Of my working-mom friends, the ones who most enjoyed their first months of motherhood had part-time maternity leaves. Of my three postpartum periods my best was one when I stayed engaged, with my work hours increasing gradually.
Maternity leave in the U.S. is governed largely by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which provides 12 workweeks of unpaid leave, and so moms take an average of 10 weeks off after birth. Some women love staying home with their babies. Other women struggle. Most public discussions of maternity leave focus on more paid leave. Part-time leave is rarely in the conversation, though work is enriching and fulfilling for many professionals. Imagine abruptly removing your main source of intellectual stimulation and a key arena for social interactions, instantly replacing them with important but menial tasks. That’s full-time maternity leave.
With my first baby, I struggled at home for four months without understanding my problem. It was just hard. A weekly lunch with a friend helped, but wasn’t a replacement for daily technical conversations. My manager offered full-time employment or leave of absence, rejecting part-time. So I returned to work and couldn’t find enough hours in a day. The stress suppressed my milk production, so I pumped more, so I had less time to work and sleep, so I was unproductive and exhausted, so I stressed, so my milk supply dropped.
The time after my third baby was completely different. Because Tesla hired me while pregnant I wasn’t eligible for benefits legally guaranteed to other California moms. I had a strong manager who had a blank slate. Jon offered me a fraction of my salary approximating California’s paid leave to work as much or as little as I chose. He didn’t scale back my project nor reassign it. In the first couple weeks after baby, I saw my project lose momentum. Like most engineers, I cared about my design. Like most Tesla employees, I believed in the mission. Gradually I started working again.
Seven weeks postpartum I realized Jon had pulled a Tom Sawyer on me. I wasn’t painting his fence but I was working far more than if he’d pushed me to work. And I was thriving.
A pivotal meeting emboldened me to fully embrace the flexibility Jon allowed. A key potential vendor came to present and I wanted to participate in subsequent decisions. Baby Sonoma was 6 weeks old and I didn’t have child care. I had to bring Sonoma or not attend. I dressed discretely and prepared myself for a reprimand, then took a seat at the table. I held my sleeping baby as I asked technical questions. When she squirmed, I nursed and continued to participate. The men answered respectfully, with unwavering eye contact. The meeting concluded with smiles and friendly baby chit-chat. And… no reprimand. The vendor was pleased that Tesla was interested enough for a nursing mom to attend. If I could nurse in a vendor meeting, surely internal meetings would be ok!
I worked at home and the office. I checked email regularly. I never hesitated to sleep in after a wakeful night. In Sonoma’s sixth week, I worked 1/3 of full-time. By eight weeks I worked half-time. If my manager had asked me to commit to this, I would have objected. Since it was my choice, I cherished the freedom, holding my nursing baby in one arm and typing with the other.
Here’s one Friday: I exercised bicycling to work with baby in a trailer. At a 10am meeting, I nursed as I explained the engineering rationale for some purchasing decisions to a senior manager from another department. A little past 10:30am, my manager stopped by for a technical discussion: one man sitting, one man standing, I on the floor changing a diaper. At an 11am meeting, I showed a spreadsheet spurring my manager to make some needed decisions. At group lunch, a co-worker carried my plate since I was holding my baby. Then I bicycled home, handed my baby to our part-time nanny, and worked on my laptop the rest of the afternoon.
I was both a fulfilled engineer and a good mom. My baby breast fed. My manager had an involved employee who slept enough to be lucid. Everyone won.
Imagine if more parents had this freedom: to choose a balance between child care and work, adjusting as appropriate. Imagine if for employers maternity leave didn’t mean losing a trained team member and access to her specialized knowledge, but merely reduced promptness.
Let’s make part-time leave part of the conversation about women in STEM.
This post is duplicated on my old blog.