Lais Pontes’ career changed drastically after having her third child. As the founder and president of a Florida-based public relations and branding agency, she had spent her pre-kid days making the most of the fun parts of her job, even attending events well into the evening. But after her third child was born, she had to shift priorities.
“Before having multiple children, my agency took on a lot of work, such as fashion week shows, large festivals and other projects that did not fit into the traditional 9-5 mold,” she says. “As we added more children to our family, I transitioned into taking on more corporate projects. This, coupled with clients understanding the importance of my scheduled family time, is huge.”
Though Pontes had the freedom to pivot, other working moms must navigate the fine line between the needs of their families and those of their workplace. The pandemic added additional obstacles for parents, with just under half of moms (45%) “not actively working” after the pandemic hit in April 2020, according to the Census Bureau. Barriers, such as limited maternity leave opportunities and navigating sick days with children, can force mothers in particular out of the workplace.
The impact of the ‘maternal wall’ for working moms
Any parent can struggle with workplace obstacles, especially in returning to work after a short maternity leave. But parents who have to navigate this, especially multiple times as their families grow, might face a compounding detrimental effect on their careers.
“Women generally face steeper challenges to career advancement. This is driven by a number of factors, one of which has been identified and dubbed the ‘maternal wall,’ referring specifically to the ways women are held back from career growth when they become mothers,” says Dana Kirwin, director of employer and government relations for Medela. Kirwin leads the brand’s Kin program, a solution for employers to give employees access to nursing services. “This can take many forms, including being passed over for advancement or raises, not offered projects or job opportunities, sometimes even demotions and often lost income due to lack of paid leave following the arrival of a new baby. It makes sense that these challenges only increase in relation to the number of children a mother has.”
The maternal wall was increasingly obvious in the pandemic when “mothers of small children… lost work at three times the rate of fathers in the pandemic,” according to an analysis by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Inequities in the financial and workload duties may also play a role. “Mothers with three or more children are more frequently faced with difficult decisions in relation to balancing work and being a mother, not only in terms of time but also in the financial responsibility of caring for three or more children,” says Martica Marin, a mother and the regional marketing manager at Top Employers Institute, a global organization that recognizes best people practices.
Are more kids more difficult?
For some parents, having more than one child may be when childcare becomes more costly than their salary or wages can accommodate. Care.com reported increased rates of over $1,000 per month per child in 2021 for an after-school sitter, nearly $900 per month for a “family care center” and just over $900 for a “childcare center.” If families opt for a nanny, the average monthly cost soars to nearly $2,800 per month for one child. Therefore, families of three can expect to pay around $3,000 to $8,400 monthly on daycare or childcare expenses. Care.com also reports 59% of families are concerned about rising childcare costs and the impact on parents’ ability to continue their careers.
Just over 30% of women in heterosexual marriages made more than their husbands in 2021. So, the decision of choosing whose career to eliminate in the face of childcare costs often leads to moms pausing their career, rather than dads, even when the mother is paid more.
How to support working moms
Companies have significant power to improve their own workplace cultures to make the return to work possible for parents. Companies can:
Support affordable childcare initiatives and programs
Employers can more widely communicate if they have childcare initiatives or benefits, and openly support that concept.
“There may be policies that benefit [parents], like a Flexible Spending Account to set aside pretax dollars that can be used toward childcare,” Marin says. In addition, some government programs, such as Tennessee’s newly revised childcare assistance program, are taking action to increase affordable childcare, which companies can support.
Increase access to breastfeeding accommodations
The American Academy of Pediatrics “[recommends] exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with complementary foods introduced around six months…. and supports continued breastfeeding until two years or beyond, as mutually desired by mother and child.” Kirwin says only 25% of infants are exclusively breastfed to 6 months of age, and 60% of women say they do not reach their breastfeeding goals. Kirwin was included in the latter statistic during her first postpartum period with a former employer. “I was committed to breastfeeding until [my infant] was at least 6 months old, but it was a difficult experience. I was often challenged with finding the time I needed to pump each day, and I only just made it across the six-month mark before I gave up with a mixture of relief and disappointment,” she says. However, with her current company, she was able to breastfeed her next child for 12 months, thanks to “a generous, fully paid parental leave benefit, a flexible return-to-work policy and schedule, and robust breastfeeding support.”
Companies can look to support programs, services and products like Mamava lactation pods to ensure their accommodations align with state laws to provide for breastfeeding parents.
Hire moms for top leadership positions, and support their success
Only around 1 in 4 of C-suite positions are filled by women, a statistic Kirwin points to as evidence that moms aren’t getting enough support, especially when just over half of the workforce is female. “The data on these trade-offs are shocking. In the United States, one in four women return to work less than ten days after giving birth,” she says. “The lack of support for this fundamentally important time in their lives leaves many women struggling, to say the least, and certainly contributes to the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of leadership.”
Offer 12-week paid maternity leaves (or longer)
Though the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, companies and states don’t have to follow suit and can prioritize taking care of new parents. In fact, “11 states have passed paid family and medical leave laws,” according to The Center for American Progress. Research shows that longer maternity leaves result in better health outcomes.
Prioritize hiring moms of multiple kids when they do return to work
Parents who do return to work after taking multiple years off to raise kids can sometimes be overlooked or penalized due to their motherhood gap years. “Some have tried to reenter after several years but have found it hard because of the work gap in their resumes. This puts a lot of pressure on a woman’s career,” Marin says. Companies can look to programs such as The Mom Project to help be a part of the solution putting talented moms back to work, or can reach out to former employees they valued who paused their careers to parent young children.
“Parents of three-plus kids who can’t join the workforce create a huge gap in valuable talent,” Marin adds. “Companies that create a work environment where mothers thrive will see their investment return tenfold. When a mother feels secure in her work environment, she will be more productive and become a better contributor, leader and creator.”
If you’re not sure where to start, ask pregnant and postpartum mothers about barriers and ways you can support them. Simply having a conversation makes all the difference.
Photo by Dragen Zigic/IStock