The office was abuzz with anticipation... and a little bit of trepidation. Since the merger of three tech companies, our newly formed teams had faced a few different waves of big announcements and changes, most of which were hard: people coming and going, roles shifting, changing business goals.
But this announcement promised to be different. The new, global benefits package was finally being revealed, and it would cover everything from health insurance to the time off policies.
The tech start-up I had started with had a generous unlimited PTO policy, but no formal promotion or review process. The larger company offered a professional development fund and wellness reimbursement, but they had a pretty archaic approach to time off (read: accrual-based time off). There had been rumors for weeks about which policies would survive and make it into the global handbook.
When the new handbook arrived in my inbox I immediately did a quick search for the words “maternity leave”. Weird. Nothing popped up. I tried “parental leave”. Also nothing.
As I frantically scrolled through the large document, my stomach started cramping. I realized my worst fear as an 8-weeks pregnant working woman was coming true: I was working for a company that had no maternity leave policy.
My experience isn’t unique.
Unfortunately, I know that my experience has been felt by other working moms (and dads!) The U.S. is one of seven countries without national paid maternity leave, And even within the U.S., parental leave policies vary wildly from state to state.
As discouraging as it may be that the U.S. is lightyears behind the rest of the world when it comes to maternity leave, it doesn’t mean that women are powerless. We absolutely can and should insist on maternity leave policies that work for us.
I won’t lie to you. My path to parental leave was paved with awkwardness, confusion, and even a little hostility, but it did ultimately lead to change. I’m hoping that in sharing my experiences and approach to helping negotiate a new maternity leave at my workplace, you feel empowered and supported on your journey to becoming the best working mom you can be.
6 strategies for securing a maternity leave policy (and lessons I learned along the way).
1. Try going through the proper channels to gain clarity and clear up any miscommunication.
After I triple-checked that we didn’t have a maternity leave policy in the company’s new handbook or in any other internal document, I reached out to a general HR email address. I was directed to a new HR rep, and we met about this incredibly important and sensitive topic...on her second day on the job.
In our initial meeting and follow-up emails, I received conflicting information, which wasn’t surprising given how new she was to the company. Since I had previously worked with the Head of Talent at the company that was acquired, I requested a meeting with her. She canceled the meeting five minutes after it was scheduled to start.
I was ultimately told that maternity leave planning was at the discretion of each departmental manager. I had an amazing manager, but we both admitted that we needed more direction from HR.
Lesson learned: Going through the proper channels gave me a paper trail and gave me the confidence I needed to escalate the issue.
2. Choose a support system that works for you, personally and professionally.
Part of why I was fighting so hard for maternity leave was because I had friends and colleagues confide in me that they were expecting a child or their partners were expecting. At one point, I thought “there’s power in numbers,” and I considered asking a few trusted co-workers for their support. But I also didn’t want to put anyone in an awkward position, and I didn’t want it to appear like I was planning a mutiny.
After a lot of thought, I decided not to tell anyone at work of my plans to push for parental leave, but I was lucky to have external support from my husband, my mentor, family, and former colleagues.
I also truly believed that the leadership team was capable of change and growth, even if I was disappointed in the lack of diversity and narrow vision seen in the current lack of parental leave. If I didn’t believe change was possible, I probably would have involved other colleagues who shared my concerns.
Lesson learned: Only you can decide what support system you’ll need as you work to advocate for yourself and others. You can’t and shouldn’t do it alone.
3. Connect with the decision-makers directly.
After going through the proper channels didn’t work, I felt that I had a case to request maternity leave directly from the company’s biggest decision-makers: the executive team. The decision to write an open letter came easily since I’m a writer, and I’m comfortable with that format. But it was also practical.
I knew there was no way I could get all the executives together for an in-person meeting; I didn’t want my message and voice to get lost in a game of telephone; and I was also committed to documenting all my interactions as I went through this process.
I had the people in my support system read the letter before I sent it, and then I shipped it just as I was walking (or strutting) into one of my regular pregnancy check-ups.
Lesson Learned: I learned how to write a letter that affects change. Here’s the exact letter I wrote to the executives. The company’s name has been redacted.
4. Be prepared for a mixed response
The executive board was all men with the exception of one woman, so I steeled myself for responses that ranged from silence to animosity, even though I hoped for a positive reaction. After sending the executives my letter via email, I heard back from the CEO and Head of Talent almost immediately. It was a short response of acknowledgment that said they would review my letter with the leadership team.
I also had two executives send me a personal Slack message expressing their full support. They urged me to reach out to them if I didn’t receive a helpful response by the next day. Male advocates do exist!
I didn’t hear anything from a couple of leaders that I had personal interactions with in the past that I thought for sure would support me. The lack of any communication from these colleagues was probably what stung the most.
Eventually, I did have a call with the Head of Talent who I had a working and personal relationship with before the acquisition. She explained why there had been a delay in an official policy (they were building a robust parental leave policy that allowed paid leave for fathers, parents of adopted children, etc.), and I don’t doubt her sincerity. I really did try and assume the best of everyone involved, and I’d like to think that belief brought out the best in leadership and in myself.
But the call came a little too late, and I remained firm in my request for an official maternity leave policy as soon as possible.
Lesson learned: Holding people accountable is awkward and a little contentious. Press on despite opposition, and thank the people who decide to walk alongside you.
5. Know your limits before you start this process.
Honestly, I had no idea how this insistence on maternity leave would turn out. Looking back, I felt so full of justified rage, I didn’t stop and think about how this could end up until after I started the process.
But, eventually, I had to ask myself if I would be ok if they ignored me? If they fired me? If they made my working environment miserable?
I wasn’t in a financial position at the time to simply quit if the letter had received a negative response. But I started making plans to resign from the company after I had the baby if they ignored me or became hostile.
Thankfully, one week after my phone call with the Head of Talent, a new parental leave policy was announced on an all-company call. 12-weeks fully paid leave for mothers, 9-weeks fully paid leave for fathers.
Lesson learned: If you’re going to confront leadership with a tough topic, you have to prepare to leave (or be asked to leave) if the situation turns toxic.
6. Remember: you’re doing what’s right.
This was one of the hardest, most uncomfortable, scariest things I’ve done in my life.
It was hard seeing leaders I had respected speak to me with disappointment. But I was disappointed, too. And if you put people from different backgrounds and experiences together long enough, you’re bound to experience a little disappointment from time to time..
The guiding mantra that kept me going despite all my discomfort and fear was this: Before we’re employees, we’re women, daughters, sisters, and mothers. No matter how difficult it gets, please know you’re doing the right thing, despite the outcome.
Lesson learned: Change doesn’t happen unless someone raises their hand and asks for it. And if your current workplace doesn’t support working moms, I promise there are organizations out there that do. Editor’s note: Check out Companies Hiring on Elpha with 12+ Weeks of Paid Maternity Leave.
Help create maternity leave policies made for and by new moms.
If I can negotiate a maternity leave policy, so can you! Advocating for yourself and your family is possible with a support system and a plan that works for you. It can even bring out your strongest, most confident self (after a bit of anxiety and self-doubt, of course).
I encourage everyone to read their company’s parental leave policies. If you don’t like what you see, draft one you think is appropriate and share it with HR. The worst they can say is “no,” and you could gain a maternity leave policy that makes you and your child’s physical, emotional, and mental health a priority.