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It is the hardest, scariest day imaginable for any working mother.

No matter how generous an organization’s leave policy is, there is always “day one” of back to work after parental leave.

The It’s Working Project knows this. We spend the better part of our days listening to parents, getting the clearest picture of what back to work after baby is like in the United States, not simply the statistics but the story. The narratives we gather via our Portrait Project are candid and incredibly raw, revealing what it is to be a working parent. And one universal theme (regardless of industry, geography or demography) is how highly personal but also incredibly gut-wrenching the process of re-acclimation into one’s former life actually is.

Not only does a new mother need to find the confidence, motivation and physical support to go back to work – she needs the time to harness this strength within herself. A new mother needs support as she tackles the sharp learning curve of being a working parent.

Nothing compares with that first day back to work after parental leave. It is all new, you are all new. And so it begins.

I first learned about how vulnerable companies were to new parent attrition when preparing for the White House Summit on Working Families in 2014. At that time, a New York-based investment house shared with me their six-month phase back schedule. The company started it after reading about and hearing anecdotally that most mothers decide to give up on working within the first three weeks back to work after baby.

Fast forward two years: While the parental leave foot race is full-on, offering benefits that underscore leave, flexibility and equity, some equally savvy organizations are rounding out the equation with innovative, highly supportive approaches to a gradual return.

Gradual return is a modified work schedule with an emphasis on helping facilitate a positive, confident readjustment to work. This is sometimes in the form of flexible work schedules and adjusted work loads as parents return from their leave. It is not common, not yet.

The same concept that was such an early victory for that New York firm (which also had pumping lounges as early as 2009, again, well ahead of the curve) is now proving to be an essential element to keep parents in the workplace.

Fairygodboss co-founder Georgene Huang underscores the stress and strain of those early days and weeks back to work after baby. “An employee can come back to work with all the best intentions but bringing a new identity back to an old career takes longer than a day – it takes time to work it all out.”

Like the It’s Working Project, Huang and her partner Romy Newman are set on advancing the back-to-work-after-baby dialogue and quickly. Their success in creating a platform that offers transparency, resources and other essential tools for both employees and employers to better understand and meet needs have been welcomed and well received by women and employers alike. Not an easy task.

According to these employers’ official pages on the Fairygodboss site, Accenture, General Electric, Salesforce, Square, Dow Jones and Johnson & Johnson all offer gradual or phased-in return options.

Some of the most impressive commitment to parental retention via gradual return is seen in smaller start-ups that are just beginning to experience their first baby booms. Retail subscription company Birchbox glows in the category with their required gradual return that includes peer mentoring and other tools that create not only time but also a culture that prides itself on work-life fit. This includes encouraging parents to create and maintain boundaries around “end of day” as well as “personal time.”

Melissa Enbar was a director at Birchbox and the second person in her department to take advantage of these policies when she gave birth to her daughter. “I had invested a great deal into my career and I knew I was coming back, both for personal and professional reasons. It was not an ‘if,’ it was a ‘how’ question,” she says. “The emotional reality of that was isolating, overwhelming and complex. Being surrounded by women who had gone through the process, each with a unique take on it, and also knowing that the gradual return was an absolute part of my return … created necessary support for the scary reality of creating my new normal.”

Smart companies know that each person is an individual, and, like Northern Virginia-based 3Pillar Global, take a highly personalized approach to leave and return. “Towards the end of their leave, we discuss how to reintegrate them back into the workforce. Typically, this ends up looking like a part-time status for a couple of weeks as they learn to juggle being a new mom, nursing, child care and work at the same time,” says Maria Izurieta, a chief financial officer and mother of two who also serves as a compassionate mentor and advocate for new mothers in search of their own personal version of work-life fit. “Each one is looking for a slightly different accommodation to make them feel comfortable.”

Why is this so important? Attrition not only is disruptive, it is expensive. At a recent New America panel discussion, Pronita Gupta, deputy director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, shared the agency’s data that shows the hard, bottom-line expense of replacing an employee who does not return. It costs 21 percent of a person’s salary to replace that employee – that is not insignificant.

And losing women is also proving to have devastating results on diversity and C-Suite representation, which ultimately impacts growth and revenue. A recent study found that firms with more women in the C-Suite are simply more profitable, among other desirable outcomes.

That first day back is a bit like being a stranger it a strange land – it remains as loaded and as looming as all major transitions are. But coupled with some innovative, committed, private-sector policies that include gradual return, back to work after baby can work well with high returns for all.

Julia Beck is the founder of the It’s Working Project and Forty Weeks. Beck, a passionate strategist, storyteller and connector, is based in Washington, D.C., where she is the matriarch of a blended family that includes a loving husband, a loyal golden retriever and four children – all of whom are her favorite. 

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