by Mary Beth Ferrante
The birth of my first child was a life-changing experience. Most parents likely agree with that statement. But beyond the inevitable shift in how I spent my day (diapers, spit-up, breastfeeding on repeat), there was another part of me that shifted significantly. Unlike the birth of my daughter, this change didn't happen overnight, it started to build within me, subtly at first and then overwhelmingly.
I had always thought of myself as someone who was a hard worker. I had aspirations to grow in my career and I rarely stayed in one role for more than a year, always up to take on a new challenge. Yet my career had been mostly directed at the hands of others, tapping me for new roles (which, of course, I'm grateful for) but I hadn't really taken a step back to determine if it was the career trajectory I wanted.
Work was important to me. Having a baby didn't change that. But it did change how I worked and why I worked. And so I embarked on the journey of entrepreneurship and building work that was more flexible and important to me.
Yet when I shared this news and my plans with many of my colleagues, I was often met with a comment such as, "Wow, that's great that you are going to be home with your baby." It's almost like they didn't hear the part about starting my own business.
Perhaps they didn't think I was serious, or perhaps they had their own assumptions of motherhood.
Whether we keep the thought tucked deep away in our minds or say it out loud, the vast majority of Americans agree that one parent should stay at home after the birth of a baby. According to Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends, a whopping 60% of Americans believe that a child is better off with at least one parent at home. Among those, nearly half feel a child fares better having the mom stay home. This sentiment underlies the gender bias that women encounter in the workplace. An article published by The Wall Street Journal reported an ongoing investigation at Wells Fargo, including a complaint filed against Jay Welker, president of the bank’s private banking and wealth management divisions who reportedly told executives that “women should be at home taking care of their children.”
It’s divisive, and bias beliefs like that contribute further to the arduous journey that women face when returning to work after having a baby. In addition to the instances where working mothers are asked to prove-it-again, we experience what’s called the “motherhood penalty” , where we receive a 4% decrease in pay per child, and are 79% less likely to be hired and half as likely to get promoted, when compared to an equally qualified woman without a child. Shelley Correll, then at Cornell University, also found that mothers in the workforce are rated as significantly less competent, less intelligent, and less committed than nonmothers.
When you’re pregnant, you field questions from family, co-workers, employers and even random people in the grocery store about whether or not you intend to return to work after giving birth. Regardless of your response, everyone has an opinion, and many don’t hold back. They regale you with stories of other pregnant women who have come before you and who have been stricken by “pregnancy brain.” Then you have the baby, and the topic suddenly turns to “mommy-brain.” They describe it like this almost fugue state where somehow you manage to keep another human alive and thriving, yet, you become forgetful, listless and unable to focus on anything else. In fact, a client recently disclosed that her manager (in front of her colleagues) insisted that science has proven that mommy-brain exists and that it must be increasingly difficult for her to perform her job.
This widely-held assumption eventually shifts to an assertion, where people genuinely believe that pregnant women and mothers will be unable to focus on and commit to work. They believe that women are less dedicated to their careers which reinforces and perpetuates the notion that women lose something after becoming mothers. But in reality, science is proving that we actually gain.
When I shared my manager that I was leaving to start my own company, he wrongfully assumed that I was going to be staying home with my baby and emphatically stated that I "must be so excited to be able to stay home." That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The moment we give birth, we welcome a new life into the world and, to many outside observers, it seems we lose our pre-baby selves. Our babies become our first priority, yes, but they’re not our only priority. Motherhood changes you, absolutely. But new research confirms that it changes you for the better. Moms don't leave their passion, ambition, and goals in the delivery room. In fact, for many moms, the opposite rings true. We are more driven to make an impact, to grow businesses, and to work for something that's bigger than ourselves.
As mothers, we build and enhance skills through parenting that enable us to be even more successful and better leaders. Through her research, Amy Henderson of Tendlab, “discovered that parenthood neurologically primes us to develop specific skills which are not only relevant but necessary, for success in the workplace of the rapidly approaching future.” Mothers bring a significant and scientifically proven set of skills to the office. For example, parenting increases emotional intelligence, which clues you into others’ feelings and provides a platform for mutual trust and understanding, which fosters the ability to collaborate well with others. Parenting teaches you that you must accept your children for who they are and adapt to their needs and wants. We, in turn, learn how to nurture the best in others at home and the office, which is a hallmark of any great organizer/leader.
For anyone still in doubt regarding working mothers’ ambition/commitment to their careers, I'll be highlighting stories of incredible women in our #Mombition series who are turning up their passion and wrecking the status quo. Thus proving that becoming a mom is an asset to their careers, not a detriment. I'll share stories of moms who are making it work both at home and professionally. The path to integrating motherhood and work is not an easy one. With this series, I hope to capture the true essence of what it’s really like for working moms across all industries. From corporate to freelance to entrepreneurs and more, I'm diving deep into the lives of these women and shedding light on both their struggles and triumphs. Please join me, as we embark on this journey, together.