Trigger warning: this post includes first-hand experiences of mental health crises and infant and pregnancy loss. There are additional mental health resources listed at the bottom of this post.
If you’re in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Working moms have been running on fumes for the last two years. Home schooling, juggling Covid-exposure school and daycare closures, paying higher rates for childcare they aren’t able to use, navigating working from home or returning to the office, they’ve all taken their toll. Article after article has been published lamenting parental burnout and unsustainable demands on moms, and then eventually, it all stopped. Not the burnout, certainly not the demands, but the empathy and the spotlight. Instead of getting much-needed help and policy changes, the conversation moved on, leaving working moms to fend for themselves (and their kids, and their teams at work, and each other).
While moms pushed through, it wasn’t without a cost. According to a study earlier this year, rates of postpartum depression among American mothers have tripled during COVID-19. While some states have been providing more (largely only partially) paid family leave, The United States is still the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level. According to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, paid maternity leave benefits the mental and physical health of both mothers and children, including:
- Significantly higher scores for maternal depression and increased diagnoses of major depressive disorder among women who took fewer than 12 weeks of paid leave.
- An increased risk of postpartum depression among women who took less than six months of maternity leave in general (paid or unpaid).
And now we find ourselves being bombarded by another round of articles and news segments about what “mom REALLY wants for mother’s day.” And it’s not a robe, it’s not a mani-pedi, it’s not even a nap (not that this working mom of three would turn down a nap). What we want are policies that would allow us to be there for our families, protect our mental health, and kick-ass at our jobs. Let’s reframe the question to, “What do you wish your employer knew about mental health for working moms? What do the working moms in our country really want from their employers this year?”
Like I’ve done with every other working mom question I’ve had since 2014 when my parenting journey began, I took the question to the highest, most expert panel I knew of: the sacred space that is the online mom group. While there are plenty of messy, judgmental mom groups out there, my own favorite groups have been the backbone of my parenting community. These are the people who pull together to lift each other up. We pool money to send gift cards to families that have been hit by Covid. We help each other prepare for job interviews and practice asking for raises. We mourn losses, celebrate births, advise on retirement savings, share resources- the online mom group has become the community for the 21st century. Some of the incredible moms in my own trusted groups were kind enough to get vulnerable and share their experiences around maternal health and mental health for the purpose of this post.
You’ll likely notice that these quotes aren’t credited uniformly. Due to the personal nature and potential risk of sharing these stories, some preferred to remain anonymous, some wanted to be identified only by a first name and location, and others wanted to use their full names and roles. Since these are their stories to share in whatever way feels good to them, they are credited as they requested, and the quotes have not been edited, (beyond removing any identifying details, where appropriate).
Here are the things employers and managers should know about the working moms on their teams:
Performative wellness talk does nothing to help and our physical and mental health is suffering as a result
- My company does a lot of performative actions related to “well-being”, but they don’t offer the things that would actually help: more PTO [paid time off], limiting work to only 40 hours a week (or less!), offering reduced work schedules to people who want the option, demonstrating they mean it when they say we can work flexibly and we don’t have to work around the clock and take early or late calls, etc.
I broke my toe a few weeks ago. I did not want to use my small amount of accrued PTO spending hours at urgent care or by going to my primary care doctor for a referral to an imaging center, then back to the primary care doctor for a follow-up. My friend’s husband is a nurse practitioner, so I asked him to take a look when they were at our house, and he confirmed that my toe was broken.
I can’t stop thinking about how messed up it is. The cost of the doctor visits wasn’t the problem. I just didn’t have the PTO. But why is it like this? Why can’t I get the care I need? I would have to either rearrange my schedule and take time off work, or have my husband care for two very busy children for half a day, taking up a large chunk of precious little time we get together as a family. There has to be a better way.
- My company talks a lot about wellness and does mindful guided meditation at the end of our staff meeting (once a month). But since the pandemic and working from home, there’s an unspoken expectation to work more, work when you’re sick, work when your kids are home sick. We do a lot of work for the health centers in our state and addressing patient issues, but employees don’t get those same benefits.
- I had to take an LOA [leave of absence] for my mental health because life was just too hard. I’m on meds, have an attorney, a divorce coach, go to 2 therapists a week and a psychiatrist once a month. I have rage anxiety (and depression) which is fun and has almost gotten me fired more than once before I learned this was my symptom. I am kind of doing ok this week but last week was bad. I think about how privileged I am often because this is HARD, even with everything I’m grateful to have. I could probably talk about this for days and I often over share with work friends because people are always telling me how great I look or the opposite and are insensitive when I vocalize my stress/anxiety/challenges. I really think people just don’t know how to react/act around these issues. I’m happy to openly talk about mental health to anyone who will listen but more so I want working moms to hear that their problems and challenges (all the ones no one can see) are real and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and impacting you and those around them. I just wish my managers actually asked me if I was ok, if there was something going on that I wanted to talk about or needed help with. No one has ever done that. They just move to a PIP [performance improvement plan] warning and luckily I’ve figured out what I need on my own before it’s impacted my career.
- I want to be paid the same as working dads for mothers day. Being a working mom through Covid was a beast. I ended up being diagnosed with depression about 6 months into Covid. I was getting to the point that I’d more or less checked out of work and parenting, and was feeling numb all the time. I think a lot of that was I was just trying to do too much, work was busy (we got a lot busier during Covid), and I was trying to do it without child care.
I am so, so, thankful that I had a job that had solid insurance coverage for mental health, and I was able to get into see a doctor and get on medication. And that my boss was empathetic enough to recognize that I wasn’t okay and find a kind way to let me know that if I needed some time off, that’d be okay, and actually found some coverage so that taking time off wouldn’t just turn into more work when I got back. (On that note, I highly recommend that managers and supervisors take a Mental Health First Aid course. It’s so valuable. EAPs are great, but throwing a brochure with an 800 number at someone who is having trouble finding the motivation to get out of bed is not as helpful as it seems.)
- I’ve been so lucky to be pregnant while working for amazing women at two different orgs. My first pregnancy I had gestational diabetes, so I was having to strictly control my diet. I was exhausted from nearly zero carbs, no sleep, and stressing about an upcoming unpaid leave. I had my child, and immediately knew something wasn’t right. I was obsessive, no one could change her or mix her formula “correctly,” so I did it. No one could wash her bottles, only I could do it. They had to be on a drying rack a certain way- it was so bad. I went in for my 8-week check up (I had a c-section) and my OB tearfully talked me through what was going on and prescribed me medication and recommended therapy. I never saw a counselor because no one had availability and the meds didn’t help much. The OB extended my leave so I wound up being out for 5 months UNPAID. 6 years later and we are still recovering from that financially. My second pregnancy was much better and I worked remotely, so I went back at 7 weeks. It took me almost a year to realize I was depressed. I missed most of his babyhood. It feels like the whole thing was a dream that I can’t remember most of. Again, I couldn’t find a counselor that had openings for me, and I couldn’t afford to go out of network. I’m three years out, paying out of pocket for psychiatry services with a GAD and ADHD diagnosis. The meds help, and my job is SO understanding when I just need to step away, but the fact that I still can’t access a therapist is very frustrating. Now my child needs a counselor to work through her ADHD, and no one has availability. I’m exhausted, I haven’t slept a full night in over 6 years. I just wish maternal mental health was more of a priority but, with the state of this country right now, I don’t think it ever will be.
- Something that makes a big difference is opening up a dialogue about mental health at work. Hearing some of the things that my company is doing for self care, some of my coworkers are doing for self care, they can be beneficial. But especially seeing what moms are able to do, because we just don’t have as much time. So when I see that being shared openly, it gives me a little motivation to do more myself. I can go to therapy once a week during work hours and block off that hour for myself. I don’t have to do it on my lunch break. It’s not something I have to run to as fast as I can, because I have a boss that understands that I need to take care of myself during that time, and it works great as long as your work is getting done.
It’s also important to take a look at some of the things that parents of middle and high schoolers are going through. Things are so heightened at that age, and we’re seeing a surge of suicides that are happening. Parens are scared. I was talking to someone yesterday whose son best friend sadly ended his life. He’s one of seven students just this year at that school that have ended their lives. That is terrifying as a parent. You feel terrible for those parents, you grieve for those parents, you mourn for those parents, and you also worry, “am I going to miss the warning signs?” And to take that with you into the workplace? It’s heavy, it’s hard, so being able to have resources that are available and having an understanding of how you may be feeling is really important.
My job is NOT more important than my family, but being asked to choose only makes things harder.
- The day before I quit my job I was sitting in a meeting where my boss told my team (all females and all but one were mothers, she was also a mother, if I recall correctly) that our job had to be more important than our family while on the clock. I cried out of anger after I left that meeting, and turned in my notice the next day without having a new job lined up. This was also a major Boston hospital system.
- I want to not feel bad about taking time off to care for my own family. I’ve stepped back from my career in favor of my mental health and better work/life balance. I could make more and I could work more, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice myself for an employer that finds me to be replaceable. I’m also really struggling to find any mental health resources for the moms I work with. The big hospital system here is refusing to see you for mental health if you don’t have a PCP within the system, but even if you want to switch, you can’t get a new patient appointment for six months. It’s a really horrible feeling when you have to tell new moms that you don’t have any more numbers for them to call and instead just give them the crisis hotline. Society is failing moms.
- After I had [my first child], I went through undiagnosed PPD [postpartum depression] for nearly a year. Having a colicky baby (since she was only 12 weeks when I went back) that would scream the entire way to daycare/work, and then being expected to focus on the job was nearly impossible. My boss at the time had no children, and that first year in daycare came with all the sicknesses. I worked from home when the baby was sick, or I was sick, on my time off, etc. just to try and get it all done.
I had regular meetings with my boss in which I was honest that I was struggling. She said nothing until my review and basically told me that maybe a less complicated job would be better for me.
I took a demotion which ended up being the best thing for me personally and I stayed there until after having [my second child]. I’ve now climbed back up the ladder, and am happy to report my company is so much better now in terms of flexibility, more paid time off, mental health PTO, etc. If the culture now had been the culture back then, I may not have had to choose either my mental health/family OR my career.
Standard lengths of leave in the US are not long enough in the best case, and downright impossible in the worst cases.
- Each of my maternity leaves was nearly impossible because of my losses. I took a month off after I had my still born daughter because I was depressed (and still bleeding and lactating). But because we only recently got paid maternity leave, my sick leave (at the time) took a serious hit.
Men in HR and leadership of the organization have consistently praised our sick time policy and how much leave “most people” have. I think they fail to see that the policy still mostly assumes that the person who is working is not also the primary parent.
In the time I was with that company, my father had a terminal illness, my husband had cancer, and then I lost three babies. That uses up a lot of sick leave…even if you are given a relatively robust allotment each year.
After I had my son, I returned with negative leave because of an HR error. And he was prone to respiratory viruses. From the start I was forced to shuffle working from home (even though we didn’t have a work from home policy at the time) because I barely had leave for his physical health, let alone my mental health. Even with 8 weeks paid for my daughter who was recently born, I barely had time to cover the rest of my FMLA.
Can we talk about how much we pay in daycare so we can go to work? For two kids, it was nearly my net pay. I was essentially working just for the benefits… which were never even that great.
Also, I think more places need paid paternity leave, and that it not be frowned upon to use it. My husband worked in a largely male industry, and got one week of “vacation” each time I had a kid. I wasn’t even cleared to drive myself (because of c-sections) when he went back to work. It was like pulling teeth when I convinced him he had to pull equal weight with kids appointments and sick days because I was out of leave.
- I had to go back to work when my son was 11 weeks old, but no daycare would take him under 12 weeks. I was a mess trying to find someone. I finally found a friend’s mom who was willing to help for a week since my family was unwilling to help. Also, only getting 11 weeks off after dying on the damn operating table during my emergency c-section never has sat quite right with me.
-Erika Malsom, School Counselor
- When I went back to work after [my first child was born] the worst part was the stress over PTO. I eventually took approved LWOP [leave without pay] but I had to get the union involved and it was so hard all around. Forget taking care of myself-any precious time I had off was used to take care of [my child]. To think, I’m one one of the lucky ones with maternity leave. Even with that, it felt nearly impossible. I used to sleep in my car during my lunch breaks because I was so sleep deprived. And I had no tools to care for myself because I had no time to prioritize my mental health.
- My coworker’s wife had a baby last year. He took a partially paid FMLA leave for 6 weeks after she was born, because, thank goodness, our company isn’t entirely archaic (new fathers now get the exact same leave option as a new mother would have). He also took one other week last year for vacation. Come December, his boss told him he couldn’t take any PTO for the holidays because he had “already used 7 weeks of PTO”. I was beyond furious when my coworker told me this. Completely unacceptable. Please note: this is an issue with this specific manager, and should not reflect on the company or HR as a whole. Also, last year we all switched to permissive leave rather than set amounts, and we were all getting 8 week plus 1 day prior to that so I’m not sure why 7 weeks would have been an issue regardless.
- My company doesn’t have paid maternity leave, per se. You take FMLA and the doctor writes you out on short term disability. Except, I didn’t give birth, so I didn’t get short term leave. Yes, I could have taken FMLA but it’s unpaid so that wasn’t an option. I took 1 week of PTO when the kids came to live with us then they had to go to daycare. So I wish that paid leave for adoption was more prevalent.
My supervisor is also a mom, so I’ve never worried about taking time off or having to leave for family stuff.
Now really my anxiety is mostly worrying am I doing enough since I’m a working mom. For example, this week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I don’t have the bandwidth to be doing the daily activities that were emailed to us by the PTA moms.
We need leave and protection for pregnancy loss
- I also think we need employers explicitly outlining that leave is okay after a pregnancy loss. When I had my first miscarriage, I went back to work the next day. After my medical termination, I took that day and only half of the next day. After my third loss, I started medication on a Friday and was back to work that Monday. My employer never said I couldn’t take time but I felt I had to get back to work which I think was awful for my mental health. Especially the second time when I had to go into the hospital for a D&E and was put under general anesthesia. I was working less than 24 hours later. The problem is, working from home makes it easy to ignore physical things and just go on. But it doesn’t take mental health into account. Employees should have some kind of pregnancy loss leave.
- Back in the day I had been teaching an hourly “Guided Studies” class making a whopping $10.22 an hour (with a Bachelor’s degree & a teaching license). One of the SPED teachers at my school was finally being put on long term disability & I applied for her job. I was 11 weeks pregnant & hadn’t told anyone at work yet. I interviewed for the job Wednesday after school. I started spotting Wednesday evening & ended up at urgent care where I learned my baby no longer had a heartbeat.
I didn’t go to work on Thursday & that afternoon (while waiting for the hospital to call to schedule my D&C) the principal called me to ask some follow up questions. Specifically, how was I with math? Would I feel comfortable co-teaching pre-algebra? Did I know enough math to also teach the SPED lab that went with that class? I told him math is my favorite & I would definitely be comfortable teaching it. He thanked me & said he’d let me know. An hour later the hospital called & I was scheduled for a D&C Friday morning. That evening, the principal called and told me I got the job.
Bright & early Friday morning I had a D&C. I spent the weekend lounging/recovering and showed up on Monday morning to start my full time SPED position. Since I’d been an hourly employee I had no PTO & couldn’t afford to miss another day. So 72 hours post-D&C I was moving desks & filing cabinets around my new classroom during my prep period and on my feet teaching junior high SPED the rest of the day. I’m positive starting back so soon made my recovery a lot longer & harder (both physically & emotionally) than it could have been.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Provide for Immediate and Long-Term Postvention
Mental Health Awareness Month
Train your managers to promote health and well-being
Anxiety Symptoms in Women: A Quick Guide
Out of the Darkness Walks
Help For Moms: Postpartum Support International
Contact us if you’d like to learn more about creating an inclusive workplace that supports the mental health of working parents and all employees.