Figuring out Your Maternity Leave – Advice from Reshma Saujani, Author of Pay Up

Girls Who Code start-up founder, best-selling author, TED Talk superstar, and working mother Reshma Saujani has advice for expectant parents as they plan their paternity leave. In her latest book, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think), she argues that there are steps both parents can take ahead of your baby’s arrival to make your maternity leave and return to work a success. Peppered with statistics backing up her claim that the American workplace is broken, Reshma Suajani’s easy-to-read playbook is a must-read for any expectant mother planning to return to work after having a baby.

She Made A Mistake

Just five pages into the introduction of Pay Up, Reshma defines the “Big Lie” – that the US workforce and society do not make having it all actually possible for women. In her words: “I upheld the feminist credo of having it all. I was wrong. Having it all is really just a euphemism for doing it all.”

Reshma earns her readers’ respect by not being afraid to admit to her mistakes while building Girls Who Code into the world’s largest girls’ empowerment organization. She humbly writes that she perpetuated this Big Lie. She was blind to how broken the system was in which she asked girls to just work harder and be braver (her first novel is titled Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder). This endears the reader to her, making her struggles seem a bit more real. She learns from her failures and shares those lessons with her readers in her second book, Pay Up.

It is important to note that Reshma writes Pay Up about the US workplace only, a country where one and four new mothers return to work less than two weeks after giving birth. Nevertheless, much of her advice and instructions will be helpful for working parents in any country. She also writes from a feminist perspective, speaking directly to people who identify as women and mothers. Gender-expansive parenting arrangements and LGBTQ families experience many of the same obstacles and challenges mothers face in American workplaces. All will benefit from Reshma’s plan for reconstructing the American workplace, even if they do not fit within traditional definitions of mothers. Resham quotes Bradd Harrington, Executive Director and Research Director at the Center for Work and Family, Boston College’s Carroll School of Management to explain why workplace equality is not just a women’s issue: “These are not women’s issues; they are family issues. The approach must be de-gendered; otherwise, it may move us all back.”

A Marshall Plan for Moms to Fix A Broken System

Reshma’s central premise is that in a system that does not value women’s unpaid labor, having it all is impossible. She experienced first-hand that “That dream for working women in America has turned out to be more like a nightmare.” The United States is the only developed nation that does not offer paid maternity leave. The only protection families in America have is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), explained in The Pulse’s earlier post about the difference between maternity leave and family leave. FMLA only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and you must have worked for your company for at least 12 months and worked 1,250 hours to qualify for this protected leave. This act also only applies to employers with more than 50 employers.

So what does Reshma see as the answer to fixing this broken system with only the limited protections of the FMLA? A plan for a revolution which she calls the Marshall Plan for Mothers. Amid her own COVID-19 lockdown family and professional crisis, Reshma found inspiration in the plan established by the United States after World War II to help rebuild Western Europe, The Marshall Plan.

In Pay Up, she outlines her recovery plan for the post-COVID-19 devastation of the American workplace. The mass exodus of women from the US workforce during the pandemic, in her eyes, was proof that “America needs to step up and fundamentally change how it value(s) and support(s) mothers.” She outlined her Marshall Plan for Moms in a full-page ad in The New York Times on January 26, 2020, and called upon President Biden to create a task force to institute a Marshall Plan for Moms within his first one hundred days as president. Unfortunately, Biden could not deliver on this decree, and paid leave was struck from his Build Back Better Plan amidst political partisanship. So, while the battle continues on a national level, expectant parents are left to try to figure out parental leave in a broken system on their own. Fortunately, Pay Up can offer you some advice to help guide you.

How To Create a Maternity Leave that Works For You in a Broken System?

Reshma Saujani has a vision of a different reality for working parents. In Pay Up, she clearly outlines the steps you can take while pregnant and when you return to work to keep your dream of “having it all” from becoming a nightmare. Some recommendations to consider are:

  1. If you are pregnant and planning to return to work, talk with your company’s human resource department (if they have one) or the person who handles benefits as soon as possible.
  2. Advocate for maximum control over your schedule. Flexibility is critical in the post-pandemic workforce in which hybrid and remote work are here to stay, according to Reshma. Suggestions she makes are core collaboration hours (say 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) that employees can plan around.
  3. Be specific about boundaries and define what “working from home” means. She encourages women to propose a specific schedule. Rather than requesting to work remotely a few days a week, try “I would like to work remotely on Monday and Wednesdays. I will log off at 4 PM and work in the evenings between 7 and 9 PM.”
  4. Encourage your partner also to take their full parental leave. Reshma argues that this helps normalize gender-neutral parental leave in the workplace, reduces mothers’ stress and risk for postpartum depression, and has critical benefits for strengthening partnerships and forging lifelong bonds with children. In fact, one study in Sweden showed that women whose partners took paternity leave actually make more money in the long run.
  5. Make a plan for your re-entry to work in collaboration with your supervisor, boss, and human resources department. Reshma advocates for all workplaces to have a “returnship program,” as Amazon did in 2021 after the pandemic. This structured reentry plan with a tailored coaching program for new mothers and other women returning to the workforce should include regular manager and human resources check-ins to discuss work-life issues.
  6. Set expectations with colleagues about your availability, need for flexibility, and the likelihood that arrangements and commitments may change over time. This can help create a workplace culture of “predictable flexibility” at all levels. It also helps root out what Saujani calls “anti-mom bias” – research shows that working moms are seen as less reliable, less committed, and less competent, regardless of how strong their performance record was before.

Build Your Case for Your Best Maternity Leave Plan By Doing Your Research

Beyond frequent conversations with your human resource department, preparation for your maternity leave should also involve some research. Reshma Saujani’s Pay Up is chock-a-block full of useful statistics, research findings, and other online resources available to working mothers. Here are just a few to start with:

  • The National Partnership for Women & Families attests that paid family leave reduces employee turnover; some estimates put the cost of employee turnover as high as one-fifth of an employee’s annual salary.
  • Women who take paid parental leave are 93 percent more likely to be in the workforce nine to twelve months later than women who don’t.
  • A study of four OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, including the United States) revealed that longer paternity leaves are associated with higher cognitive test scores and fewer behavioral problems in children.
  • Fathers who take paternity leave report higher satisfaction with parenting and enjoy stronger bonds with their children over time.
  • It is estimated that 9.8 million mothers are facing burnout post-COVID-19
  • Paid time off reduces absenteeism and the risk of other employees getting sick and missing work. Employees without paid sick leave are more likely to go to work while ill and spread contagious diseases. Women are ten times more likely than men to take time off to stay home with a sick child and five times more likely to be the one taking that sick child to the doctor. Women also fill 81 percent of caregiving roles for elderly parents at home. Without paid sick leave provisions, women will have to choose between their health or the health of their families and a paycheck.

Pay Up is successful as a call to action because Reshma does not just bowl you over with lists of statistics. Instead, she follows up with a clear outline of the steps to take in negotiating your parental leave and becoming a new working parent. In this way, Pay Up should be your expectant parent required reading, a preparatory manual for you (and your employer) as you create the kind of leave your family needs and deserves. Have more questions about your reentry to work? The Pulse’s Tips for A Successful Return to Work After Maternity Leave has many helpful answers to your questions. Getting informed about your rights and benefits as a working parent by reading Pay Up will help you have a successful reentry to work while helping to improve your workplace for the working parents who will come after you.

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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