In the past five years I’ve coached almost 400 female leaders, so it’s not surprising that I’ve worked with many top performers as they face the challenges that come with becoming a new mom. Some may have struggled with fertility issues, the emotions around getting pregnant, deciding how and when to share that news with their organization, or times where they have had to return to work with the responsibility of a little one at home.
In my own life, I struggled with all of these challenges too. I’ve faced heart-breaking fertility problems—processed privately without missing a day of work. I’ve apologized for missing meetings when I’ve had time-sensitive doctor’s appointments. When I finally celebrated a healthy pregnancy, I would often catch myself apologizing to clients for taking time off. I would promise them that I would still deliver great work—as if being a mom was a handicap to being a top performer. Then during the first four years of motherhood, I lost countless nights of sleep because of poor-sleeping babies. It’s not surprising that my performance at work suffered from poor sleep. Some days I felt like I was one big sorry mess of a woman—I was worried someone would realize that severe sleep deprivation was the reason why I was propping my head up with yet another large cup of coffee.
I was recently coaching a very thoughtful manager on how to support one of his top performers since she had returned from maternity leave. Instead of jumping to solutions, we explored some of the thoughts and feelings that a new mom might be facing. We talked about what questions he could ask to understand how she was feeling. Our conversation inspired me to collect this list of things my clients and I have personally felt in the early days of motherhood.
If you are a new mom, please read this list and know you aren’t alone. Your contributions to the world and to your child are so valuable. If you are a leader, please read this list and reflect on it as you look to support that new mom on your team. If you call yourself an “ally of inclusion,” share this list with others to help create workplaces that work for everyone.
From new moms to bosses
It’s different for moms than it is for dads and partners.
If you are a boss and have experienced life through the lens of fatherhood, just know our experience is similar but very different. Most partners are tired and overwhelmed, but there is a much larger impact from having a child for a new mom. Not only have new moms’ health and bodies changed dramatically, but these changes have impacted our identity and every expectation we have on ourselves. We feel the pressure that each motherhood decision has “life or death” consequences, even if babies are pretty resilient. We want our bosses to know that it may feel different for us than it did for you.
Just because we expect poor sleep with a new baby at home doesn’t mean it’s not a serious health issue.
Baby sleep deprivation is like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Since 1930, the United States has defined sleep deprivation as an illegal form of torture—some may find it curious why we don’t enforce this law when the perpetrators are only three months old. We want our bosses to know that we are doing everything to show up energized, but the sleep deprivation effects run deep. Flexibility helps. And please reschedule that 8:30 a.m. staff meeting!
We want so badly to prove to you that nothing about us has changed – but everything has.
We are still just as intelligent and capable as before the baby came, but our biggest fear is that you’ll lose faith in our abilities before we are done adjusting to this major life change. We want our bosses to know we are afraid that you will be as hard on us as we are on ourselves.
We are having an identity crisis.
Some moms love being a mom and fear that they may never want to work again. In contrast, other moms—like myself—fear that there’s something wrong when they crave the intellectual stimulation of their work over the intellectual challenge of trying to shower without hearing the screams of their teething 3-month old. It seems many moms feel some version of a pre-baby to post-baby shift from who they thought they were to who they are now. We want our bosses to be patient with us as we figure it out.
We’ve been brainwashed.
How many times do you hear great men deliver a motivational speech and yell, “I want everyone here to know that you can be a head hockey coach and have kids! You can change diapers and throw footballs! You can truly have it all!!” Yup, I’ve never heard that speech, and neither have you. But we tell women that message daily—you can have it all. And we can—but sometimes we can’t have it all at the same time. We want our bosses to know we want it all, but it may take some time to get there.
No one knows what we are going through, even though everyone thinks they do.
Strangely enough, when you have a child, so many of your peers, colleagues and leaders will reminisce about the days when they had their first child. They’ll take a walk down memory lane and tell you that they remember the wonder and the sleeplessness.
All of that said, they often don’t remember the intensity—mother nature does a beautiful job helping us forget how tough it was. I’m sure if the memories didn’t fade, there would be few children who would have a sibling. We want our bosses to know that we won’t tell you how tough things are because we don’t like to whine, but some days are really hard.
As we head back to work, no one is concerned about me – including me.
As a new mom heads back to work, she has three jobs; work, mom, and sleep when you can. Notice anything missing? Yoga is not on the list. Time with friends is not on the list. Taking an unrushed shower is not on the list. And yes, thankfully, we can often sneak in a few of these “me time moments,” but they are far and few in between. I remember grocery shopping becoming the new version of “me time.” Just getting to read nutrition labels without tending to a baby felt like a mini-vacation. We want our bosses to know that when they show they care about us personally, it helps us remember we matter.
We don’t know how to ask for help.
Top performers are never rewarded for asking for help, so it’s not something we are used to. To many of us, it feels like a form of defeat. As a top performer, we got through school and secured that great job in part due to our resourcefulness and dedication. We pride ourselves on knowing how to make things happen without asking for help. If we don’t know something, we dig through old emails or google them. It doesn’t work quite as well with a new baby. Nothing will ruin a good 90-minutes of restful sleep more than when you google that little bump on your baby’s arm and find 32 images of a similar bump caused by a poisonous praying mantis only found in Antarctica. We want our bosses to know that we might still need help, even if we say we don’t need it.
Some days I feel like I’m failing at everything.
High performers are used to being successful. These are the same ladies who got excellent grades, who often excelled at sports or music or other exciting hobbies, and they were the ones who made their jobs look easy. They had beautiful weddings with lovely vows – and they married partners with whom they thought were a perfect match. But when these same women bring a baby into the world, they can feel like they are failing as a mom and failing in their careers. Not to mention, months of sleep deprivation can take its toll on both partners—anger and resentment start to build, given that both tired parents feel they are giving more than they have to offer. We want our bosses to point out our successes and be patient with our failures.
Our bandwidth has changed.
The truth is, before the baby came, we could dedicate our whole selves to our jobs and partners and friends. And we are adjusting to the new reality that babies simply require a significant amount of time, attention and emotional real estate. We want our new bosses to see our value and our loyalty even if we can’t demonstrate the same level of attention at the moment. It won’t be long, and we’ll have more sleep and find our balance as mothers. And once that happens, just watch what we can accomplish!