Navigating Career and Motherhood: Approaching Maternity Leave with Confidence - Happy as a Mother

Navigating Career and Motherhood: Approaching Maternity Leave with Confidence


with Allison Venditti, Founder of Moms at Work



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • How Gender Bias Lays the Foundation for the Motherhood Penalty
  • Gender Bias and Navigating Motherhood and a Career
  • How to Have Conversations at Work About Gender Bias
  • Why Support During Maternity Leave Matters
  • Why It’s Difficult to Navigate Career and Motherhood
  • Planning for the Return to Work After Maternity Leave
  • Navigating Your Career and Motherhood With Fairness and Values

Navigating both career and motherhood can be hard. Depending on their location and workplace policies, moms are often not offered maternity leave or guaranteed that their job is safe. After they return to work, the struggles only continue, with the wage gap widening after every child. But with the right plans in place, you can work through the challenges and find your own path as a working mom.

Today, I’m joined by Allison Venditti, founder of Moms at Work, to discuss how to have conversations with employers, plan for maternity leave and the return to work, and navigate your career and motherhood.

How I Approached Maternity Leave

When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I talked about how we would handle parental leave. I planned to take 12 months of maternity leave. But my husband had just started a new corporate position, with the promise of career growth. So, he planned to use a week of his vacation time for the year, then return to work. 

At the time, this felt like we were making a choice. But looking back on it, I understand that this “decision” wasn’t really a decision after all. 

Not only was I essentially doing what I had been conditioned to believe that “good moms” do (stay at home with the baby for the first year), but there were also economic reasons why I had to be the one to put my career on the backburner. I had less choice than I thought. 

I ended up taking three maternity leaves back to back—something that ultimately contributed to my mental health struggle and led to a breakdown/breakthrough when I finally realized I was suffering from PPD. 

There’s so much more that goes into the conversation about leave, career sacrifice, and the expectations given to moms than “Do I want to stay home or work outside of the home?” It took me a long time to realize just how complicated the issue is. 

So when I came across Allison’s work, I was fascinated. I couldn’t wait to discuss the complexities of leave, the return to work, and the motherhood penalty and wage gap for working moms. 

How Gender Bias Lays the Foundation for the Motherhood Penalty

Allison came from a background in HR, which meant she often helped companies form parental leave plans. So when a medical issue resulted in Allison losing her job, she turned to career coaching. Ultimately, though, she wanted to do more than work with individuals one on one. 

She knew that there were biases in the corporate world that we simply can’t fix by telling women to ask for more money. On a company level, however, there are changes that can be made to the system—and that’s what led her to form Moms at Work, helping both moms and businesses navigate the balance of career and motherhood. 

Allison pointed out that there is a motherhood penalty—moms often face pay discrepancies and barriers to career advancement. She believes the wage gap is actually a motherhood gap. For childless women, the wage gap is significantly smaller. But the gap widens by 5% for each child a mom has. 

The motherhood penalty is built on the assumption that when women have children, they are no longer as committed to their careers. 

On the flip side, men often experience a fatherhood bonus. They are typically viewed as more committed, more driven, and more responsible once they have children. This increases the gap even more. 

The working world is full of unconscious bias. Allison pointed out that the working world as we know it, wasn’t designed with women in mind. When the corporate world formed, women weren’t even allowed to have bank accounts, and if they became pregnant, they were considered unemployable. We have come a long way, but the biases are still very real. 

That’s why it’s so important to counter the bias, both on a small and large scale, and push for changes in the system. 

Gender Bias and Navigating Motherhood and a Career

We often assume that the length of maternity leave is a factor in the motherhood penalty—that moms who choose to stay home longer end up being paid less. But studies have shown that is not the case—the motherhood penalty is the same whether you stay home for two weeks or a year. 

This shows that these biases go far beyond maternity leave. There is a real belief that moms will be less able to do their jobs, and less invested in their careers, once they have a baby. 

Children do bring different priorities. However, this overgeneralization that moms become less functional at their jobs is steeped in gender norms and stereotypes. In reality, many moms become more driven and more inspired at work, just as many dads might want more work flexibility and balance. 

Gender bias in the work world impacts both moms and dads, pushing them into stereotyped paths that might not reflect what they truly want. 

Allison pointed out that 11 of the 15 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are mothers—it’s clear that high-performing female leaders often have children, and that they are fully capable of staying committed to work. 

As more and more women move into leadership positions, we have to ensure that we are addressing these biases and finding ways to build more equality in the workplace. Allison pointed out that there is an increasing push for female leadership post-COVID, largely because female managers statistically hold onto their staff twice as long as male managers do. 

Women are able to lead. They are able to be working moms. They are able to make their own choices about their family and their careers

How to Have Conversations at Work About Gender Bias

Allison also said that it’s important to remember that when people have biases, change takes a long time. It’s not as easy as taking one webinar or checking the box on anti-bias training. 

Gender bias is very engrained in our society—even when it comes to networking events for women. Mothers often have to miss such events to go pick up kids from daycare or leave to be with their families. 

That is why Allison believes that it’s ultimately up to mothers to have these conversations. As moms, we have to be the ones to bring awareness into the workplace and push for changes. She even believes that it’s beneficial to have conversations about career and motherhood with junior staff or younger women, opening up the lines of communication with the next wave of moms. 

But she also cautioned that we need to be aware that if our bosses have bias, sometimes these conversations can be unsafe. It’s not always as easy as suggesting better maternity leave or asking for a salary increase. She said that if the relationship is more difficult, it’s important to go through HR so that they can have it all documented. 

Why Support During Maternity Leave Matters

Moms at Work conducted a study that asked women about their experiences during maternity leave—95% said they received zero support from their workplace. Allison pointed out that all other normal leaves are supported with case studies and managers, yet moms are expected to handle maternity leave alone, partially because it’s seen as a “choice.” 

43% of high-performing women leave their careers after maternity leave, and Allison believes this lack of support is a big factor in that number. 

She even said that when she returned from her first maternity leave, she no longer had a desk. It told her that nobody cared that she left and nobody cared that she returned. Other moms might return from leave to discover that a promotion they had been working toward was filled in their absence. These actions make moms feel undervalued and unappreciated. 

Moms often feel guilt and concern about helping their employers with the transition as they enter maternity leave, and yet they aren’t receiving support in return. 

Allison believes that it shouldn’t be this way. It’s beneficial for companies and moms when there are policies in place for support during maternity leave. 

In fact, how moms are treated during maternity leave often determines whether they will stay with a company—Allison said that it’s the number one off-ramp point for women in their careers. The best thing companies can do is implement support policies to help retain these mid-level female workers. 

She pointed out that so much of the issue can be fixed with transparency, support, and communication. 

Why It’s Difficult to Navigate Career and Motherhood

Lack of support isn’t the only reason new moms leave the workforce in such large numbers. Another reason is the pressure to stay home. 

It often feels as though we receive messaging about being fierce, independent women, but once we become mothers the script flips. Suddenly, we are pressured to focus solely on care work. We feel guilt and shame for missing school events to attend meetings or pulling late hours to work toward a promotion. 

This just reaffirms the idea that we have to give up who we are to be “good moms.” It can leave new working moms feeling unsure, grappling with social expectations that clash with their personal desires. 

Some moms find happiness staying at home, and that’s great. But we shouldn’t be squeezed out of roles or feel as if we can’t navigate both our career and motherhood. 

Finances also play a big factor. This happened often with the pandemic. Somebody had to stay home when daycares and schools were closed. For many different-sex couples, this role logically fell to mom because their husbands outearned them. As Allison put it, if a man earns more money, whose job are you going to try to protect? 

Other moms were laid off just because they had small children and physically couldn’t navigate the demands of both career and motherhood. Moms ended up being thrust into the role of primary caregiver without choice and with zero support. 

But Allison said there is one silver lining—post-pandemic, women have been radicalized to redefine what success means. We no longer care that there is a glass ceiling—we’re moving away from it and starting our own thing. She believes we are going to see more independent female-owned businesses and flexible work situations as a result. 

Planning for the Return to Work After Maternity Leave

We need support for navigating maternity leave, but we also need it for returning to work

Allison suggests focusing on communicating with your place of work when you have about one-quarter of your leave left. Make sure you have a contact and are up-to-date with any changes at work. Knowing what to expect when you return can help reduce anxiety. 

She also recommends having a plan to return to work gradually. This might look like working three half-days the first week, then adding in a few full days the following week, before ultimately returning full-time. It can help to have this on/off time, especially if you’re transitioning your children into daycare. 

Working moms might worry that their employers won’t agree to this. Allison pointed out that no HR person would create this plan for you, but if you come in with a plan, they are much more likely to accept the terms. 

It’s also helpful to stagger your entry into work with your child’s entry into daycare. Try not to make the transition on the same day or even the same week. 

Allison also pointed out that it’s very important to talk about childcare in advance. Who is going to be responsible for drop-offs and pick-ups? Who is going to leave work if the children get sick? 

Plan out a schedule and days when each of you is responsible for which tasks. There is often an assumption that once we return from maternity leave, the labour will become more shared. But the pattern of moms carrying the invisible load usually continues. 

Without an intentional plan, moms often become the default parent for these responsibilities, which can lead to a lot of resentment or make moms feel as if they need to scale back at work or go part-time to juggle everything—even if that isn’t what they really want. 

Navigating Your Career and Motherhood With Fairness and Values

When we do try to intentionally redistribute the load or plan for shared responsibilities, some common obstacles pop up. The first is that during our maternity leaves, we often accumulate maternal knowledge and experience that ends up keeping us saddled with the load. 

If we’re the ones used to doing everything, and we’ve hit a point where we do it seamlessly, it can feel uncomfortable to share it with our partner who has to learn it. But we shouldn’t have to carry the load alone. 

Sometimes it can be hard to let go of responsibilities. We begin to overfunction or gatekeep because we think we do it best. But if we want to navigate motherhood and a career, we have to find places to let go. 

Determining your parenting values can help guide you through the process. Once you know what truly matters to you and your family, you can begin to let some things go. 

For example, maybe your children don’t need a hot lunch prepared, and a sandwich is fine. Or maybe it’s fine to leave dirty dishes in the sink and take care of them the next day. We have to turn to our values and let go of the tasks that don’t truly matter to us. 

It’s important to remember that “doing it all” requires support and grace for ourselves. Between the pressure to be a good mom and the pressure to show up at work as if you don’t have children, you can run yourself and your mental health into the ground. 

But if we can find space to understand what our values are, what being a “good mom” really means to us, and how we can think creatively to achieve that, even while working outside of the home, we can ease some of the burden and mother in our own way. 

If you need help navigating the balance between career and motherhood, and working through the guilt and pressures that come with it, talking to a mom therapist can help! Book a free 15 minute consult through our Wellness Center today!

Allison Venditti is a career coach, Human Resources and return-to-work expert with over 15 years of experience creating programs, policy and best practices that improve workplace cultures and increase employee retention. She has since grown Moms at Work to Canada’s largest professional network for working mothers providing resources, community and support to over 13,000 women.

Today Allison, along with a team of experts, developed the My Parental Leave program in order to bridge the gap between employees and companies to make the transition seamless between parental leave and return to work.

When not working, Allison can be found sitting on her front porch in her favourite Star Wars tee-shirt planning her next advocacy initiative or biking around Toronto with her three boys – yes, even in wintertime.


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