We need to change the conversation around motherhood and work

Motherhood, by definition, is all-encompassing. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that defines you. I’m an entrepreneur, and I’m always pushing boundaries. I’m also a mother.

Let me say that again. I’m also a mother.

While I love my sons fiercely, motherhood is not my only defining trait. Like many mothers, I am so much more. We’re badass career women, dreamers, creators, partners, homemakers, business builders, mentors, and leaders. The role of “mother” is one I’ll never outgrow, but I’ll always remember that there was a point when all of us were something else. It’s something that society often forgets when we become a mom.

The challenges of being a mother today

Some things will never change about motherhood. But many things make 2019 a different time to be a parent than previous generations. For starters, we have more tools and information at our disposal. In the U.S., we have more laws in place to protect our time while pregnant, take leave from work, and breastfeed than in previous generations. But we still lag behind the rest of the developed world, and those rights don’t speak to the core of the challenges inherent for mothers, especially those that choose to work.

The isolation and identity shift that come each time a mother has a baby has a profound impact on her life.  As an entrepreneur in the parent-tech space, I am fortunate to hear from moms and dads alike about their experiences navigating newborn and infant feeding. I’ve listened to moms whisper about why their job wouldn’t accommodate pumping milk, which forced them to stop breastfeeding before they were ready. I’ve spoken to moms who are on mute during work conference calls so that their coworkers wouldn’t hear the whir of the pump on the background. I’ve also heard dads talk about cleaning pumping parts or hearing the noise emanating from offices at work.

For others–the “lucky” ones who’ve cobbled together an arrangement that works– it’s an ongoing series of hacks. The challenges are universal and affect women at all income levels, though there is undoubtedly a considerable disparity between women in blue collar and white collar jobs. Even stay-at-home moms often choose to isolate themselves during pumping time, and we shouldn’t minimize or ignore the effort and strain involved in this forced isolation.

We’ve made progress, but we still have a lot of work to do

Despite the progress in paid parental leave law and offices adding lactation rooms, moms who breastfeed still face a stark gender pay gap. Moms give up breastfeeding because they can’t find time to pump on the job. Some moms speak up about breastfeeding rights and face retaliation, or even lose their jobs.

We need to make the motherhood experience better for moms. For too long, we’ve overlooked the fact that moms are people too–with unique needs–and a fully formed person from well before they had children. Here are three ways we can do that.

1. We need to shift the conversation

What’s working for moms and what isn’t? What support do moms need to make the choices they want? If moms want to breastfeed and keep working, what is holding them back? Do the right tools even exist yet? Are we doing all we can to ensure advances in technology are reaching every woman?

The challenges around breast pumps weren’t even really part of the conversation before 2014. We’ve made plenty of progress since then, but there is still a massive opportunity to do better. Statistics help and uplifting stories do wonders for the soul, but we need to continue to raise our voices on these topics. More importantly, we can’t leave this work and conversation to mothers alone. There are real-world impacts here, in terms of societal benefits, economic improvements, and something that has the potential to impact an entire generation. There is plenty of evidence that shows how offering paid parental leave helps companies retain and attract the best people. Creating a culture that is inclusive to all employees–including working mothers–makes companies more innovative.

2. We need to focus on meeting the needs of moms

I know I’m biased because I run a company that is building new parent-tech products, but we need to stop making outdated assumptions about mothers. Companies also need to ask moms what they actually want before designing products for them.

Let’s take the breast pump as an example of a piece of technology that isn’t getting the job done. No one wants to hear the whir of the pump through cubicle walls or over the phone, and not everyone wants to strip down in their workplace. A quiet pump, controllable by an app, with a small enough breast shield to fit in a nursing bra, goes a long way toward easing that experience.

3. We need to stop seeing parenting as a mother’s issue

Parenting should concern dads, partners, grandparents, workplaces, healthcare experts, and legislators. There are many issues surrounding parenting that transcend party lines: returning to work, childcare, feeding, and work-life balance. We can’t isolate mothers as the ones to be the primary beneficiaries and victims here. Too often, we minimize the experience of dads and partners. Creating better products for mothers helps the entire family–as does closing the pay gap between working mothers and working fathers. If we want more parents to feel supported in their choices during the early childhood years, then we have to deepen the pool of people who feel invited to sit at the decision-making table.

We’re living in an age of unprecedented flow of information and adaptation of technology. More people feel empowered to come up with creative solutions to the obstacles of parenting. But we can’t do it alone. To make significant progress, we have to work together and change the conversation. That means seeing mothers as more than just mothers, and acknowledging that their identity outside of being a parent is just as important.

Samantha Rudolph is the cofounder and CEO of Babyation

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