Mothers’ transition back to work after maternity leave is intense. It can be strenuous for mothers as they navigate new routines, relationships, and even identities. As Daisy Wademan Dowling, founder and CEO of Workparent, stated, “reentry is a transition that’s like no other … everything is changing.” In the United States, reentry may be especially challenging due to the absence of federal support and, on-average, shorter maternity leaves than in other developed nations.
We know that mothers need support from their employers during this critical transition. Yet, our understanding of the impact of organizations’ support on mothers’ as well as their partners’ personal and professional lives is less clear.
In a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, we investigated perceived organizational support—a critical boundary-spanning, broad, and proximal resource—that can play an important role in alleviating parents’ home stress and influencing important work outcomes. In doing so, we sought to better understand how organizations can help dual-earner parents (i.e., households with two parents employed outside the home) successfully navigate the unique challenges associated with mothers’ workplace reentry.
Parents are a team–but, not equal team members
Given our interest in understanding the potentially far-reaching implications of organizational support, we carefully considered the interpersonal dynamics between mothers and their partners as they care for a new child. Dual-earner couples have unique relationships; yet, at their core they are a team. They are an interdependent dyadic unit who physically share a home and are psychologically intertwined. This means that not only do they share the care of their new baby, they also share the stress that can emerge when household demands are piling-up.
Digging more deeply into these team dynamics, we proposed and found supporting evidence for the notion that the mother was the critical member of the team during reentry. Mothers are expected to take the lead on child caregiving and managing the home, due to gendered social norms and pressures as well as physical capabilities associated with motherhood (e.g., breastfeeding). This distinction in team members is important because the critical member has more influence over the team’s experience. In the context of reentry, this suggests that when a mother feels supported by her organization to address the couple’s caregiving and home demands, both she and her partner will experience less home stress.
Supporting mothers matters in the home and beyond
Our study findings revealed that when mothers felt greater organizational support, they reported less stress at home. Moreover, the extent to which mothers felt supported by their employer also directly affected their partners’ stress.
Why should employers care if parents are stressed at home? Simply, home stress does not stay at home. We found that when mothers are not adequately supported by their organization, they are more likely to be stressed at home, and, ultimately, more likely to feel as if they cannot fulfill their work responsibilities due to their family demands. Work-family scholars call this family-work conflict and have found it can threaten mothers’ well-being and work performance. It can also prompt those around them (e.g., managers, coworkers) to question their ability to simultaneously be “good parents” and “ideal workers.”
Our study results also showed that when mothers report lower levels of organizational support, their partners are also more likely to feel stressed at home and, they too experienced more family-work conflict. Moreover, partners were also more likely to engage in deviant behaviors at work when the mother of their child was not supported at work. If parents engage in such behaviors, it can create hostile workplace relationships and damage their professional image.
What can organizations do to support caregivers?
Millions of couples in the United States need to navigate the critical transition of the mother’s return to work after the birth of a new child. Yet, many in society do not seem to appreciate the strain that this experience places upon mothers and their partners—as illustrated by casual descriptions of maternity leave as a “vacation” or absence of federal parental policies. Such characterizations dismiss the physical health challenges, emotional exhaustion, and identity shifts mothers and their partners often experience.
Reentry is not simply a mother’s issue. Rather, our research demonstrates that the extent to which mothers feel supported by their organizations has significant consequences for couples’ personal and professional well-being. Organizations can support mothers during reentry in a myriad of ways including showing appreciation for their goals, checking-in on their physical health, and offering work schedule options. The bottom line is that organizations need to make sure mothers feel valued for who they are and the work that they do. At the same time, managers should not assume what is best for mothers or simply apply templates of solutions that do not allow flexibility in terms of defining what it means to be a successful working mother. Additionally, our study broadly sheds light on the importance of organizational support and how it can be leveraged as a valuable resource for employees who are fulfilling critical members roles for their families.
Laura M. Little and Courtney R. Masterson. “Mother’s Reentry: A Relative Contribution Perspective of Dual-Earner Parents’ Roles, Resources, and Outcomes.” Academy of Management 2021.
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