I recently left the workforce to stay at home with my youngest child. It was a difficult decision, and while I was considering everything I turned to research and data. I couldn’t believe the realities of working parenthood in America for so many. In my case, I worked at Google, a large tech company with a good track record on parental leave and benefits, and I was struggling.
It became clear to me that while the government sits back, Corporate America is, in some places, filling the gap when it comes to setting policy for America’s working families. Parental leave is a notable example of this, and many companies across the country are rightly expanding paid leave time.
More needs to be done. So when I quit, I sent a letter to my CEO compiling the research I’d found into a list of potential solutions. I’m still not sure if much will come of it, but then I saw that Amazon employees recently banded together to demand more support for working parents, too.
I wondered if sharing my letter broadly could help inspire others to also write to their CEOs. Then, perhaps, the combined pressure can help the collective. Maybe one day America will have federal parental leave and universal childcare. In the meantime, we must demand more of employers.
Below, a near-original version of the letter I sent to YouTube’s (owned by Google/Alphabet) CEO and the head of HR when I resigned in March 2019. There are slight omissions and modifications to generalize solutions and remove personally identifying information.
I’ve decided to leave, put my career on hold, and take care of my youngest child until preschool starts in about 1.5 years. As I take this plunge, I wanted to reflect a little on how I got to this decision and share some ways I think working moms and parents can be better supported in the challenging, emotional, and highly personal journey of “balancing it all.”
After my first child was born, if someone could have guaranteed me that my career would have been waiting for me, or that I would be able to find a job easily a few years later, I would have stayed home with my baby in a heartbeat. But I was too scared to test what would happen, and too attached to my pre-children identity that was massively tied up in work.
While it was difficult, I made it through my child’s first year and a half, pumping at the office, managing the stress decently enough as I’d fully outsourced much of the caretaking and household responsibilities (and we were blessed with a good sleeper), and got to a point where I was once again fully engaged at work. Looking back, I think this coincided directly with weaning.
After my second child was born, and my second maternity leave gave me time throughout the day with both my children, I had a harder time returning to work. That I couldn’t seem to unlock balancing having two very young children and my career was upsetting. I knew I’d get through the initial guilt and separation anxiety as I had before, so it didn’t make sense to me that returning to work was harder the second time around. But it just was.
Many women are able to figure this out, and there are amazing stories of women at the top doing so in extraordinary ways: breastfeeding on the floor of the Senate or building a nursery in one’s executive office, for example. Bringing the baby to work solves a lot of problems, but most companies don’t provide for this. Maybe they should.
Recently, I’ve read a lot about the challenges working mothers in America face, and I had it easy. It shouldn’t still be this hard, and other countries do better. In the US, the reality is that, in the absence of federal policies that support families, Corporate America is shaping modern parents’ behavior, especially women’s, and their participation in the workforce.
I’m leaving for lots of reasons, but two mostly: my children. And while I had a hard time working and being a mom and found I needed more time with my kids, I generally felt supported by managers and colleagues. In leaving, I’d like to start a discussion on solutions.
Suggested Policy Solutions for Moms and Parents
Diverse workforces are more creative, more productive, and more innovative. The data on this is well understood, and not new (McKinsey’s “Women Matter” report was published in 2007, which showed the ROI for diverse management teams was greater than homogeneous).
Mothers often still have to decide between work and family, which disadvantages women in full-time work environments and leads to pay inequality (graphic). Here are some ways to help shift the balance:
Offer onsite childcare solutions.
Onsite childcare provides many benefits to parents and the company, including increased employee productivity and retention, decreased absenteeism and rate of separation anxiety. (Sources: this, this and this)
Childcare in America is prohibitively expensive, and there are often extremely long waiting lists at care centers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined affordable childcare should not exceed 7 percent of family income. Louisiana is the only state in the nation in which the cost of center-based infant care meets that definition. The U.S. is also experiencing a rise in childcare deserts, which disproportionately affect certain populations: 58% of Hispanic/Latino populations live in areas without enough licensed child care providers. Childcare challenges are a main contributor to women “opting out” of work, and pay inequality.
In the U.S., where paid parental leave is not federally mandated, it is rare for companies to provide onsite childcare benefits. In fact, only 7% of companies do so. Patagonia, a company at which 50% of managers and 50% of executives are women, says the program more than pays for itself: 100% retention of new mothers costs roughly .005% of selling, general and administrative costs. Patagonia is a small organization, but large companies like the Home Depot (400,000 employees) have also invested in providing onsite childcare. More American companies are starting to do so.
Google has some onsite childcare. The Google Children Centers, however, serve only a fraction of families because of limited location (offered in Mountain View alone) and space (availability by lottery). By partnering with third-party service providers to bring childcare onsite, working with daycares near offices and campuses across the country, and building new offices with childcare in mind, our company can compete for and retain diverse talent.
Incentivize all parents to use parental leave time.
Women who take paid maternity leave are far more likely to return to the workforce and work longer hours 1 to 3 years after childbirth (source). And men taking paternity leave >2 consecutive weeks not only benefits the father and baby, but also the mother or co-parent, and the economy (this). [The research I found only examined these two gender types.]
“When men increase their use of paternity leave, time studies show that the amount of household work…may become more gender balanced over time.”
“[Of] working fathers in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or more were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth — including feeding, changing diapers, and getting up in the night.”
A recent analysis found only 14% of fathers in the U.S. take more than two weeks paternity leave even though 47% support other fathers taking leave.
Similar to the way in which companies incentivize employees to get annual health checkups (for example by contributing to employees’ HSAs once they’ve had their annual physical), provide employees with financial or time-off incentives after they’ve taken a minimum amount of leave time.
There’s many more large and small things companies can do.
Pay for interviewees' childcare so they can attend onsite interviews. Particularly with under-represented groups, lack of access to childcare may be keeping them from even interviewing.
Include flexible and part-time work schedules as part of the return-to-work discussion. Working women with children experience more stress than female colleagues without children: 18% more with one child, 40% with two. Flexible schedules and remote work have no effect on reducing chronic stress; however, lowering the overall number of hours worked does.
Provide a ramp-back period where parents work part-time and receive full-time pay to assist with transition. Ramp-back time could also include:
return to work coaching to support employees in rehearsing critical conversations with managers and colleagues;
sleep resources to help offset lowered productivity and impaired performance due to sleeplessness. The average newborn doesn’t begin sleeping through the night until 5 months if sleep-trained (longer if not), and sleep disturbance scores for new moms are similar to those of night shift workers;
manager coaching so managers can anticipate new parents’ needs and mediate common challenges before someone decides to change teams/employer.
Regularly check on parents’ and moms’ well-being. Typical insurers offer one doctor’s visit at six weeks’ postpartum for mothers in America, though this likely does not screen enough throughout critical periods after childbirth.
Women in America are now more likely to have babies in their 30s than in their 20s, and older women report more difficulty recovering from the physical demands of pregnancy and labor.
Postpartum depression may begin within 4 weeks after childbirth, or it could start as late as 3 to 6 months afterward and last beyond 12 months if untreated. It’s estimated 1 in 5 women experience postpartum depression.
Compete for caregivers. Provide Returnship programs for job seekers who left the workforce to care for family.
Support those who choose to breastfeed because it benefits moms, not just babies.
The American Association of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies for the first six months of life and as a complement to food up to 1 year (AAP) to 2+ years (WHO). This is not only good for baby, it’s massively beneficial to mothers: uterus returns to normal size and shape faster, lower incidence of postpartum depression, and reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
While 73% of women choose to breastfeed after giving birth, only 33% continue exclusively throughout the first three months largely due to incompatibility with full-time work. Women returning to work are more than twice as likely to quit breastfeeding than those staying home.
Mother’s rooms, breastmilk shipping benefits during work travel, and access to lactation consultants are musts. Periodically assess if employees feel outside pressure to drop scheduled pumping time before they’re ready.
To see what other companies in our industry are doing, check out Recode’s examination of the state of parental benefits in Tech. Of the 12 top companies surveyed, all but one have better gender diversity statistics than Google.
Thanks for reading, Cristina Tcheyan
While I didn’t hear back from the CEO, I did get a response from HR. They said supporting working parents is a priority, and that I’d shared some good ideas. I sincerely hope the development of programs and policies is underway.
The past several months being with and around my children throughout the day have felt right for me. I’d wanted to not only survive this time when they’re young, which will be over before I know it, but to really relish in it. In my case I was able to choose to be home with my kids, but, for many, working full-time or taking care of one’s children full-time is a financial necessity. In an era of record high corporate profits (U.S. companies earned $2.3 trillion last year), and absent federal policies, it’s time to push those that can affect actual change, today, to enable more choices for American families. Write your CEO.
This story originally ran on Medium.