Navigating the Back-to-Work Transition for New Parents with Lori Mihalich-Levin, CEO of Mindful Return
In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Lori Mihalich-Levin, attorney and CEO of Mindful Return, to discuss navigating the back-to-work transition from parental leave.
Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder and CEO of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast. She is mama to two wonderful red-headed boys (ages 9 and 11) and is a health care lawyer in private practice. Her thought leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times Parenting, and Thrive Global.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Welcome to the show, Lori. I shared with you in preparing for this that I had my beautiful daughter while I was working in-house at a mid-size law firm in their business development department. I am thrilled to be talking to you about a very important topic. I am sure there are many things that you’re going to share with me that I wish I had known then and that I hope we can help new parents now.
Please tell us more about yourself as a lawyer, mom, and CEO. How did you start doing this wonderful work?
I like to say that I wear three hats. I know we all wear like 742 hats every day, but there are three main ones for me. One is mom to these nine and 11-year-old boys, very similar in age to your daughter. My oldest just started middle school, so that’s been its own adventure. That’s hat number one. Hat number two is that I’m the CEO and founder of Mindful Return, and I’ll tell you in a minute how I came to do that role. Hat number three is that I’m a Medicare regulatory lawyer/nerd in Washington, D.C. who has a niche that’s a centimeter wide and a million miles deep in Medicare reimbursement land. Right now, I do that as my “side gig.” I have my own firm. I left Big Law last summer and have my own firm where I practice a little bit.
Approximately eight years ago, after the birth of my second son, I realized that I was in a dark place. I had one baby, returned to work after parental leave full-time, and found it to be challenging. Two years later, I had baby number two and went off the rails. I am certain that I had some undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. My husband and I like to say that one plus one felt like 85 at the time. Things were just sort of coming apart, and I looked around for resources that could help me as a working parent.
I found two categories of things. I found snarky advice like, “Don’t put a picture of your family on your desk, or people won’t take you seriously.” I found advice along the lines of, “You’re going to leak on your shirt if you’re pumping at work, so maybe you just shouldn’t do that.” That was not helpful. The other thing that I found was tons of advice focused on baby, which is great, and we need all the resources about how to puree baby food and massage our babies and all that good stuff. There wasn’t anything about my own personal and professional identity transition that I was going through to working parenthood and how to navigate that transition. I set out to create what I wish had existed for myself.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s wonderful. Something that is on your website really resonated with me, and it’s the comment that says, “Imagine feeling confident about your decisions, both as a parent and a professional.” I think that’s something that so many parents, including me, struggled with coming back to work and still struggle with today.
What are some of the most common challenges you see among new parents returning to work after parental leave?
You hit on the first one, which is just that confidence and the ability to feel as though you’re doing the right thing on a daily basis, whatever the right thing is for you. Often, we feel like we’re meant to be parenting without respect to the fact that we have a job, and working at a job without respect to the fact that we’re parenting. The big G word, right? Guilt – “I’m walking out of the office at the end of the day or shutting down because I need to go get my child because childcare closes.” There was a $10-a-minute penalty at my daycare, and we had to get there.
For me, there was the struggle with the fact that my first son would not take a bottle. The story I told myself was, if I went back to work, then I’d be killing him because he would die because he couldn’t eat, because he couldn’t take a bottle. There was that struggle to work through. I wound up having excess lipase in my breast milk that caused it to turn sour after a few hours, so I had to scald the milk. It was just this whole thing that I had no idea was in store for me as a working parent.
There’s the sleep deprivation. You’re not sleeping for anymore than potentially three consecutive hours a night, and that can really play with your mind. There are the well-documented motherhood biases that we know exist in the workplace, where people are making assumptions about you that you would prefer that they not make.
There’s a lot packed into that transition period. I like to remind people that the transition back to work after parental leave is not an event. It is not a one-day thing. It is not a one-week thing. It’s probably a one-year process, and I think both employers and individuals would do well to keep that in mind and remember that it’s not a once-and-done sort of thing.
How can employers support their employees through this transition period?
There are many things that employers can do; some cost money and some do not. I think the ones that don’t are mindset shifts on how we talk about the transition – putting programs in place that encourage managers to have structured conversations about how they’re going to phase employees out of work and then how they’re going to phase back in. Mentoring programs can be put into place. Having the long view and saying, “I’m invested in this person for the long run. I know that there’s going to be a shift in how they’re working, and I’m committed to their career success.” Having that sort of attitude shift can really help.
There are also formal policies. Paid parental leave is important. On and off-ramp policies that allow for phased-out and phased-in returns are important. Just as important is how the leadership at your organization communicates about this issue. Are they encouraging people to take their full leave, whether they’re a new mom or a new dad? Are they modeling that for other employees? The language that we use around leave really matters.
There are tons of ways that employers can help, but step number one is to talk to your new parents. See how they experienced their leave. See how they experienced their return. Where are the gaps? Are the policies clearly communicated? Do they know what support is available to them? How did it go? Take their pulse. I think that is a wonderful first step if you’re wondering what your employee population needs.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: In our work, we advise our clients on how to communicate internally and externally. Clear transparent communication is so critical in any context. It is important to clearly communicate to these parents, as well as listen and understand what they need. I just had a wonderful interview with Katharine Manning, and her sentiment was, “Don’t assume that you know what people need. Have those conversations and listen, and then put processes and policies in place that actually support the people who they are in place for.”
Listen to Episode 109: Responding to Trauma in the Workplace with Katharine Manning, President of Blackbird DC
Lori Mihalich-Levin: I think that there’s a pandemic of making assumptions. For example, some people might assume that a new mother won’t be as committed, can’t take on the next big project, and doesn’t want to travel. When you make those assumptions, even if you think you’re making them benevolently, you have just taken the power of a woman to define her own career steps out of her own hands.
What unique impacts have you seen on new parents as a result of Covid?
Being a new parent is ridiculously hard. Being a new parent during Covid was totally next level. I can’t really imagine having gone through it, because I didn’t have a child during that time. I witnessed some pros and cons. One of the pros was an opportunity to spend more time bonding with baby and not send them to childcare; for example, new mothers had the opportunity to continue to nurse and breastfeed a baby and not have to pump all day long.
Some of the downsides have been severe isolation and the inability to gather with other new parents, as one might in a mom group after having a child. The guilt that can set in when one is trying to work from home while the baby is in the next room, as opposed to you being somewhere else. I know that there were a lot of noise-canceling headphones purchased during the pandemic.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: It sounds like there were some real benefits to parents having more time, and maybe some easier times in terms of breastfeeding versus pumping. Many are now transitioning back to the office in either a hybrid capacity or some even full-time.
Why is it important for employers to encourage both moms and dads to take the parental leave time that they have available?
I am a firm believer in the idea that parental leave needs to be de-gendered. Otherwise, it will always continue to be a stigma for new moms. People in the hiring process will ask, “Is she going to go out on leave?” If anyone can go out on leave, it removes that question.
How do you encourage fathers and mothers to both take the time? I think an important shift in language that one can use as a manager is to say to any man who learns that he’s going to become a father, “When are you going to take your parental leave?” Not, “Are you going to take any time off?” Say, “When are you going to go out? When’s the start date? When’s the end date? Let’s figure out how to put that into the schedule.” At some point, you’re going to want to encourage everybody to be taking that leave.
There is great data that shows that women’s careers do better the more parental leave a father takes. If we’re going to narrow the gender pay gap and address the problems in the leaky women’s leadership pipeline, we need to recognize caregivers as caregivers, no matter their gender.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I have heard wonderful examples of parents tag-teaming their parental leave to make sure that both are supported in their careers somewhat equally. That way, they both have time at home with the child and are not necessarily overlapping.
You talk about loving your children and your career, as so many of us do. What strategies do you have for dealing with that inner conflict?
I’ve learned this wonderful phrase and philosophy from Dr. Yael Schonbrun at Brown University, who has a book coming out in November. I just started digging into a pre-reader version. It is all about the concept of work/life enrichment and the idea that although we tend to look at work and “life” as these opposing poles that are pulling at each other, competing, and vying for one another’s attention, in reality, work benefits from life and life benefits from work. When I can keep that in mind, when I can remember to tell myself that I am a better mom because I am working and engaged in these things that keep me interested and active and feel like I’m making a contribution to the world, I parent better. I am a better CEO of Mindful Return because I stop every day to have dinner and bathe and put my kids to bed. I can turn off work and allow my brain to reset, and I allow the creativities to feed off of one another. When I can remember that, I feel like I’m in a better place.
I also want to offer a construct that a leadership coach recently taught me around guilt. If you can reframe the phrase “I feel guilty because” into “I made this decision because,” it can really help you to ground yourself in your own values and judgment and say, “I did make this decision for a good reason, and therefore I’m not going to dwell on the other things that I could be doing right now.” Releasing others’ expectations of me has been a decade-long journey, but it is one that I think has benefited my emotional state amazingly.
Can you tell us more about the services that Mindful Return offers to both new parents and employers?
Our core programs are about the transition back to work after parental leave. We have a program for new moms and new dads, and it’s a four-week, cohort-based online program that people can join from anywhere that helps them make the transition back to work after leave in a calmer, more empowered way.
It’s four weeks, four themes:
- The first week is about a mindful mindset for going back to work. This is how to get your head in a better place.
- The second week is all about the logistics of return, everything from navigating the childcare transition to figuring out your schedule to how you’re going to nourish and feed your baby.
- The third week is all about leadership in the space of return and focusing on the skills that we gain for parenthood that are useful in our careers.
- The fourth week is all about building and staying in communities, so you don’t isolate yourself and wind up crying on the kitchen floor like I did for way too long.
We work currently with 93 different employers that offer the program as a parental leave benefit, and it’s a way to make sure that your employee is feeling supported in the transition.
We have had over 2,000 people go through the program at this point, and our alums started saying to us, “I’m back from leave and now I have a toddler. Now I have a school-age kid and things are still hard.” We developed something that we call the Mindful Return 201 program for experienced parents. In that program, we work on time management, self-care, connection to community, and career advancement. We’ve expanded and grown in certain ways. We have international offerings now as well. We have a chapter in the UK, in South Africa, in India, in Spanish, and in Portuguese.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Those are all such valuable resources for families. Transitioning back to work is such a difficult venture, and to have those resources available sounds amazing. I’m glad that they’re there, because I also found similar feedback when I was searching for how to transition to what you described earlier in the conversation. This is a resource for people, particularly in law firms, who are dealing with long schedules, demanding hours, and intense work that requires being on, if you will, regardless of whether on a computer or in the office.
Where can our listeners get in touch with you if they’d like to learn more?
Our website is www.mindfulreturn.com. You can feel free to link in with me and say that you listened to this podcast, and I would be happy to connect. I do a Tuesday Tip for Working Parents on Instagram, @mindfulreturn, and LinkedIn. On our website, we have a free document called 99 Questions to Ask Yourself Before, During, and After Parental Leave that can be of use. There’s also a page on our website specifically for employers.
You can find my book, Back to Work After Baby on Amazon and all the usual places where one finds books. I co-host a podcast called Parents at Work that you can check out. I co-host it with my husband, so he and I have a fun time representing the mom and dad versions of working parenthood.
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Learn More & Connect
Learn more about Mindful Return
Book: Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave
Podcast: Parents at Work Podcast
Jennifer Simpson Carr