In 2020, Gina Nebesar found out that she was pregnant.
However, bouts of anxiety hindered her joy. The COVID-19 pandemic was spreading worldwide. Expecting parents like Nebesar were living in fear of hospital closures, restricted birth plans and the pressure of working while caring for children.
"I'm a working mom of three kids under six years old," Nebesar said. "Like many others, much of my prenatal health care shifted to virtual, and the support systems I had through day care and school were disrupted."
She worked from home while her parents moved across the country to help care for her toddler during the day and supervise her 5-year-old's virtual preschool. But Nebesar still felt as if she was working more than ever.
"There were no clear buckets for when work or family time started and ended," she explained.
Working parents have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. They've had to deal with school closures and a lack of child care while still trying to balance work responsibilities. Mothers feel the brunt of this strain, as research shows they are more likely than their male counterparts to stay at home with children.
Parental benefits matter more than ever to working mothers, according to a new report by Ovia Health, a family health benefits platform. The survey of nearly 3,000 working parents, 99 percent of whom were mothers, showed that:
- 77 percent consider family-friendliness through support/benefits their top priority in employers.
- About 4 in 10 feel their employer is not currently family-friendly.
- 45 percent found their parental leave benefits challenging to understand.
- 90 percent would likely leave for the same job with better family benefits.
Family-friendly benefits can include a more flexible work schedule, remote options, mental health support and child care assistance. Some mothers who participated in the survey mentioned the need for a lactation room upon returning to onsite work.
Many respondents left their previous job due to perceived lack of child care support from their employer or inadequate parental benefits. Some of those who didn't leave remain at risk of being poached by another company, the survey noted.
"This study is incredibly powerful because it uniquely elevates a historically underrepresented voice—working moms," Nebesar said. "These results really speak to the average American working mother."
Returning to Work Can Be Overwhelming
Many women who return to work deal with child care issues that can affect their personal and professional well-being.
About 25 percent of working women have a child under the age of 14 at home, according to a report by the think tank Brookings Institution. More than 10 million working women rely on child care and schools to keep their children safe while they work.
But many parents do not have access to safe or affordable child care services. The Ovia Health survey showed that about 35 percent of new parents who chose not to return to work felt their child care options were unsafe, while 27 percent of respondents reported having no child care options.
Parents who return to their employer often work overtime, which prevents them from spending more time with their young children.
"Transitioning back into the workforce can be difficult," said Yrthya Dinzey-Flores, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and social impact and sustainability for the software company Justworks in New York City. "Workplaces must understand that pushing parents to work after hours takes away valuable time meant to be spent with family."
Time away from children and work stress can contribute to postpartum anxiety. Nearly 4 in 10 mothers who didn't return to work cited postpartum anxiety or depression as a primary reason, the Ovia Health report found.
Tips for Companies
The need for additional parental leave was a common theme in the Ovia Health survey.
Family leave positively impacts breastfeeding rates, maternal health, paternal caregiving and improved health outcomes in children according to a 2019 report by the City of Louisville's Department of Health and Wellness.
"Investing in strong paid parental leave is a worthy expense that pays off in the long run and simply makes sense from a financial perspective," Nebesar said. "Employers will not only be able to retain talent; they can attract new hires, too. These benefits speak for themselves to prospects."
Ovia Health offered additional tips for companies to support working parents, which include providing:
- Easy-to-understand benefits, with a list of frequently asked questions.
- Flexible return-to-work options, enabling parents to gradually ease back into work.
- Mental health options, such as miscarriage guidance and maternity care navigation.
- Family care assistance in the form of stipends, supporting each family's unique needs.
Dinzey-Flores implored employers to listen to the needs of new parents who return to work.
"Be prepared to engage in the journey with your employees," she explained. "Educate yourself and the organization on the topic, view the need from different perspectives, and give yourself the room to tweak and recalibrate as things change."