I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the single most important factor in whether an employee feels support during parental leave is their manager.  “Someone’s manager is THE single most important factor?!”, you ask, skeptically?  Yes, hands down.


But what about the organization’s policies?  Whether the parental leave is paid?  On-ramping and off-ramping programs?  Parent mentors?  Having a supportive working parent group?

Don’t get me wrong.  These things matter.  A lot.  But from what I’ve seen, the manager takes the cake as the one variable that has the biggest impact on the leave experience.

Sure, you can have paid leave. But when you have a manager who refers to that leave as a “vacation,” do you feel supported?  Not so much.  You can have a great parent mentor at your company.  But if your manager doesn’t have your back?  Your opportunities for advancement evaporate.  Your employer can have a policy that allows you to phase back in after your leave.  But what if your manager doesn’t participate in the phase-back process, and you’re still sitting there three months later without any meaningful work?  Once again, you’re struggling.

What About the Manager Matters?

I’ve co-hosted the Parents at Work podcast for going on two years now.  And in virtually every interview, what do you think our guests identified as the thing that helped them most in the transition to working parenthood?  That’s right.  A supportive manager.

This theme came up again and again, to the point where my co-host and I could pretty much predict what parents would say in response to our question about what made for a successful transition.  Even if we hadn’t spoken with the guests in advance.  We’d then (predictably) rant that you shouldn’t have to “win the manager lottery” to have a good parental leave experience.

What, specifically, makes someone a better manager to a new parent, though?  I’d argue it’s both mindset and behavior.  One inevitably affects the other, and they both matter.


The best mindset a manager can have is one oriented toward empathy and perspective.  On the empathy side of the coin, it helps for a manager to recognize that major life changes are hard.  And that all humans go through them.

With respect to perspective, research shows that “in companies where the managers recognized parental leave as no more than a brief interlude in a person’s long-term career…[and where there was a] supportive company culture, [employees] reported a renewed energy and focus for their work, a feeling of being valued, and an enhancement of professional relationships.”  (See research by David Collings, Yseult Freeney, and Lisa van der Werff.)

An awareness of the hidden biases against caregivers that exist in our society helps, too.  As Brigid Schulte explains in her truly excellent book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time:

“Research has found that mothers are seen as less committed to work than nonmothers.  Pregnant women are perceived as less authoritative and more irrational, regardless of their actual performance.  One family responsibilities discrimination case quoted an employer calling employed mothers ‘incompetent and lazy.’”

If a manager can approach an expectant parent knowing this bias exists, she or he can take conscious steps to counteract it.

What’s Mindful Return Doing to Help Managers Become Better Leaders?

It’s only normal that every manager wouldn’t instinctively know how best to navigate the parental leave of one of their direct reports.  Managers shouldn’t have to rely on instinct.  They should, however, be able to draw on the lessons learned from other successful parental leave and return experiences.  Employers should consider that managers also need tools to succeed in their leadership roles.

At Mindful Return, we truly believe that everyone has the ability to learn and grow.  And that learning how to manage a new parent employee is an excellent professional development opportunity for a manager.

To support this growth – and employee retention – Mindful Return is thrilled to announce two new offerings for 2021 that are specifically designed to help employers support their managers of new parent employees:

  • Beginning January 11, 2021, Mindful Return will be offering a 12-lesson, online, on-demand manager training course that employers can provide to their managers of expectant and new parent employees. The course is structured by the leave-taking stage of the new parent colleague, and there are 4 lessons for each of the following 3 stages: (1) before the colleague’s child arrives; (2) during parental leave; and (3) when the manager’s direct report returns to work.  The material is relevant irrespective of the leave policies in place at a particular organization and regardless of whether the manager’s direct report is a birth parent, the partner of someone giving birth, or an adoptive parent.
  • Mindful Return is also partnering with Tendlab to lead live (though currently virtual, at least during the pandemic) workshops to help managers work through challenges and see opportunities in managing expectant and new parents.

If your organization is interested in learning more or receiving fliers about either of these manager training opportunities, please reach out to Mindful Return’s Founder & CEO, Lori Mihalich-Levin, at lori@mindfulreturn.com or complete our contact form here.

We promise that your new parent colleagues will thank you for proving their managers the tools they need to succeed in their roles.  When leaders engage in meaningful dialog, show empathy, and avoid making assumptions about their new parent colleagues, teams grow stronger.  Managers and direct reports alike gain confidence in their roles.  And new parents thrive.


Back to Work After Baby

Want more practical tips on working parenthood?  Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave

Our Gift To You

At Mindful Return, we know that calm, thoughtful planning, and time for reflection, are keys to success in working parent life. Our FREE guide, 99 Questions to Ask Yourself Before, During, and After Maternity Leave, is our gift to you and your new bundle of joy.

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