By Claire Zulkey
May 14th, 2017
Karen Tappin took a one-day maternity leave. It would have been shorter, if not for her husband. The day after her 2007 home birth, the founder and CEO of the beauty line Karen’s Body Beautiful put her daughter in a wrap and tried to leave for work, but she couldn’t find her keys: Her husband had hidden them. “He was like, ‘Really, Karen? I knew you were going to try to work. Let the baby take her first day in this world off.’” Tappin conceded, then took the baby to work with her the next day. Tappin’s daughter accompanied her mother to work throughout her babyhood. “It’s been a beautiful experience,” says Tappin.
There probably aren’t a ton of American working moms that would describe their work/motherhood experience as “beautiful.” Research has shown that a “motherhood penalty” results in working mothers being less likely to be hired, less likely to be perceived as competent at their jobs, and less likely to receive equal pay. And with the U.S. lagging behind many others in terms of support for new parents, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope right now for new policies to help working parents.
When the right support is available, many working mothers find that motherhood actually boosts their careers.
Here are some of the ways that working moms–those with access to family support or child care–find that parenthood makes them better at their jobs.
1. Motherhood Helps Grow A Bigger (And Better) Network
For many working parents, the school parking lot is full of potential contacts. Darlene English is the director of education and outreach for The Housing Center, a fair housing organization in Cleveland, as well as a freelance writer covering social justice. An outgoing person by nature, English realized that connecting with her parent friends at soccer practice, daycare and school was as important for her career as it was for finding resources for her children. “I’ve just been appointed to a couple of boards, including the ACLU of Ohio and a literary arts organization,” she says. “These directly came from the parents I knew from school.”
Sophia Yen, a Silicon Valley doctor and CEO of the family planning startup Pandia Health, thinks child-free people miss out on the parents’ network. After she had her first child in 2006, she bonded online with other mothers from the same cohort. “We were all buddies, commiserating together about the value of community and working and networking,” she says. Later, Yen netted a major resource for Pandia Health through the friend of a mom friend. “We have kids the same age, and she’s a headhunter for a major VC firm. Anytime I need to make a hire, I go to her.”
Catherine Merritt, the Chicago-based cofounder and CMO of FinnBin, has found that working mothers instinctively share both ideas and empathy. “When you look at working moms who are able to thrive, there’s a huge social impact level to their success. With [my first startup] I’d email people for advice, and even the CEO of Patagonia responded to me and let me ask her a few questions. I was so floored by that.” Now Merritt makes sure to pass it on. When she gets requests from other moms for advice, “I’m always happy to find time to help people. That’s also kind of inherently unique to mothers, this desire to lift people up.”
2. Parenthood Makes Moms Approach Their Work With More Purpose
Motherhood helped Katie Altemus, who handles software support for a Pennsylvania pharmaceutical laboratory, decide what she really wanted out of her career. Before she had kids, she worked as a client service representative, but then she took time off after the birth of her first son. During that time, she says, “I realized two very important things: I was not happy being a full-time parent, and when I re-entered the workforce, I had to find something that tickled my fancy intellectually.”
Now, Altemus is happy in a career where she doesn’t have to manage people, whose culture works for her, and is in line with her interests and personality. “It allows me to integrate science and technology, communication, triage, and investigation all in the course of a day,” she says.
Once her sons were in school, freelance writer Jennifer Gregory began to take dance lessons at her local YMCA in New Jersey. “I have an MFA in modern dance and choreography,” she explains. Dance got tabled in favor of a career and then child rearing, but with new time on her hands, Gregory rediscovered her passion for dance. After inquiring whether they were hiring, Gregory now teaches dance lessons at the Y. “Being a stay-at-home parent gave me the luxury of exploring my interests,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for motherhood.”
Yen also found the time to explore new opportunities once her children were school-aged. After completing medical school, her residency, and a fellowship, she had two kids. After years of enduring the schedules of a med student and a new parent, Yen was surprised and delighted by how much energy and time she had once her children were both in school. So she created PandiaHealth, her startup. “I discovered, ‘Oh my god, I have so much energy, I have so much time,’” she says, describing the company as her third child. “I don’t think I’d be willing to take that on if I hadn’t had kids.”
3. Motherhood Helps Maximize People Skills
Judith Levey, who worked in public relations for Coca Cola prior to joining the startup DesireList, says that parents have a leg up in the workplace when it comes to understanding differing perspectives and coming up with a plan of action. “When there are meetings going on, you can see the parents in the room, because they listen to other people’s perspectives. People who are used to dealing with conflict between children do better when dealing with conflict between adults, too.”
Once she became a mother, Danielle Dreger-Babbitt, a Seattle YA librarian and author, felt empowered to increase her workload and responsibility by going from a part-time to a full-time job. Her experiences handling her child gave her the confidence to make the move. “I think managing a toddler made me realize I could be an administrator,” she says. “Dealing with a 2-year-old’s personality makes me more patient with other people than I would have been before being a mom.”
4. Working Moms Are Skilled At Making More Out Of Less Time
Author and editor Rachel Bertsche Levine looks back at her time working at Yahoo! Parents wistfully. “I loved that job: It was a bunch of really smart women who valued their personal time. When we were there, we worked hard and smart to get the job done. There was no ego, no wanting to hear ourselves talk unless we were adding value.” Bertsche Levine thinks this efficiency can only come from people who realize that there is a limit to the time each day they are willing or able to work.
“People want to be successful and productive, but also want to go home and sign off, so if we had a meeting, we’d go through the action items, ask, ‘What are the takeaways?’ Then go and get it done. Everyone respected everyone’s time.”
When applying for her new library position, Dreger-Babbitt was confident she could make the time for the job. “Because I’m used to juggling a workload and a kid, I was able to take it on and not let any balls drop.” The same way that she spends distraction-free playtime with her son, “When I’m at work, I’m all in. I’m not worrying about anything at home. I know I have limited time to get everything done at work because I can’t stay late, so it causes me to really prioritize what I really need to get done.”
5. Working Moms Are More Confident In Their Abilities
Altemus found that advocating for herself got easier after she had children, “whether it meant requesting schedule adjustments to better accommodate life and finances, or burning out PTO hours on things like doctor’s appointments, or just saying no to an after-work gathering. All of those things got much easier to do, because I was honestly too tired to care about what anyone thought of me beyond if I got the work done well and on time,” she says.
6. Motherhood Can Bring Inspiration
Motherhood brought Catherine Merritt new ideas. After her first son was born, she sought to patent an insert that could turn any luxury purse into a diaper bag. The idea didn’t bear fruit, but the experience of starting her own business paved the way for Merritt to form Mumzy, a crowdfunding platform for entrepreneurial moms (which Merritt later sold). “Entrepreneurial traits–multitasking, prioritizing, risk analysis, [those are] inherent in moms,” she says.
7. Being A Working Mom Sets A Good Example For Kids
English is the first person in her family to attend college, and as a result, didn’t have many role models in her life. Parenthood, she says, has made her want to be a role model, especially to her daughter. “There’s something about having a daughter that makes me really want her to know you can do things and you shouldn’t be limited,” she says.
Yen once asked her daughter, “When you picture a CEO, do you picture a woman, man, or both?” Her daughter replied, “Both, but only because of you.” Says Yen, “As a parent, we’re affecting their view of the world.”