Mar 11, 2021 - Economy

"Returning" from maternity leave during the pandemic

Illustration of a woman with a baby strolling facing a door that reads work

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The isolating and emotionally crippling shift back to work after having a baby during the global pandemic threatens to drive a cohort of new moms out of the workforce.

Why it matters: 1 in 4 women are thinking of downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, according to data from McKinsey and Lean In, and experts say the risk is higher for mothers trying to return to work without the support systems and child care options they may have had pre-pandemic.

Quick take: Last month, I came back to work after taking time off to care for my daughter, who was born eight weeks premature. She is my third child, so I thought I knew how to manage the transition. Boy, was I wrong.

  • I didn't anticipate how hard it would be to go into work mode when my "office" is a few feet away from her crib. I miss the support of other moms that I would have seen at the office. Or even a "welcome back!" from colleagues who, in a remote world, may not have even known I was pregnant in the first place.
  • I'm no stranger to the anxiety of being a working parent. But during a pandemic, there's zero margin for error when it comes to finances, staying healthy and the logistical game called "child care Tetris."
  • For moms like me who suffered from severe postpartum depression, the loneliness of maternity leave followed by the loneliness of more remote work can make trying to return to "pandemic normal" feel like crawling out of a deep, dark hole.

What they're saying: I asked other women at Axios who'd come back from maternity leave during the past year about their experiences.

  • One told me she feels like she's caught in a "bubble of stress" now that she's back to work after having her second baby. Logistics of fitting it all into one day — with both a toddler and infant mere steps away — are exhausting.
  • Going back to "remote" work makes moms feel invisible, which is deflating for exhausted moms grasping to find their faded work identities.
  • Another told me she and her husband talk about the two full-time jobs they both juggle: Taking care of the baby and household — and then doing their own full-time day jobs. "So even if we do a job and a half each, we're still falling short by a whole job," she said. "And the baby cannot be compromised on."

"The issue with the system is, at best, it's not set up to support working mothers or working families, and at worst it really works against them," said Danna Greenberg, professor at Babson College and co-author of "Maternal Optimism," on a Harvard Business Review podcast on the topic.

  • Humans crave routines, and those are hard to come by these days for working families, she said. It's also impossible to have "layers of child care" that working families rely on because of health concerns and school closures.

To be sure: We are among the lucky ones — we work for a company that provides paid maternity leave. In March 2018, only 17% of civilian workers had access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • The financial burden on parents trying to care for a newborn with no paid leave during a pandemic is enormous.
  • Early indicators already suggest a pandemic "baby bust," with women rethinking having kids during this stressful time.

Between the lines: Working moms have had to lower their standards at home and work. And moms returning from the maternity-leave trenches are often forced to lessen the work load even more to keep the balls they juggle in the air, which can delay career advancement.

  • Women who don't ease up risk hitting a breaking point and possibly having to leave the workforce for a while, significantly cutting into their family's financial security for years to come. That has broader economic ripple effects, too.

The bottom line: If more and more working moms drop out, it's harder to re-build the pipeline of senior talent so many companies are looking for, Greenberg said.

Go deeper