Parental leave is great, but returning to work still sucks: Here’s how employers can make it better

Jessica Eggert, CEO and co-founder of Seattle startup Leg Up, and her son, Oliver Eggert. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Eggert)

Six years ago, when her son Oliver was three months old, Jessica Eggert returned to her job at a fast-growing Florida company. Her role offered lots of opportunity for advancement, but not much support for balancing her career with her new identity as a mom.

“Moms weren’t given opportunities to move up, and I would hear things like, ‘Oh, she needs to go home early for the kids,’ ” Eggert recalls. “This was my first view into what being a working mother looked like. I knew I was going to have to work to be seen as someone who belonged there, especially in leadership.”

So she became an invisible mom. She displayed no pictures of Oliver at the office. She put fictitious meetings on her calendar to conceal the fact that she had to pump breast milk — which she would do sitting on the ladies’ room floor since there was no other place for it. Amid the stress of all this, her milk supply dried up within a few weeks.

Eggert now lives and works in Seattle and when her second child was born earlier this year, she no longer felt pressured to hide her own motherhood. But now she faced a new problem. “It’s incredibly hard to find care, and wait lists are long,” she says.

That inspired her to found LegUp, a platform that helps parents sign up for childcare and waiting lists — something she recommends parents do as soon as they learn they’re expecting.

Many tech employers in the Seattle region offer a lot more than the 12 unpaid weeks off required by federal law. For example, Amazon, Microsoft, and Expedia all say they provide up to 20 weeks paid maternity leave. Amazon also offers a program where a parent can share his or her parental leave with a spouse who is employed but doesn’t get paid parental leave (Amazon will pay the partner’s base salary).

But the bigger problem is what happens after that leave is over, says Eric Crawford, co-founder and managing partner of boutique staffing firm TalentReach. Many employers assume that new parents will pick right up where they left off. Meanwhile, those parents are just beginning a period of disruption and complex scheduling that will last for several years.

“If you’re working 50 to 60 hours a week at some of the bigger companies, child care will be a real issue,” Crawford says. “Time off is also an issue because kids get sick, and if you have multiple kids they will likely get sick a week apart.”

$2,500 a month

And then there’s paying for childcare which, at least in the Seattle area, is no easy thing. Crawford reports that full-time childcare for an infant typically costs around $2,500 per month. A toddler costs about $1,700 per month, and a preschooler around $1,200 per month, whether using a daycare facility or a nanny. Some employers offer a one-time child care subsidy of $4,000 or so. Microsoft offers 150 hours of subsidized childcare. But, Crawford says, employer programs rarely go far enough.

He is deeply familiar with these challenges because he’s the father of four small children, including one-year-old twins. Facing child care costs well above $80,000 a year, he and his wife decided she would leave her job to be a full-time mother. “It became more cost feasible for her to stay home than go back to work,” he says.

Understanding the quality and cost of available childcare is harder than it should be, says Avni Patel Thompson, an entrepreneur, writer, and co-founder of the recently shuttered startup Poppy, which helped parents find vetted childcare.

“There is a complete lack of transparent and consistent qualifications. which hurts both parents and qualified caregivers,” she says. And — unaffordable as child care is — the people who provide it are usually underpaid, and soon leave for better-compensated work if they can, she adds. “So we’re stuck in a cycle of highly informal, under-the-table work.”

Leslie Feinzaig, founder and CEO of the Female Founders Alliance, would have liked to apply to an accelerator program, but as a new mother at the time, she was blocked by the lack of affordable childcare. “My husband worked at a startup himself at the time,” she recalls. “I couldn’t uproot my family and I couldn’t afford childcare without a job,” she says. “It was a complete non-starter for me to think about going to YCombinator or Techstars.”

So when the Female Founders Alliance began offering its own accelerator program, she says, “I built the accelerator I would have wanted.” That means participants work remotely, from home or from a WeWork location for most of the program, and when they come to Seattle for the program’s two-week immersive session, free childcare is provided.

Should new parents have to attend 8 am meetings?

Though most employers can’t or won’t subsidize the full cost of child care, they can make things much easier with some relatively modest changes, such as more flexible work hours and remote working options, Crawford says. At TalentReach, everyone works from home on Wednesdays, and meetings never begin before 9:30 a.m. It’s neither logical nor humane to expect a parent who’s been up all night with a cranky baby to be effective at an 8 a.m. meeting, he explains.

Ultimately, systemic, societal changes are needed, says Emily Best, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based SeedSpark, a crowd-funding and video platform. Best began a widespread conversation about the challenges of working parenthood with a tweet about how hard it was to stop bringing her small children to work. She says that when she became pregnant for the second time, the family moved to a home a block away from the office “because it was the only way I could wrap my head around doing this.”

She returned to work when her daughter was 10 days old, which she says she wouldn’t recommend to anyone. “I didn’t have a choice, it was where we were with the stability of the company,” she says. She travels frequently, and for the first six or seven months, she brought her daughter along on these trips. Fortunately, she has an extensive network of contacts, and she asked for help finding reliable child care in the cities she visited.

Leaving a baby with a stranger while she attended meetings or gave presentations was nerve-racking and guilt-inducing, but also necessary because the venues where she presented rarely offered things like breastfeeding rooms or changing tables. “Basically, the attitude is children are your problem, deal with them, get them out of the way, and come be your full and present self,” she says.

Experiences like these are why she believes a bigger fix is needed than just employers offering better benefits, necessary though that is.

“There has to be a massive cultural shift,” she says. “If we valued childcare as a society, there would be infrastructure in every city that made childcare reliable and accessible. We can’t just fix work — we have to fix the whole thing.”

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