New parents re-entering the workforce often juggle the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents choose to build their family, the guilt of being split between home and work and of not feeling particularly successful in either place is real.
Women building their families face a set of challenges different from the one men encounter. Those women who have biologically had children may be navigating the world of finding a suitable place to pump or breastfeed at work. Others may feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time, without local family support. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Another stressor that women returning to work after kids sometimes address is dealing with comments such as:
- "I didn't think you'd come back."
- "You must feel so guilty."
- "You missed a lot while you were out."
While these may seem like innocuous comments, to an already stressed new mother, they can feel put into a position where they need to defend their decisions, whatever they may be.
To counteract these overwhelming situations, many women are finding mentors and making targeted connections. Parent mentors can help new moms integrate their realities with work, find resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
In addition to the emotional support, there's an important role for parent mentors to play in establishing career trajectory. Traditionally, most men who have families see more promotions and higher pay compared to women with children. Crazy, but true! Knowing that having children may represent a career setback, women can work with their mentors to create an action plan to get "back on track" or be recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
That’s not to say that efforts haven’t been made to alleviate this problem but, unfortunately, most solutions actually did more harm than good. It was found that the mothers’ skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining them as a mother, rather than a person focused on career, in the workplace.
Thankfully, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, but they should be passionate about ensuring the opportunities and support are available. It's just one valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with and successfully retaining their new mother employees who face special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
While what we’ve been talking about isn’t exactly what people picture when it comes to a “traditional” mentoring relationship, there are, nonetheless, some major similarities. Mentoring is a two-way street and in an ideal situation, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. Here a few key skills to demonstrate while embracing this new form of mentorship:
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues around returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of judgment or politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: It’s always helpful to let your mentee know that they aren't alone in dealing with these changes, and that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Introduce them to peers or a group of people dealing with the same issues. If appropriate (and wanted), offer to share ways that you coped with the transition yourself as well as your best parenting tips. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work-life integration. Let her know that work-life balance may not be achievable right now and it’s OK to focus on that one thing that is most important right now. Don’t let them drive themselves crazy trying to do everything.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear to be out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but a good mentor will help their mentee develop a workable plan, with updated goals, strategies, and resources needed to realize those goals.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system at work that they can rely on, just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the workplace who has knowledge about being a mom and a career woman will go a long way toward helping them successfully make the transition.