Annick Mayer
May 12, 2024

Advertising is still failing moms

A survey of moms across the industry uncovered the ways they continue to be underserved and undervalued at work.

Annick Mayer, executive producer, Butter. (Photo credit: Butter, used with permission)
Annick Mayer, executive producer, Butter. (Photo credit: Butter, used with permission)

Our industry has made strides in the past decade on parental leave policies. But no one really talks about what happens while parents are on leave—and when they return. 

Ahead of Mother’s Day, I surveyed moms in the advertising industry—across disciplines, titles and sectors—about their experiences returning to work after childbirth. They had a lot to say.

I want to acknowledge that there are many ways to become a mother, but some of the issues discussed below mainly affect birthing mothers.

Parental leave policies need a refresh

This may not be a shock, but the US isn’t winning any awards for its parental leave policies. 

In fact, research analysing 41 countries’ policies found that the US stands alone in not mandating paid leave for new parents. All other countries require two months at minimum.

This allows businesses to set policies at their own discretion. Because men have historically held the majority of leadership roles, policies tend to reflect their lived experiences. If you have never cared for an infant full-time or experienced and recovered from childbirth, it is hard to wrap your head around why leave is so necessary for birthing parents. 

Becoming a new parent is also extremely complex. Helping new moms at your company navigate government programs like Paid Family Leave and Disability will take a huge burden off their plates.The system is incredibly confusing, so don’t leave sleep-deprived parents to try to figure it out alone. 

Four to six months is respectable. Anything less than three months is simply not adequate.

And please, don’t refer to parental leave as a break, vacation or time off. Calling it such is incredibly insulting and damaging to new moms’ experiences. 

The complexities of transitioning back to work

Upon returning to work, birthing mothers might require accommodations for pumping. Sitting may still be uncomfortable. Hormones will most likely be raging. Sleep? Forget about it. 

Still, most women say they did not receive additional resources or support upon returning from leave. 

There is a term for the transition into motherhood:matrescencePsychology Today notes that it sounds like adolescence, and both periods are “times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels and how they fit into the world.” 

As one woman I spoke with put it: “I wish people understood how difficult it is to leave one form of identity behind (in the corporate world) and transition into being a caretaker.” Imagine leaving work for a couple of months and returning a completely changed person, but no one talks about it or understands. It’s incredibly lonely.   

When I asked survey respondents if they experienced postpartum depression (PPD), most said “yes,” or “I think so.” I was also in the “I think so” camp for a while, but looking back, unequivocally, I had PPD. I was so inconvenienced, and worse, ashamed that I was struggling. I just wanted to feel normal again. 

One woman I spoke with said, “I realised maybe a year later that I had postpartum anxiety. It had a major impact on my return to work. I felt sidelined and marginalised and pushed out, and I didn’t know to this day how true that was.”

Another woman noted, “I did experience depression, though it wasn't formally diagnosed. Sleep deprivation and my body healing from a C-section made me isolated.” 

Employers must realise that there is a strong chance birthing mothers on your teams will be experiencing PPD or postpartum anxiety when they return to work. Ignoring this mental health issue is detrimental to your employees—and your retention rates. 

You can make the transition easier by being proactive and asking employees what kind of accommodations they need for pumping. It can’t be a bathroom, and don’t pressure them about how long it takes. If your employee has to travel for work, ask if they need accommodations for pumping, like Milk Stork, and cover it as a travel expense. 

New moms require boundaries and flexibility

Mothers returning to work will need to set new boundaries. This doesn’t mean they are working less; in fact, most mothers will tell you that becoming a mom makes them more efficient at work. But these benefits are not often seen or celebrated. 

One woman I spoke to, who was an associate creative director when she had a baby, felt she had to hide being a mom. “[I] never spoke about the baby or being a new mom to my bosses,” she said. “It was never explicitly said, but the underlying tone felt like, ‘Don't talk about it, don't acknowledge it. Don't let this seep into your life as a creative at all. You still need to be the same exact person you were with the same priorities (i.e. the agency first and foremost).’” 

Rather than viewing motherhood as an impairment, companies should value the unique skills moms bring to the table. Moms have no time to waste—they get the work done faster than before. Their multitasking skills will multiply. Their empathy will deepen. This is why you want moms on your team. 

Will they work differently than before? Yup. They may start and wrap up earlier to pick up their kid and get back online once their child is asleep. Employers must understand that moms need to work differently. 

Help new moms reprioritise by asking how their schedule might change, then provide the support they need to navigate it. 

Finally, assume your new mom colleague is going through some times. Ask them how they are doing. Check in. Give them grace and empathy. 

Most of all, don’t ignore the needs of new moms. Talk about it, and ask questions. Support moms— they are awesome. 

Annick Mayer is executive producer at Butter.

Campaign US

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