I am a mom, a business owner and a wife. I’ve lived through the corporate rat race, three C-sections, Stage 1 cancer and a surprise pandemic pregnancy. People who know me generally describe me as someone “who has it all together.” And still, this past year almost broke me—and every woman I know.
Seven years ago, after just five weeks of maternity leave, I dropped off my seven-pound firstborn daughter at daycare. Walking away from her big, blue, almond-shaped eyes was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I got in my car, sobbed all the way to the office, and then wiped the tears from my eyes as I walked to my desk, in three-inch heels and skirt suit, as if it were just another Tuesday. Every day at 6 p.m., I’d rush home, cursing the traffic, and if I was lucky, I’d get one hour with my newborn before rocking her to sleep.
That first day of daycare drop-off changed everything for me. To be clear, I’ve always wanted to work outside the home, and I am extremely fortunate to have a career that I genuinely enjoy. I also love daycare and so do my kids. I’ve appreciated having a village to help raise my children and am eternally grateful for those who have poured their hearts into our family. But on that day, feeling completely powerless over my schedule, I vowed that by the time my daughter entered kindergarten, I would have the ability to pick her up from school each afternoon and reminisce about her day over an afternoon snack.
Eighteen months later, my second daughter arrived. This time, I was able to take 11 weeks off, but on week 12 I found myself once again loading my screaming infant and toddler in the car, now wrestling with double the car seats, baby gear and pacifiers than before, with spit up running down my neck, flustered and angry on my way to daycare drop-off. Then I’d drive to work, park my car and again walk in, as if all of this was completely normal.
Colleagues at work said things like, “I don’t know how you do it.” And for some reason, I chose to keep up the facade and let them believe it was all so easy. I suppose I didn’t want to be perceived as weak, which seems so silly now.
Three more years ticked by as my husband and I worked 12-hour days, climbed the corporate ladder and finally saved enough money so I could take a chance and start my own business. Eventually in 2019, I kept my vow and picked up my daughter from her first day of kindergarten, and have had the option to, every day after.
At the time, becoming an entrepreneur was the only path I saw to being able to have the career I wanted and be present for my children. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I recognize that starting a business is a privilege not afforded to all women, although this is changing, especially among women of color. While it’s certainly not a level playing field, it’s encouraging that minority women are launching businesses at a much faster rate than their white counterparts and now control 44 percent of women-owned businesses in the US, up from 20 percent in 1997, according to Census data. However, not everyone wants to start a business. Many women want to remain in their jobs, but their jobs are making it increasingly difficult for them to do so. This past year has proven to be exceptionally hard on working moms and the employment numbers tell a grim story: 2.5 million women voluntarily exited the workforce in 2020, setting women back decades in the workplace and stalling economic progress that we have fought so hard to enjoy.
New data suggests that 62 percent of women would rather quit their jobs than go back to the way it was. Juggling babies at morning drop-off, virtual schooling, shedding tears in cars or on public transit, and faking smiles all to make an early meeting that could have been an email (or Zoom) is just no longer appealing.
Three years into owning a company with a predominantly female workforce, I’ve learned a few things about what it’s going to take for women to stay in the workplace. Of course, real change must happen at the systemic and policy level with paid family leave, access to benefits, childcare stipends, etc. But in the meantime, here is what else employers can do:
Provide Unlimited PTO. I’m not talking about unlimited maternity leave (though the government and businesses should strive to offer 16 weeks of paid leave to all parents). I am talking about paid time off so women can care for their families: take their kids to the doctor, attend basketball games and yes, even use an hour to pick them up from school in the afternoons. When you trust someone with the freedom to live a full life, they perform better and are more satisfied, leading to more satisfied customers. And if you can’t trust your employees to put in 40 hours a week, they shouldn’t be working for you in the first place.
Give Life Moment Bonuses. Many companies and small businesses offer performance bonuses. But what about life’s big achievements and moments? No one looks back on their life and remembers the time they met their sales goals. They remember when their son or daughter got married or when they reached their 10-year marriage anniversary. Employers should offer life moment bonuses, whether large or small, to show employees they are valued as a whole person.
Embrace Work Flexibility. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can work from home and be just as productive—if not more. It’s not possible for all roles and jobs, but when it is, allow employees flexible work options. Employees have non-work commitments and employers should have an interest in accommodating them, especially after workers have proven their ability to be highly productive in very difficult circumstances like the recent global pandemic. For parents, some of the biggest stressors are that the school day is shorter than the work day and school vacations are longer than annual leave. By supporting employees with more flexibility to get their work done outside the traditional confines of an office, employers can help mitigate the childcare conflicts so many families face, which as we all know, has typically fallen on women to bear the brunt of this problem.
Provide Mental Health Support. I don’t know many working parents who don’t need a little support from time to time. The modern demands of parenthood and 24/7 work cycles, compounded with today’s global stressors like racism, an unpredictable economy and a toxic political landscape, are weighing heavily on moms. We are more worried and anxious than ever. Access to mental health support can be as simple as offering monthly stipends for apps like Headspace, Better Help or even a massage membership.
It’s been seven years since that first day of daycare drop-off for my teeny five-week old. She is now in first grade and has a quiet spirit and a kind heart. I will always wonder if she remembers those hard days or my tears dropping on her little cheeks as I rocked her to sleep. Her wild and independent little sister is now in kindergarten enjoying science experiments and cutting her own hair. And the pandemic, against all odds, brought us another little baby girl. She is three months old and has never known the way it used to be. She hasn’t known a frantic mother during the morning commute, muting her cries on the car Bluetooth conference calls. Instead, it’s 9 a.m., and she is napping peacefully in her room, while her mom presents to a client’s shareholders, via Zoom, from the room down the hall. This is the world I hope she inherits and the world I am committed to helping create.
Lauren McKinnon is the founder and CEO of Project Mockingbird, a communications agency championing social impact brands. In the spirit of the mockingbird, gathering with other mockingbirds to collectively build a unified voice to create change in their environment, Project Mockingbird is harnessing the power of women in the workforce to change our world for the better through the Mockingbird Network of public relations and communications freelancers.