Managing Motherhood: How to Help New Moms in the Workplace

Babson professor Danna Greenberg interacts with a student.

Ever find yourself in awe of a new mom who nailed her high-profile work presentation only weeks after returning to the workplace, marveling at her ability to “do it all?”

You might want to keep it to yourself.

Despite the kind intentions, complimenting mothers in the workplace for “doing it all,” is just one of the many loaded comments that can trigger unintended consequences, Danna Greenberg, Babson’s Walter H. Carpenter Professor of Organizational Behavior, said.

“We rarely tell a working father, ‘I don’t know how you do it all,’ so the comment reinforces this idea that it’s predominantly someone who identifies as a woman’s responsibility to ‘do it all,’ versus the family’s responsibility to do it all,” Greenberg said during a recent podcast interview.

“The comment can be undermining in a couple of other ways. A lot of women are doing it all, but most of us aren’t doing it all at the same time. So, some women may start to feel like they are an imposter, and the sense of fear and other psychological repercussions of imposter syndrome can set in. That can lead them to feel less than qualified as a professional, less than capable in the workplace,” she added.

Greenberg discussed her comprehensive research on mothers in the workplace and the book she co-authored with Jamie Ladge, Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths Through Work and Motherhood, during a podcast called Coaching for Leaders.

“I encourage managers, if you want to compliment someone, compliment them on their work, or ask them questions about home. But, you do not need to compliment them on their being a working mother,” Greenberg said.

While there are heaps of tips for mom’s balancing the office and motherhood, employers and managers do not receive as much guidance. They have an opportunity to connect with expectant mothers and clarify how they envision their transition back to work, Greenberg said. She shared a few tips to help managers and mothers ease the transition.

Don’t Assume Mothers Feel Guilty for Returning to Work

“We have a rhetoric, particularly in the United States, that the right way to mother is for a woman to dedicate herself fully—emotionally, intellectually, and timewise—to her child and if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing mothering right,” Greenberg said. “So, with that in the background, when a woman returns to work, there’s this sort of implicit assumption that she’s not doing mothering right, and she should and will feel guilty about it.”

Babson professor Danna Greenberg.
Babson Professor Danna Greenberg discussed her research on motherhood and the workplace.

Managers should be aware of their biases. If a manager expects that a returning mother feels guilty, even if they are trying to be supportive, “it can really backfire.”

“Maybe your employee wasn’t feeling guilty, and now they’re feeling guilty about not feeling guilty. As managers, we have to be attentive to some of the assumptions we bring to the conversation.”

No Two Mothers Are Alike

“So much of what gets written on this topic continues to fuel the idea of one size fits all. We have so many wonderful books out there on working parents and particularly working mothers. But, really, every person needs to look at their individual circumstances and figure out how they are going to put the pieces of work and family together.

It starts for many people with that first return to work period where they are first-time parents navigating the realities of having a job they love and having a family they love,” Greenberg said.

Connect Before Parental Leave

Starting the conversation early helps both employers and returning moms by bolstering a confident, productive workplace.

“As a manager, you might want to start by asking questions to try to understand what the other person needs. People feel really differently about returning to work,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg, who also serves as chair of Babson’s Management Division, said she recently connected with a member of the faculty who was about to go on maternity leave.

“I said, ‘Look, I am not going to make assumptions about what your maternity leave should look like. I want to talk to you and find out. Do you want me to check in? Would you rather have your time alone and not hear from your colleagues? Help me understand how we can best support what you envision.’ ”

Prepare for Change

Greenberg also suggests that managers arrange a time to check in after a month to see whether the agreed-upon plan still stands.

“During those first few months of a child at home that first year, things are changing incredibly rapidly. As a manager, being able to support somebody during those changes and figuring out how we ensure they feel like a member of the team—that is going to set the stage for that person feeling loyal to you as a manager and loyal to the organization. That boosts your ability to retain them. Taking the extra time to coach people upon re-entry usually benefits the team and benefits the organization as well as the individual.”

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