Women, who use their many talents to make a difference in the world, are invaluable employees. Many of them also want to have families and children. When mothers return to work after the birth of a child, they are juggling a hybrid work environment with the most important stakeholders ever—their babies. How companies help working mothers navigate their return to work sets the stage not only for these moms but also for the entire organization, given that these policies support (or inhibit) all individuals bringing their best selves to work. Companies that creatively support working mothers create a deep foundation of employee loyalty, which is a competitive advantage in the war for talent. Working mothers deserve the investment of support and flexibility.
All working mothers know the profound challenges of returning to work after maternity leave. No matter the length of their leave or the terms of return, there is a steep adjustment period. Women who are eager to return to work with a new child can, in no time, become overwhelmed by the demands of their work, the needs of older children, partners still adjusting to parenthood, and (for biological parents) recovery from childbirth. Hopping onto Zoom calls during naps or after bedtime, mothers of infants are struggling to justify if going back to work is truly worth it when all they really want (and need!) is a snack and a nap.
In the United States, 46.6 percent of the workforce is female, and 72.4 percent of working women have children who are under the age of 18. For mothers with children under the age of three, the labor participation rate is still an overwhelming majority: 63.8 percent (Zane, 2022). That’s a whole lot of multitasking mamas.
According to a survey conducted by Vision by Protiviti in early 2022, 95 percent of North American leaders believe that employee loyalty will increase over the next decade. A vast majority of those leaders—a whopping 97 percent of them—also admit, nearly in the same breath, that they believe staff retention will be an issue in 10 years’ time (Vision by Protiviti, 2023). What could be going on here? Could it be that this massive majority of leaders believe they have put in place the conditions to negate the turnover concern?
How many of these employers have taken the unique needs of working mothers into account? After all, 78 percent of North American executives from that same survey believe there will be a resurgence in the “standard work week” (five days and 40 hours per week) by 2032 (Vision by Protiviti, 2023).
From a working mom’s firsthand perspective, I can tell you: That’s not going to work for me, bud.
Carrying the “Mental Load”
Though some may argue that this conversation is equally valid for either person in a partnership, working mothers in heterosexual relationships are three times more likely than men to carry the “mental load” (the invisible cognitive and emotional labor of managing a household and family (Hart, 2022)). This reality makes taking on a job in addition to a parental role especially difficult for mothers.
From a personal perspective, my husband is a service member in the United States military. The inherent inflexibility of his employer means that much of the household management and daytime parenting falls on my shoulders. It is, of course, plausible that the reverse of my experience could be true for mothers who choose less flexible careers and/or employers.
To engender loyalty from working mothers and retain them as they grow families, organizations would do well to listen to their unique needs. It’s no secret that many mothers off-ramp their careers when they have children. But nearly two out of three mothers want to work (Reynolds, n.d.). Employers risk losing valuable talent from this demographic to companies with better perks and more flexibility.
What Do Working Mothers Need?
So what is it that mothers need to make working worthwhile?
Flexibility with regard to both hours and location can help improve the experience of working mothers. Employers who demand that new mothers work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (such as the 78 percent of leaders expecting the so-called return to normal) will find it difficult to obtain compliance from this population. Mothers who find themselves in this situation may adhere begrudgingly or guiltily as they struggle to find (and afford) adequate daytime childcare. Employers may find mothers increasingly asking for time off or time away to meet the daytime needs of their families.
It would serve employers well to allow this population of workers the opportunity to choose their hours and location for work. This is especially important for project-based and independent work. Post-COVID data has revealed that working from home has increased productivity (Maurer, 2020) and made workers happier, less stressed (Owl Labs, n.d.), more focused, and more likely to report a better work-life balance (Apollo Technical, 2022). What’s good for the worker is good for the company.
Furthermore, mothers reported in one study that they were most likely to work from home or work a non-traditional shift due to family needs or to coordinate childcare (Livingston, 2022). Mothers don’t just want to work from home and on flexible hours. Mothers require it. And they do it sacrificially.
As a new mom who recently returned to work at a boutique consulting firm, the best part of my return was the ability to choose my time commitment. My organization made it clear it would welcome me back for the time commitment that worked well for my family and my new duties as a parent. Working for an organization that offered part-time work, full-time work, or some blend of contracting opportunities made it easy for me to choose to return. I’ve heard the same story over and over from new mothers: The threat of losing their job altogether has women agreeing to a full-time workload when they would be far happier and more balanced returning part-time—even if only temporarily.
Employers who remain stringent about full-time requirements may find themselves with many hard-to-fill openings. The war for talent rages on as employers compete to build an engaged, highly productive, capable, and skilled workforce in a volatile work world (Ahuja, 2022). If a large portion of the talent pool is leaving the workforce due to lack of viable work options, a great way for organizations to entice them would be to offer work in any capacity.
Connection and Understanding
Mothers with young children overwhelmingly report that they feel isolated and lonely (Making Caring Common Project, 2023). Many mothers desire some way to contribute to society that includes a creative outlet or intellectual challenge. Women in general want to feel that the education they paid for and the early careers they built were worth it.
Finding connection in the workplace can make returning to work feel meaningful and worthwhile. Feeling as if your manager and co-workers see you as a valuable and contributing human being (who also has an important role outside of the workplace) can make all the difference. Leaders looking for a tangible way to engage working mothers can start by acknowledging their unique challenges. Ask about her family and what kind of things are going on in her home. Make sure she knows she’s a great parent and a valuable asset to your team.
Connection is free—and a great way to engage and retain such employees.
Working mothers are superheroes. They are the multi-tasking, late night-working, connection-making queens who will bend over backwards for leaders who provide genuine support. Working mothers want to offer their best work to employers and customers while also dedicating energy to their families.
According to one study, 84 percent of working mothers are “entirely sure” they can be both great employees and great mothers (Reynolds, n.d.). As a working mother myself, I can tell you: We absolutely will thrive, given the right environment. Companies and leaders who freely offer flexible support will see an immediate and incredible return on their investment.
Ahuja, Vikram. The War for Talent in the “New Normal.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2022/07/08/the-war-for-talent-in-the-new-normal/?sh=2de246e5689e.
Hart, T. H. (2022, November 2). 5 Ways the Mental Load Impacts Parents’ Health. Parents. https://www.parents.com/parenting/moms/healthy-mom/ways-the-mental-load-impacts-moms-health-and-how-to-ask-for-help/#:~:text=In%20addition%2C%20about%20three%20in,the%20weight%20of%20it%20all..
Harvard Graduate School of Education (2023). Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It. Making Caring Common Project. https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america.
Livingston, Gretchen (2022, May 3). Working Moms Need Access to Leave and Job Flexibility. U.S. Department of Labor Blog. https://blog.dol.gov/2022/05/03/working-moms-need-access-to-leave-and-job-flexibility.
Maurer, R. (2020, September 16). Study Finds Productivity Not Deterred by Shift to Remote Work. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/study-productivity-shift-remote-work-covid-coronavirus.aspx.
Protiviti-Oxford Survey: Executives Say Emerging Technologies Will Add Jobs over the Next Decade. (March 2022). VISION by Protiviti. vision.protiviti.com/insight/protiviti-oxford-survey-executives-say-emerging-technologies-will-add-jobs-over-next-decade.
Reynolds, B. W. (n.d.). Survey: Lack of Flexible Work Keeps Moms from Staying in the Workforce. Flexjobs. https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/survey-flexible-work-moms/.
State of Remote Work (n.d.). Owl Labs. https://resources.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2020.
Statistics on Remote Workers that Will Surprise You (2022, December 2). Apollo Technical. https://www.apollotechnical.com/statistics-on-remote-workers/.
Zane, M. (2022, March 1). What Percentage of the Workforce Is Female? Zippia. www.zippia.com/advice/what-percentage-of-the-workforce-is-female/#:~:text=46.6%25%20of%20the%20workforce%20is,of%20the%20workforce%20is%20women.