It’s time for employers to stop penalizing parents who take paid family leave

The past two years have been a blur. I entered 2020 as the co-founder & co-CEO of theSkimm, and now in 2022 I’m also a mother to a 23 month and 4-month-old. I utilized theSkimm’s paid family leave benefits both times and it has made me a better leader, teammate, and more passionate human. 

As theSkimm evolved, my co-founder & co-CEO, Carly Zakin, and I always wanted our core values to be a part of our business model–to create real impact while having perspective, and while our mission is to empower generations of informed, confident women and to make it easier to live smarter, this also means doing the same for our employees. We believe in benefits that not only support our team but a culture where they feel empowered to utilize them. Having a staff of mostly women and being female leaders, we recognized the importance of paid family leave early on and are proud of the policy we have–18 weeks for all parents (which we updated to no longer distinguish between primary and secondary caregivers), as well as leave for pregnancy loss. And for parents who have a child in the NICU, leave doesn’t start until after the child comes home.

Related: This study proves that paid parental leave benefits moms’ health—for decades

We have heard so many devastating stories about the lack of paid leave through theSkimm’s #ShowUsYourLeave initiative. Having created an expansive and inclusive policy—one long before any of our employees needed it—we felt it was important for us to transparently share ours to highlight what companies are offering. More than 550 businesses joined us (theSkimm’s #ShowUsYourLeave database). 

While it’s great to see this progress, it’s also time to stop penalizing parents who utilize these policies and start supporting them when they do. “86% of companies say it’s “very or extremely” critical that managers support their team members’ well-being, but only 25% formally recognize those who do,” according to a Leanin.org survey. With working mothers being nearly a third of the female workforce in the US (as of 2020), employers can no longer ignore the struggles of millions of women. Paid family leave is imperative to getting women back to work, and women in the workplace is beneficial to everyone, especially the business. (P.S. Dads taking paid family leave is crucial, too.)

Related: Dear employers of dads—it’s time to make a change

As a co-founder, when I became pregnant with my first child, I struggled with whether I actually could or would truly step away for 18 weeks and take the leave that I had championed. And if I did, what that would mean for me, my co-founder, and our business. I knew that I didn’t want to perpetuate the narrative that “women can do it all” and also wanted to normalize taking paid leave. I also knew that having a baby would be a huge change for me physically and emotionally. I am fortunate to have a support system, yet I struggled with feeling that meant I should sacrifice this time with my family or the time to heal physically. Powering through this major life change is not something we as women or leaders should be striving for.

With Carly’s support, we both decided it was important for me to fully utilize the policy we had helped put in place. Not only did I want to spend this time with my family and get accustomed to this new role as mom, but I recognized the importance of leading by example.

Here are 5 things I learned in the process of taking paid family leave:

1. It made me a better leader

We know the world doesn’t stop and neither does business, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give our employees peace of mind when they step away. As a co-founder, this company has been such a big part of my life for a decade. I thought I would want to stay updated and in the loop. But once I gave birth to my first child, I felt differently, especially when I struggled with postpartum anxiety.

I also realized part of leading means encouraging our employees to feel empowered in their roles. Trust goes both ways, and I had to trust them to keep things moving while they had to trust that I knew they could. There’s a lot of juggling as a new parent, so this trust goes a long way when building confidence across the company.

And having gone through my own struggles with postpartum anxiety, that also gave me another level of understanding and empathy as a manager. I needed that time to recuperate, learn my new role as a mom, and feel confident and clear headed for decisions I needed to make once I returned to work. Being a new mom taught me to expect the unexpected, while taking my leave allowed me the time to re-adjust my mindset. 

2. It made me a better teammate

Carly and I are friends, and we built theSkimm together as equal partners since the very beginning. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we work as a team when making big business decisions. She wanted me to feel at ease taking this time away and I wanted her to feel confident making decisions on our behalf. It’s crucial to have an understanding of how your team is feeling to alleviate some of the pressures they may feel during this time and set them up for success.

Carly and I worked closely together on setting up a structure and plan the first time I was out. We didn’t bring in anyone to cover for me, so we discussed the top priorities, what I did and didn’t need to weigh in on, and who from the Executive Team could support Carly where needed. And then we re-adjusted based on our needs the second time–managing some of my own expectations of when I would be offline and when I wanted to be updated. We also discussed what the most effective transition back plan looked like that would eliminate any stress and anxiety for both of us. Coming back to my full-time role, on day one we did a re-onboarding where I could listen in, and then I shadowed Carly the first few weeks. We saw the value in me being able to assess the business with fresh eyes, while not feeling overwhelmed immediately jumping back in.

Related: 8 working moms share how they find work-life balance

Setting up these goals and plans alleviates some of the pressure parents feel when disconnecting, shows the value they’re adding to the business, and increases employee morale and retention.

3. It made me a more passionate human

I’ve experienced a lot of highs and lows in my career. But becoming a mother brought a new set of challenges. I realized that the reality of what I thought I wanted before becoming a mom (absolutely no change in my career, same path and routine…just with a baby) and what I want now (flexibility, dedication to my work, and quality time with my family) are quite different. 

I now seek out even more meaning and efficiency in the hours spent away from my kids, which is for the majority of my day to day–a reality most working parents can relate to. I feel even more impassioned to show my boys what strong women do and create, and to continue advocating for women to have the information they need to make decisions right for them. I spent a lot of time worrying about what would change once I had kids, but I didn’t understand that the change could bring more passion to my career, instead of taking it away (and I’m fortunate that this passion can be central to my professional role). 

Related: Why are women expected to work like they don’t have children and mother like they don’t work?

4. I stopped feeling like I had to do it all

During this time, I realized I couldn’t do it all, didn’t want to do it all, and above all, shouldn’t feel like I have to. Adjusting to this new role of working parent doesn’t happen overnight and the expectation it does is just not reasonable. 

It also helped me embrace and value transparency even more. I have always been a private person, but I thought it was important to share my experiences–the good and bad–because if one other person is going through it, they will know they are not alone. Being able to open up gave me a sense of vulnerability and empathy.

5. A strong family leave policy can be a difference maker in this market

Businesses are struggling to keep strong talent, the market is highly competitive, and expensive. Do not overlook the value of a comprehensive family leave policy in attracting talent–or in being a motivator for people to grow with your company. It should no longer be looked at as a perk but a necessity for all employees: moms, dads, non-binary parents, adoptive parents, and anyone else who is a caregiver. Offering access to paid family leave is good for your people and that means it’s good for your business. 

As a society, we need women to participate in the economy. If we don’t want a declining birth rate, it’s in all of our collective interests to support families. Paid family leave is a lever that we can pull now. What’s truly surprising is that taking leave is not yet normalized across companies. People need support. They need time to care for their families and loved ones. It’s time we normalize companies of all sizes having an expansive paid family leave policy that includes encouraging employees to take it–and business leaders supporting them and walking the walk.

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