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Coaching Insider: How to Overcome the Baby Penalty

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Coaching Insider: How to Overcome the Baby Penalty

In this series, we present BetterUp coaches with realistic scenarios that we commonly encounter (and struggle with) in the workplace. They walk us through how they’d coach a client through the challenge and identify possible solutions. Got an issue you’d like one of our coaches to tackle in a Coaching Insider feature? Email

Vivian recently came back from maternity leave to find she has a new manager, Matthew.  Matthew has expressed his desire to make Vivian’s transition manageable, but also added two new, high-profile clients to the portfolio she had before taking her leave. Vivian is working very long hours to keep up with these new clients, all while pumping milk every three hours while at work, and waking up multiple times a night to feed her infant son. She feels pressure to work harder than before she left on leave to prove her commitment to her team. Vivian asks: “It’s really important to me to maintain balance, but does that balance need to come at the expense of my career?”

Coach contributors:

Sarah Greenberg is a Lead Coach at BetterUp. A  Licensed Psychotherapist, she holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology, & Masters in Prevention Science and Practice from Harvard University. Sue August has 20+ years experience as an executive coach. She is a Graduate of the UC Davis Coaching program and a Professional Certified Coach (PCC). Sue is a Lead Coach at BetterUp.

Normalize the challenge and emphasize support

Sarah Greenberg:  As a working mom, I understand how joyful and difficult this period can be. Sleep deprivation alone can wreak havoc on mood, cognitive functioning, and stress; on top of this, Vivian is fitting pumping and increased responsibilities into her day. I would want to explore with Vivian what balance can look like in the short-term, and what external support she can leverage. The eternal question of work/life balance as a mother will always be there, but the possibilities will shift as her baby starts to sleep longer stretches, and as Vivian takes steps to skillfully navigate this transition. Balance and a successful career don’t have to be at odds.

Balance and a successful career don't have to be at odds. Click To Tweet
Understand the gap
Sarah Greenberg: I’d try to work with Vivian to understand the main block between her present experience and where she’d like to be. It’s unlikely that she’s not committed to her work, being a good mother, or that her manager is out to get her. My take is that Vivian’s capacity at work is temporarily reduced while she serves an intense biological function for her child, and her workload has simultaneously increased. This is a situation that can’t be resolved with sheer effort. There’s a real risk of negative impact on her career from burnout if she takes on more than is possible, and a real long-term career benefit that can come from cultivating balance.

Build on strengths

Sue August:  I’d start by sitting down with Vivian to discuss how her strengths can be applied to this situation. When has she been up against a challenge in the past and found internal strength that she can tap into? What is her support system and how can she get help through this period? It’s important to shift from the negative to get to a more productive place.

Refocus on the long-term vision and set realistic interim goals

Sarah Greenberg: I’d urge Vivian to reframe her mindset to think more about her long-term career goals. Where does she want to be in 5-10 years? Then, I’d work with her to set realistic interim goals (her baby won’t be breastfeeding forever). This approach will help her to be clear about priorities and enable her to set boundaries. It could also help her identify what tasks she could delegate or simply stop doing to make space for more high-profile work.

Communicate clearly and confidently

Sarah Greenberg: Once Vivian is clear with herself on her goals, she can initiate a discussion with Matthew from a place of power. She can assert her commitment to the team’s shared goals while defining boundaries, making concrete suggestions to fix the situation, and staying on track towards her long-term career goals.

The “Baby Penalty” is a very real thing. Click To Tweet
Sue August: There’s also an organizational element here. I’d have Vivian talk with an HR representative in her company to make sure she’s getting support from the organization. The “ Baby Penalty” is a very real thing. If her company wants to retain talent, all the research points to flexible policies for new parents. If Vivian has the passion and energy, I’d encourage her to advocate for more flexibility for parents at her company.  

Continue to develop skills

Sue August: I’d also talk with Vivian about which skills she’d like to develop to help her get through this period. For example, as part of our longer-term coaching relationship, we could work on skills like:

Managing Self

  • Self-compassion:  Work on making the inner voice positive, supportive, and kind.
  • Mind/body optimization: Breastfeeding takes so much energy. Can she plan ahead so that she has snacks throughout the day? With this new energy drain (er… bundle of joy), how can she maximize the energy she has?

Managing Others

  • Difficult conversations: Continue to cultivate non-defensive, outcome-oriented discussions.
  • Delegation: Effectively focus on high-value work, while finding ways to offload lower-value work.

Coming back to work after parental leave will inevitably present a unique set of challenges, but with the right mindset and support in place, it can be an incredible time of growth and self-awareness.
Original art by Vaclav Bicha.

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