Women take maternity leave to bond with their child and recover from childbirth, and any related complications, without fear of losing their job, benefits, company seniority, and so forth, which are protected under the Family Medical Leave Act. These protections, however, are not able to sever the stigma that many women find is still attached to taking maternity leave.
Though it is against the law to not hire or to fire someone who can perform the basic functions of the job just because she is pregnant or on maternity leave, the reality remains that many women in the workforce are treated unfairly after revealing news of their pregnancy or going on maternity leave.
Maternity Leave Stigma
While working mothers are able to take maternity leave and are protected against job loss, their careers may be impacted by the stigma around actually taking maternity leave. Many women who take maternity leave report being treated differently at work upon their return. For instance, close relationships with colleagues become distant and strained, or clients and projects that were closely managed prior to maternity leave are reassigned and not returned.
Due to the stigma around taking maternity leave, some working mothers do not take the 12 weeks of maternity leave that is allotted by law. Many return to work early and report feeling pressured not to take more time off.
What You Can Do
Returning to work after maternity leave is a time of high stress for most parents. While many are excited to return to work, they are concerned about childcare options, nursing, being away from their child for long hours, and several other issues. The stigma around maternity leave creates even more stress for returning mothers as there is often a sense of not knowing what to expect.
Some companies offer great support to new mothers returning from maternity leave, including flexible hours, telecommuting, and other benefits. If this is not the case at your company, or you aren’t sure whether or not it is, speak to your direct manager or a Human Resource representative about what options may be available to you. While you may not be able to change the stigma around maternity leave, taking an active step toward open communication with your employer may be of help. Below is a list of topics that serve as an example of points you can discuss.
Maternity Leave Points of Discussion:
- Is it possible to have a transition back to work? Begin working a few days a week and working back up to five?
- Is telecommuting an option? If so, how frequently?
- Is there flexibility in the hours I am expected to be in the office?
- Is there flexibility in avoiding scheduling meetings early in the morning or late in the afternoon?
- Is there a private space with an outlet so that I can pump?
- What level of communication should I maintain with the office while on leave?
For many women, taking maternity leave and returning from leave are both exciting and stressful times. While some company cultures still maintain a stigma around taking maternity leave, the trend is changing and many companies do offer support to new mothers returning to work. There are also some things that you can do ahead of time to help set up work expectations while you are on leave and as you return. Remember you can always find help navigating maternity leave by talking to a counselor.