The US has long been one of few developed countries not to guarantee paid maternity leave. While some well-capitalized employers (Netflix, American Express) have increased their parental benefits in recent years, according to the Department of Labor only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Policymakers on both the left and the right have recognized the toll this can take on young families — who might not be able to finance unpaid time off — and President Trump’s recently released budget included a proposal guaranteeing six weeks of paid leave to new parents.
A bipartisan discussion on maternity leave is welcome. But as I’ve studied how women combine work and family, I’ve found that those first few months are only the start of a complicated journey. Even new moms with generous leave must contend with employers who sometimes doubt their commitment to work, a default assumption of traditional gender roles, and, of course, the exhaustion of raising an infant, all in an environment where most Americans believe children are better off with a parent at home. Many women do wind up staying home for a while, even if one Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working at least part time.
Some women, however, do manage to deal with these challenges, continuing to work full time even as they have young children at home. A few years ago, I did a time diary project looking at 1,001 days in the lives of professional women with young kids. As I studied their lives and their schedules, I saw a few common strategies for how successful women navigate the transition back to their jobs. Some may be more difficult for women who do hourly or shift work, or who are parenting on their own, but for many women, these strategies can make work and life work:
They repeat the phrase “child care is an investment.” New parents are often stunned by the cost of decent child care. A report from New America and Care.com found that the average cost of center-based care for young children is $9,589 per year; care in larger cities easily costs twice that. Many a new mother has run the calculation on how little she brings home after taxes and child care and has decided working isn’t worth it.
But women who navigate this transition well do two things. First, if they are co-parenting, they understand that child care is a joint expense; it should not be charged against one parent’s salary. Second, they view child care as an investment in their lifelong earnings. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has found that professional women lose 37 percent of their earning power when they take 3 or more years out of the workforce. If a mother stays employed, over time her income will rise and her child care costs will fall. This calculation can’t be made looking at just one point in time.
They negotiate for flexibility (rather than part-time work). Part-time work remains a popular option; many mothers say it would be their ideal situation. The problem I have found in studying women’s time diaries is that if there is no accountability for hours at a workplace (and in many white-collar jobs, there isn’t), part-time work can often mean full-time hours for less pay. A better option? Seeking flexibility about when and where you can work. One IBM/BYU study found that people who could control when and where they could work could log 57 hours per week before a significant number experienced work-family conflict. When people had to work in the office at certain times, that number fell to 38 hours per week.
They embrace their inner pessimists. Even with flexibility and good child care set up, plenty will go wrong. Kids get sick frequently. The women I studied developed backup plans for when a child can’t go to day care, or a nanny is stuck in traffic, or there’s a snow day, or a partner who was supposed to cover gets stuck on the other side of the country after his flight was canceled. They work ahead when they can, knowing that leaving something to the last minute is an invitation for a stomach bug to strike, and pulling an all-nighter to work isn’t an option if the baby decides to stay up too.
They focus on what matters and get rid of what doesn’t. Not every email needs to be answered, and even those that do don’t need to be answered immediately. In a recent survey I conducted of working parents, I found that those who feel relaxed about time check their phones significantly less frequently than those who feel anxious. On the home front, housework, like email, can expand to fill all available space. While it costs money to outsource household chores, it doesn’t cost anything to lower one’s standards — and that can easily win back many hours for relaxing, sleep, or even catching up on work.
They continue to develop personal relationships at work. The “motherhood penalty” in wages is real; study participants reviewing résumés rate mothers as less promotable than non-mothers. One potential factor in this mindset? Promotion decisions are based not just on individual performance, but on how much other employees like and trust a person. Trust is built through relaxed interactions — those happy hours or longer lunches that working parents sometimes skip in the name of efficiency. No one has to go nightly, but women who want to stay on the fast track understand that going occasionally means they’re still seen as being in the game.
They fully trust their partners (or other people in their lives). According to the American Time Use Survey, the average working father of a child under age 6 spends 1.13 hours daily caring for the child as a primary activity; the average employed women spends 1.91 hours. Perhaps some of this gap is about fathers shirking kid duty, but some may be gatekeeping too — mothers assuming they know best and sidelining anyone else. Women who want the flexibility to travel or work late do not make this mistake. They make sure their partners get time to bond with their babies. They urge them to take any leave they are entitled to, and figure out their own routines.
They take the long-term view. Women who successfully navigate the transition back to work know that it can be easy for a bad day to become a narrative: I was late because the baby had a diaper explosion, and I leaked breast milk all over my suit, and I got home after the baby was in bed … therefore, I should quit. So they guard against this mindset. They make a point of celebrating small victories. They picture themselves in the future with thriving careers and happy, independent children. They remind themselves that any choice in life will lead to good moments and bad moments.
Eventually, in work and life, things will get easier — they just need to hang on until that point. The first few months of maternity leave are truly just the beginning, but a few smart strategies mean the months after that will turn out okay.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. She lives with her husband and four children outside Philadelphia and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.
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