The Invisible Hurdles of Working Parents


Parenthood can be one of the most rewarding seasons of anyone’s life, but it doesn’t come without its own unique challenges. Parents are often met with unprecedented challenges during those first few weeks with their baby: from navigating the complicated process of breastfeeding, to adjusting to new sleep patterns — their whole world gets thrown off balance when they become a parent.

And as parents prepare to return back to work, many feel like the journey to achieving that work-life balance is tougher than expected. In fact, it almost seems downright impossible to achieve when they don’t feel supported at work.

As a result, parents find themselves at a crossroads and having to inevitably choose between career and family. Many career-driven mothers choose to leave their companies in droves. About 43% of highly qualified women with children leave their careers — even after expressing their initial excitement for returning to work!

We wanted to better understand the struggles that parents face when returning to work after leave, and if there was anything that anyone could have done differently to help. So, we interviewed a few working parents to hear their stories.

In our interview with Jessica, a program manager and mom of two, she described the overwhelming amount of stress that came with pumping at work, and the constant worry she felt about how her child was being cared for back at home:

“My greatest difficulty returning back to work was stress. Stress of milk supply and whether my child was being cared for how I would care for him. Occasionally my son’s caregiver would call me at work because they had run out of milk and I felt like a failure having to leave work and run to give them what I pumped on my break.”

Another working mom said that they left a job entirely because of the lack of support when it came to pumping at work:

“There was no dedicated space for pumping, so I had to use a supply closet and was often interrupted when people needed paper or staples!”

Between the stress that comes with pumping enough at work, and the embarrassment of having to do so in cramped, public places, it’s not surprising that moms feel less adequate and less motivated throughout the work day. In fact, a study found that women who weren’t supported to pump in the office found themselves less able to focus on their work goals, on top of having negative effects on their overall wellbeing.

Pumping isn’t optional for breastfeeding parents- it’s a medical necessity. If milk isn’t properly expressed, moms are susceptible to clogged milk ducts and infection. If a mother isn’t able to express milk as frequently as she needs or for as long as she needs, it will also lead to decreased milk supply, and the mother will not be able to keep up with the feeding demands of her baby back at home.

Beyond concerns about pumping and breastfeeding, parents also expressed the pressure they faced from colleagues and managers to perform at work.

Rachael, Director of Operations and mom of two, shared with us the pressure she felt when her colleagues asked her to return from leave early:

“My colleagues pressured me to come back early from leave. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do: coming back from having my first child while still dealing with some complications from birth and trying to focus on my work.”

And even when there are amenities and resources in place, there is still a stigma that comes with asking for it. While there was adequate support in place for parents at her company, Megan, a Senior Sales Manager and mom of two, shared that she didn’t ask for support because she didn’t want to appear weak in front of her peers. She was relatively new at her company when returning from maternity leave, so she didn’t want to appear like she wasn’t worthy of her new job. She told us:

“There were countless days that I showed up to work tired from sleepless nights but I never talked about it; I just drank more coffee. I never wanted them to think I was giving it less than 100%.”

Dominique, a working mom of four, told us that by the time she had her fourth child her workplace had stepped up significantly in regards to providing a comfortable place to pump, however:

“My direct manager would question me or make comments about my going to take time for pumping.”

Parents are too often made to feel guilty if they ask for help, or are even judged for utilizing the support that already exists. The stigma needs to change.

Some companies are still figuring out what kind of support system to put in place for their parent employees, while others still need to focus on providing the managerial training needed to transform the existing company culture into a family-friendly one. But it’s clear that even when there’s some kind of physical “support” in place — whether it’s a dedicated place to pump, or providing adequate time for maternity leave — it isn’t quite enough.

These accounts tell a harrowing story that’s seen over and over again among moms working across all types of industries and job functions: they feel unsupported and stressed, they feel pressured to perform at work immediately after their return, and they constantly feel guilty for even asking for help.

But we know it shouldn’t have to be that way.

It’s often said: it takes a village. The workplace has a part to play in this, too.

 How can your company start supporting its working parents? Consider the following:

Offer Robust Family Benefits That Extend Beyond Parental Leave

Offering support to working parents shouldn’t just stop at offering family leave. Consider also offering support during leave, and providing resources for their return to work such as: lactation consultation sessions, parental education, career coaching, and other family-friendly benefits to support their journey through parenthood.

Another great way to ease parents back to work is to offer a parent employee resource group or support group. If your company doesn’t have an employee resource group for parents, consider creating one and inviting parent employees to join.

Keep An Open Dialogue

Consider surveying your parent employees to better understand their specific needs. Include parent employees in the benefits discussion to help change the narrative to one that supports parents in a proactive way!

Keep an open door policy with your parent employees. Each parent/expecting parent will have different circumstances from one parent to the next, and expectations may need to be adjusted accordingly. Make sure to keep in touch with your parent employees so you know how to best help them succeed.

This could include re-imagining a realistic work schedule that works for parent employees. Instead of having employees work during core operating hours (9 to 5), have them implement “personal working hours” that work for their circumstances. For example: if an employee feels more productive in the evening because they have caregiving duties earlier in the day, have them set those hours as they see fit.

To help working parents return to work with ease, managers can also implement a “phase-in” flex schedule where parents who are recently returned or on their last couple weeks of leave can work just a few days a week (2 to 3 part time days) temporarily until they’re ready to return to full-time work.

Rachael mentioned that flex scheduling was key to helping her feel motivated and ready to return with confidence:

“I took a phase-in approach with my remaining seven weeks [of leave], so I worked a few days a week and took a few days off a week. On the days I was working, I worked from home. I was incredibly productive during the days that I was working while on leave.”

Actively Advocate for a Family-Friendly, Supportive Workplace Culture

Be an example for your workplace to follow. Some parents may just be afraid to speak up — even though it’s in their best interest to.

Domonique mentioned that she felt uncomfortable about asking for support when she first returned from maternity leave:

“It was because I did not want to appear needy or as someone who was looking for special privileges.”

You may have the resources in place for parents, but unless you have a culture that doesn’t stigmatize its use — it’s not enough! Be proactive in the ways you show up for working parents by transforming the culture itself to value and celebrate work-life balance. Make these resources accessible and visible to all parents. And most importantly, advocate for their use.

Advocating for parents and celebrating not just their work-life, but their family-life, helps boost employee morale, as well as establishes a company-wide culture that values empathy, understanding, and a healthy work-life balance.

 When parents feel more confident and supported at home, they’ll feel more confident at work. And when there’s a support system in place, working parents are a lot more likely to be productive and succeed on the job! Studies show that parents are proven performers in the workplace. One survey found that parents felt more capable and skilled as a result of having kids, with parents reporting improvements in time management, influence, delegation, and managing change! Your parents are often your company’s most valuable employees, and it’s important you retain (and attract) the best.

But remember these are just the byproducts — the rewarding factors — that a successful workplace gets to enjoy when they proactively support their parent employees. Employers should embrace parent-friendly initiatives not simply because it will boost productivity and bring in more skilled workers — but because it’s simply the right thing to do.

It’s time to stop pretending that these invisible hurdles don’t exist and start embracing initiatives that promote a culture of acceptance, understanding, and empathy for all working parents. 

Start supporting your company’s working parents. Learn more about DayOne Baby and our workplace benefits.