Three months after giving birth, Erica was in emergency surgery having her retained placenta removed. After suffering from heavy bleeding, immense cramping and flu-like symptoms since welcoming her son into the world, she looked forward to not being in agonizing pain so she could finally enjoy quality time with him. Instead, she was consumed with fear at the mere thought of returning to her demanding job as a retail buyer in California. 

“I initially planned to return to work right at 12 weeks, but that changed when I found out I had a retained placenta,” says Erica, whose name was changed for fear of judgment from her employer. “I am now receiving an extra four weeks of leave, but I was so afraid to ask my job for the extra time off. I haven’t had discussions with my employer about the details of my return because I just feel so unprepared and not ready. I’m breastfeeding, so I hope they can at least provide me with an area I can pump in private. It’s all a bit overwhelming.”

Erica is one of many who face challenges in feeling prepared to return to work postpartum. Becoming a new parent or welcoming a new child into a family is one of the most important life moments and yet it is also one of the more stressful times for working caregivers in the United States due to the country's abysmal parental leave policies. 

When Elise O’Brien, a contract production manager at a clothing company in Los Angeles, was planning her maternity leave with her employer, she was blindsided by the nonexistent policy. “I was a 1099 employee and therefore I wasn’t eligible for state disability benefits. I had to rely on my employer and they did not have a maternity leave policy. The expectation was that I would return to work after four weeks, and eventually I was granted two additional weeks to rest and bond with my baby, but I had to fight for it. I spent a lot of time being resentful of having to return back to work so soon.”

Historically, U.S employers haven’t prioritized the needs of working parents. A 2019 UNICEF study showed that of the world’s 41 richest countries, the U.S. is the only one that does not have a national statutory paid maternity and paternity policy. While employees do have the option to leverage the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the regulation has its limitations. For example, the FMLA only offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for parents of a newborn or newly adopted children. Also to be eligible an employee must have worked at least 1250 hours over the past 12 months for an employer with at least 50 employees in a 75 miles radius. While more progressive companies are creating policies to ensure parents can at least have paid time off, working to ensure a smooth transition back into the workforce is often still left out of the conversation although it's equally important. 

Los Angeles-based HR consultant Katharine Smith knows firsthand how few organizations have developed comprehensive parental leave policies. “There isn’t a lot of care put into maternity leave policies as well as [creating a plan for] transitioning back to work. In general, in America, I just don’t think employers care,” she says. In some cases, the size and age of a company can be indicative of how flexible it is in responding to the needs of its employees. At one smaller company, Katharine says she was encouraged to facilitate frequent check-ins with employees before, during and after their leave about returning workload and accommodations. But when she worked at larger organizations, she found this wasn't the case. "The larger organizations I worked with offered very little outside of a designated timeframe for return, doing one check-in with the new parent to see if that reentry date was on target and handing over their full workload upon return.” 

Highland Park-based art studio manager Nathan Smith, who welcomed his daughter in the summer, believes working for a small business allowed him to have a level of flexibility in his transition back to work that he wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. “Going back to work after my partner gave birth to our child wasn’t that complicated,” says Nathan. “My boss told me to take off as much time as I needed and I eased back into the flow of work and went back into the office once I was ready. We’re such a small company that there is no HR, but there’s an honor system and level of trust and respect we share that helps us be more understanding that we have lives outside of work.”

The lives of employees change drastically once they welcome a new child into their family and what they must plan for prior to returning to work can be daunting. From Katharine’s perspective, one of the biggest aspects parents need to consider before returning to work is childcare and its rising cost. She says she saw an overwhelming number of parents at her former employers decide to not return to work because their full-time salary wasn’t enough to cover the cost of childcare. According to a study, roughly 55% of U.S. families report spending at least $10,000 a year on childcare. The study shows that costs have increased due to rising costs of child care centers, inflation and child care centers taking fewer children, while availability and quality of childcare have decreased. In a perfect world, higher salaries that take into account inflation and cost of living would solve this, but this is not the reality for most families. 

Elise and her husband planned out finances in advance of her leave, which was a big factor that impacted her return to work. ”We made sure we had enough money saved to cover me taking six weeks off work since my leave was unpaid. Once I went back, we hired a nanny for three months, then eventually moved to nanny sharing which we found through a Facebook group for moms and that was more cost-efficient. It’s such a big financial decision because you’re now paying to go to work since you have to pay someone to watch your child.” 

Breastfeeding is another factor a lactating parent may stress over before returning to work. In the infant stage, breastfeeding is a time-consuming and exhausting task. Inflexible work hours can make consistently nursing and expressing milk to maintain supply difficult. And while most federal laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are nursing, they still face limitations by state as well as discrimination. 

Elise says she power pumped to create a milk stash and supplemented with formula early on to ensure her daughter’s feeding wasn’t impacted by her return to work on site. Ultimately due to long, rigid work hours and subsequent stress, Elise ended her breastfeeding journey early at nine months (the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years). But some lactating parents are offered more freedom in meeting their breastfeeding needs. Maria Schnair, a non-profit executive in Ojai, worked from home prior to and after giving birth and was granted freedom to work her schedule around nursing her child. “I blocked off my calendar for pumping and breastfeeding breaks,'' says Maria. “There were even in-office meetings where I was allowed to opt out with no issues. Occasionally colleagues needed to schedule meetings when I had to pump or breastfeed, but they were willing to work around it.”

Some employers are also stepping up their support. Adrianne Nickerson, CEO and co-founder at Oula, a New York-based modern maternity center, shared that “Oula makes breast pumps available at the office for employees to use.” "In those early days," she continued, “After Elaine, our COO, Joanne, our CXO, and I returned to work after giving birth, it wasn’t uncommon to look around the table at a staff meeting and have more than one person pumping.”

Underlying all of these factors is the looming fear of jumping back into the routine of work. According to Katharine, in an ideal world new parents should feel empowered to have conversations with their managers about special accommodations. Tactics like modified schedules and reduced workload can help employees avoid feeling overwhelmed and allow the employer to fill in any gaps, if needed. 

There are employers who understand the significance of reentry and have made it a part of their leave policies. “Our employees returning from parental leave are given two weeks to gradually re-enter the workforce as they work part time, but are paid full time during that initial back to work period,” says Sarah Hardy, COO and Co-Founder at Bobbie, the first and only mom-founded and women-led infant formula company in the U.S. As the first mom to return from maternity leave at her former company, Airbnb, Hardy wrote the company’s first parental leave policy and is now working to prioritize the needs of Bobbie employees who embark on the journey of parenthood. “It is at least a two year journey from planning for a baby to transitioning back to work, and this has been our guiding light to design our own policy.”

While helpful, employers who offer staggered work returns, flexible schedules, a reduced workload and breastfeeding accommodations are just touching the surface of employees' postpartum needs. With the financial impact of childcare being a top concern of parents who return back to work Katharine says employers should take strategic steps to soften the monetary blow. On-site childcare in the workplace is one option, which family progressive American retailer Patagonia is known for. Elise stated that during her first few week’s returning to work she thought of the company and wished her employer had a similar on-site child care option. “Not only does a benefit like on-site child care cut childcare costs, but it also gives breastfeeding parents convenient access for nursing and comfort in knowing their child, who may be a small infant, can be observed and visited nearby,” she said. Some organizations even offer childcare stipends to help offset costs, with one being Planned Parenthood who grants employees up to $1,200 USD in caregiver services through babysitting and nanny search website, For positions that require regular work travel a progressive step would be for employers to consider covering child care costs or travel costs for the child to accompany the parent, or a supervising adult/parent/caregiver to join, if appropriate. 

Lastly, being a new parent can feel isolating due to its unique responsibilities that differ from those who don’t have children. And many work environments naively create social spaces that alienate parents, from a lack of acknowledgement when a parent or a parent’s child is going through a big transition (changing schools, sick child, etc.) to hosting after work/evening happy hours that tend to fall during a child’s bedtime. To learn more about these circumstances, employers can form parent committees to hear directly from parents about their needs and how they would like to be supported. Accommodations could be as small as making it a policy to send other new parents a gift basket or meal upon welcoming a new child, or as significant as changing the structure of company social activities to a time and space that allows children to be present, making it more convenient for parents.

For birthing parents like Elise, who wishes her maternity leave had been more collaborative and supported by leaders at work, she urges employers to consider the negative impacts that not having a postpartum reentry plan in place can have on employees. “One of the most challenging parts of returning back to work was my employer having the expectation that I would be the same person I was before I left,” says Elise. “Employers should offer that conversation up to employees so they feel seen in their transition. I would’ve been so much more willing to be there for my job, do it more happily and put more of my heart into it if I felt like me being a new mom had been considered.”