Returning to work for new mom Serena Williams meant hitting the tennis court for the French Open in May 2018. That day, she won her first Grand Slam match against rival Kristyna Pliskova from the Czech Republic. But first, Williams made headlines for sporting a catsuit.
The catsuit represented more than a fashion choice. Williams was coming back strong—and specifically, as a mother. She tweeted: “All the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce...that’s what this represents. You can’t beat a cat suit, right?”
Of course, returning to work after having a baby, and thriving, is much harder than simply donning an outfit that makes you feel powerful. There’s an expectation that you’ll be as good and as productive as you were before, even when you have fewer hours in a day to claim as your own and a host of new logistics to manage. There’s also the myth that so many mothers rub up against: that they won’t be.
There's an expectation that you'll be as good and as productive as you were before, even when you have fewer hours in a day to claim as your own and a host of new logistics to manage. There's also the myth that so many mothers rub up against: that they won't be.
That myth is exactly what Amy Henderson, mother of three and founding CEO of Tendlab is working to dispel. Henderson has by now interviewed more than 200 working mothers, most of whom are in executive or leadership roles, to uncover the keys to their success. Early in the process, one mother admitted: “I feel like it’s the greatest hoax out there that no one tells you how hard it’s going to be when you become a mom.” Add to that: a working mom.
“Her thinking was that women don’t tell each other how hard it is because they’re afraid it undermines their credibility,” Henderson explained. “If she talked about how hard it was for her, and how much she struggled, she feared she would be seen as less professionally competent. There was no empathy there. In her mind, there was no sisterhood.”
The interviews led Henderson to research how parenthood affects performance and she learned something vital for any working mother to know: Parenthood is good for the brain. Like, really good.
Tendlab’s mission is to give the cursed “mommy brain” a new meaning, which is that parenthood may actually be the cloak that helps each of us uplevel and outperform our pre-parenting selves.
Tending to working mothers
I met Henderson in one of Tendlab’s “experiential workshops” for career moms. Together with Abby Sommerfeld, a teacher and coach based in San Francisco, Henderson creates a space for working moms that is part workshop and part group therapy. Around a large boardroom-style table, over lunch, women from a handful of Bay Area tech companies—and mothers to children of all ages—found ourselves unexpectedly sharing things about our home and work lives that we weren’t, maybe, quite prepared to share.
That’s probably because the first thing that Henderson and Sommerfeld provided was time and dedicated space to focus on our personal challenges and satisfaction levels, to examine how we spend our time, and to recognize what we need more of to be more successful. It’s a space designed to get real, even to name a moment when we were each a shitty parent. Because we all have them.
“Our culture doesn’t give voice to the rapid, intense, fierce, beautiful, and sometimes terrible thing that happens when you become a mom,” Henderson says. “Because motherhood is all of that. It’s a disorienting and intense shift, and it affects a woman’s sense of self.”
I was curious about Henderson’s research, and also suspected that I’m party to repeating the cultural narrative about motherhood in the workplace—at least in my own mind, to myself. It can be easy to feel isolated, to not want to admit mistakes or sadness, or to feeling totally and completely out of one’s mind. It can also be easy to rationalize some of the very real inequities that occur in the workplace. A study from Shelley Correll, who was then working at Cornell University, found that “mothers in the workforce are rated as significantly less competent, less intelligent, and less committed than women without children.” In fact, mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and earn less money than their childless female counterparts.
Mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and earn less money than their childless female counterparts.
We tell ourselves that motherhood affects our performance, as it certainly affects our time, and that’s true. But what Henderson learned throughout her interviews is that most mothers were performing better than they ever had before. It’s something she wants us all to know so that we can reframe the negative messaging we hear echoed in our own heads and begin to change the cultural narrative.
5 skills gained through motherhood
By digging into neuroscience and other fields of research, Henderson learned that there are five primary skills that are acquired or honed through parenthood—skills that can easily be harnessed for success in the workplace.
Of course, biological changes begin with conception. From the time a woman becomes pregnant through the first year of the child’s life, a mother’s brain has a plasticity that allows her to learn and adapt to new things, especially in the first few months postpartum. As Alexandra Sacks M.D. explains it, neuroplasticity is “the process in which the brain changes throughout life by reorganizing connections in response to the stimulation of new experiences, and neurogenesis, the process of growth that allows for new learning.” So the “mommy brain” phenomenon is less a process of forgetting and more a pathway toward getting ready for more.
Here’s what Henderson has learned from experts in neuroscience and related fields about these five skills:
1. Emotional intelligence: Neurobiologist Ruth Feldman, from the Yale School of Medicine, found that “engaged parents are likely to develop, among other things, an enhanced capacity to anchor feelings in the present moment, resonate with others’ pain and emotions, simulate others’ goals and actions in one’s own brain, and collaborate well with others.”
2. Courage: Oxytoxin, a hormone released during childbirth and breastfeeding, is sometimes better known as the “love hormone.” Feldman found that even dads (including non-biological fathers) in primary care-taking roles can produce as much oxytocin as a breastfeeding mother. In addition to all the good feelings, increased amounts of oxytocin have also been shown to make us less susceptible to fear.
Even dads (including non-biological fathers) in primary care-taking roles can produce as much oxytocin as a breastfeeding mother.
Similarly, a study of female rats that had at least one litter were shown to exhibit less fear—in addition to performing better in maze tests and being more efficient at catching prey. This was true even for rats who cared for a litter that they didn’t birth, said neuroscientist Craig Kinsley.
3. Resilience: The presence of oxytocin in our systems also means that we’re more likely to respond to stress with an impulse to “tend and befriend” rather than to fight or flee, according to Shelley E. Taylor at UCLA. Parenting helps us build community and better relationships, and to become more resilient in the face of stress or pain.
4. Efficiency & productivity: A study of female rats that have had at least one litter revealed higher performance on maze tests due to better memory recall. They were also up to five times more efficient at catching prey. Kinsley reported that these changes were even true for mice who didn’t birth the litter, but took care of the babies instead.
5. Ambition & motivation: Parenthood can function as a powerful filter for what really matters, driving us to focus more on work that we enjoy or feel is valuable. A 2017 study from Accenture found that working mothers have as much, or more, career ambition as women without children. In fact, 70 percent of working mothers in the U.S. aspire to senior leadership positions, compared to 67 percent of childless women. (Note to employers: they're also more likely to jump ship and change roles for a promotion or higher pay.)
The arms race for perks and policies
The tech industry has been notably paving the way for more equality in the workplace—not only because it’s difficult to attract and retain diverse workforces and top talent, but also because the very nature of the industry allows for greater flexibility and new ways of working. Even so, as companies implement generous leave policies and perks, many new parents don’t feel as though they can take advantage of these policies without jeopardizing their careers.
Zendesk’s Senior Creative Director Bob Galmarini provided an honest glimpse into the joys and struggles of taking an extended paternity leave. While feeling insanely grateful for Zendesk’s generous 16-week policy, he shared, “I don’t know if there’s research to back this up, but I am going to go ahead and say four months is perfect—but not in a good way. Four months happens to be the perfect amount of time for a team to adapt to someone leaving.”
It’s a salient point because, as Henderson says, “Parenting impacts everyone in the workplace, whether or not you’re a parent.” The goal for any organization, and Tendlab’s overarching mission, is to unlock the potential of parenting in a way that maximizes productivity for all employees.
Parenting impacts everyone in the workplace, whether or not you’re a parent. - Amy Henderson
Henderson recommends taking a look at a company’s policies, but also the individual experiences of working parents. “The companies that do really well by their employees have managers who have been trained or encouraged, or even evaluated, on the basis of how compassionate they can be with their direct reports,” she says.
She challenges any organization to ask: “How can you use compassion to support your employees in increasing their productivity and performance? “Because when you find that sweet spot,” she says, “research shows that people will outperform themselves. It’s just about having a manager who takes the time and creates the space for that, and for a company to allow a manager the time and space to create that container for their employees.”
This is why corporate policies around parenthood remain as important as company culture. Henderson recommends that companies offer equal leave for both moms and dads, regardless of gender identification or whether a child was adopted or fostered. “That’s an important step because there’s also a ton of research that shows that when you support men in showing up for fatherhood, women—and not just mothers—all rise in leadership positions,” she says.
It’s also important to make sure you’re not penalizing men or women for taking parental leaves. An often-overlooked aspect is how a leave impacts a review cycle. When parents are out, they’re sometimes not reviewed or are given a neutral review. Over the long-term, Henderson explains, that goes on record and can undermine them when considered for a promotion.
Moms, what can you do?
Henderson offered a few more quick wins and some advice for working moms:
- Set clear boundaries: This means laying out when you work, how you work, and what you need in order to work. “If you’re in an environment that doesn’t support that, go somewhere that will,” she says.
- Be purposeful: Upleveling doesn’t happen automatically. It’s true that you can’t work endless hours, so be specific and discrete about how you invest your time and energy at work. Don’t forget that you’ve banked a wealth of experience until now, and sometimes you can withdraw from the bank and trust that you have less to lose and more to build upon.
- Put on your oxygen mask first: Henderson emphasized that you can’t outperform your pre-parenting self if you’re under-resourced and need more self-care. In another study of rats from the University of Richmond, maternal rats who struggled “to easily find food, safety, or shelter” and lacked basic resources were stressed and slow to respond and learn.
It’s a given that parenthood stresses the system—and so does the workplace. The best way to meet challenges and surprises along the way is to deepen self-care and to be honest about what you really need. For some, it might be a night out with the girls, but others might want to hit the treadmill or have an hour of silence to read a book. It might also mean getting help, prioritizing any task that’s time-consuming or draining, whether that’s house-cleaning or laundry or something else. For the self-employed, maybe this means outsourcing your billing or web design or anything you can do, but someone else can do faster. This can be a powerful motivator for upleveling—having the ability to buy back time to spend with your kids or on more impactful work.
Motherhood is future-proofing us for the years ahead
Henderson predicts that more households are going to be financially supported by women than by men and that a massive shift is underway: “Research is showing that Millennials and Gen Z dads are more committed and showing up for fatherhood, without sacrificing their careers or promotability.”
Beyond changes in gender roles, technology is also transforming the way we work, and the work we do. As we move from a skills-based to a knowledge-based economy, and as AI advances, the tasks humans do will become increasingly nuanced and reliant on emotional intelligence.
“The people who succeed are going to be those that can develop strong, durable, and broad relationships with diverse groups of people and to engage deeply and meaningfully,” Henderson says. “They will have access to the most information, and this is dependent on collaboration, a skill that parenthood significantly develops from a neurological level.”
Suzanne Barnecut is the editor of Relate and mother to a six-year-old girl. She is also a reader of paper-made books, sender of snail mail, writer of fiction, coffee fiend, and pastry aficionado. Perhaps not in that order. Find her on Twitter at: @suzannebarnecut.