How to make parental leave the best experience for everyone

This blog is part of a two-part series that will discuss how Metis employee Mel Rubbelke prepared for parental leave. The second blog is how she is now handling the work-life balance as a new, first-time mother. 

It’s 6 a.m., I’m quietly clicking away on my laptop while my toddler is sound asleep next to me. I only have an hour before he wakes up.

It’s this normal morning scene (one that I adore) that has inspired me to write something that many might be struggling with, and not talking about: Parental leave and work-life balance for new parents.


Throughout my public relations and marketing career, I’ve had many titles, roles and duties – all rewarding in their own way – but nothing will ever hold up to the title I earned almost 19 months ago: Mom.

Lucky for me, I had a team who was excited for me and eager to help me during this transition. My former colleague at Metis, Rebecca Joyner, was a veteran foot soldier in the “mommy wars,” and I had the opportunity to have her as a resource when approaching parental leave and the work-life (and guilt) balance battle that followed -- read about her journey here.

But, not all are as fortunate as I was – and am.

In her article, Rebecca shined light on a situation that I hadn’t paid attention to until I was getting ready to transition into parental leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees to take 12 unpaid weeks away from work after the birth of a child. However it only applies to a fraction of employees and doesn’t mandate any paid leave or disability coverage.  

On the upside, more than ever before, companies are offering paid parental leave beyond the amount required by law according to the Society of Human Resource Management. Companies of all sizes, in all industries are finally realizing the value of this benefit that’s so important to their employees. In fact, a new report by Jobvite noted that 63% of Americans say that parental-leave benefits are important to them.

On the downside, and more surprising to me, only 21% of these workers have ever taken parental leave offered by their employer. Why? Turns out the paid benefits are not enough for leave, or there’s a fear of job loss.

Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma associated with parental leave. But here’s the important truth: Employees need to take parental leave in order for it to remain a priority benefit, and employers need to support this decision.

Years of research have revealed health and career benefits for both parents. And, when an employee feels taken care of during this transition, he or she is far more likely to return to the job feeling happy, loyal and driven to do well.

While having another child is not in my near (or distant) future, it is my responsibility to advocate for future colleagues, friends, clients and prospects to ensure they have the same, if not better, parental leave. 

So, if you have an employee, team member or even a customer who is getting ready for the biggest change in their life, here are some ways you can support them: 

Understand that it’s not a vacation.

“Enjoy your vacation,” was my favorite response when telling friends, former colleagues and others I interacted with when getting ready for maternity leave.

Spoiler alert: It’s not a vacation. Pro tip: Don’t say that it is. 

Sure, I was fortunate enough to be able to read, catch up on some favorite shows, and glance at my email now and then to ensure I wasn’t missing anything huge (my choice). But it’s far from a vacation.

 It’s a job. And, one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done.

Know the expectant parent (and your team) might be caught off guard -- and not prepared – like we were. 

My little lion decided to grace us with his presence earlier than expected – three weeks early. While we had discussed this as a possibility, the reality didn’t hit home until it actually happened.

And while we were already in the beginning stages of my transition, it was still an adjustment for the team. It sounds stressful, and I won’t sugar coat it: It was at first. However, while we were all a bit caught off guard, my team (a nimble and badass group), had my back. And I knew that.

The morning of the day I went into labor, I had started a project that was due 72 hours later. I hadn’t thought anything of it. Twenty-four hours later, I was a mom and my life had changed. My colleague (thanks, Justine Boucher!) had to step in and take on that project.

While I still probably owe Justine a drink (or three), I’ll always be grateful for her and the rest of my team for what they did in order to help make my leave as successful as they could. That’s what a healthy culture full of workers who feel valued do for each other.  

Check in on your team member who’s on parental leave. It’s likely they’ll miss you -- and work. 

Missing work sounds weird, right? That’s what I thought when old colleagues told me they missed work when they were on leave.

No one really knows what it’s like to be on parental leave until you’re on it. After less than a week, I soon found out that while parenthood is a truly beautiful thing, I was a little lost on who I was. 

I missed work. I missed going to spin and yoga classes with colleagues. I missed not being able to have real conversations with smart people every day. 

At the same time, I was doing the most emotionally exhausting – and at times extremely lonely – job of all.

I was lucky enough to have a group of supportive team members, who checked in with me often, who couldn’t wait to meet the newest member of the family, and even encouraged me (and the baby!) to go to our summer outing. I needed that.

I needed to hear the latest company wins -- I didn’t want to be forgotten. And, it’s likely your team member will need this nudge, too. Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind, so guide your team on what you feel is appropriate. Otherwise, they may really take it to heart not to bother you at all.

So, whether it’s asking your team member who’s on leave to grab a drink at a brewery or get a coffee, give them a reason to get out of the house so they know they’re still a valued member of the team. 

They’ll feel loved, valued and excited to come back and kick ass. 

While they’re out, document big news, in real time, so it’s easier for you -- and them. 

Everyone is different but there’s always a good chance that your team member out on leave will be lurking on company news or your team’s productivity software (we use Basecamp). I know I did. 

There’s a big chance your team member may want to check in and/or will be periodically checking emails throughout their leave. But it’s really the team’s job to document any big changes while their team member is out on leave.

Is there a new customer contact? Did you hire a new team member? Is your client getting ready for big news like an acquisition?  

Imagine yourself in their position and just assume they have no idea what’s been going on. Document the most important things (I’m talking Cliff’s Notes version) for their return. My team did this for me and I’m forever grateful. It not only allowed me to have a smooth transition on my first day back, I was more productive.

Interested in learning how you can make parental leave, or even remote work a positive experience for employees? Get in touch