commitment to expand that to our policy so that it supports all journeys to parenthood.”
At the risk of flooding Bobbie with job applications from mothers reading this article, let me point out some of the first rate, original but entirely practical, common-sense perks of being a new parent at Bobbie:
- They celebrate birth announcements: “Bobbie wants to end the toxic culture of hiding pregnancies for fear of job repercussions or negative leadership reaction, an outdated and out-of-touch response.”
- They embrace remote work: “We made an early call to move to 100% remote. We welcome folks to apply from anywhere. Bobbie employees are spread across 17 states. Every week is different for a working parent and we encourage calendar transparency to take time for anything from pumping to daycare pickup.”
- They support miscarriage leave: Bobbie has an internal support group, the Bobbie Infant Loss Group, which helped provide feedback to develop the company’s miscarriage leave policy.
Imagine how feeling supported in a decision to lean into caring for a new baby after the biggest transition of one’s life would change mothers. Imagine how it would alleviate the strain on a couple or new family. Imagine the loyalty that new parents would feel toward a company that puts their dearest human needs first. Imagine the creativity, inspiration, and innovation that would result.
To quote my best friend Wendy Thomas, whom I visited all those years ago in Canada, “having a year off to focus on recovery, to bond with my baby, and to adjust to our new family made it possible for me to sustain a long career in financial technology. One unexpected virtue of the full year focused on family was that I had time to create a solid community of other mothers on whom I still rely to this day. By the time I went back to work, I was so supported that I don’t remember a painful reintegration at all. I just remember being grateful for the time at home, and excited to be a part of my work team again.”
If companies begin to follow the model set by Bobbie, maybe new moms could take the proverbial trip to Canada and come back to work whole and happy, naturally integrating career and care.
We welcome you to join the Chamber of Mothers to advocate for yourselves and for the future you want to see for all moms.