Coaching, Motherhood, and Careers

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Work can be stressful no matter who you are or what you do. But for many of half the world’s population of women, an additional stress underlies professional and work concerns – motherhood. Many women either consider or decide to take a career break after having children. Some suggest this may be due to a desire to focus on their families or aspects of organizations that make it challenging to balance motherhood and career responsibilities. Some have suggested that the gender pay gap is related to mothers’ decision to drop out earlier in their career trajectories than men, who go on to be promoted and earn more money. Motherhood transitions are also thought to be related to the scarcity of women in executive positions. Women who leave their careers to have children, even if they return later once their children are older, may be less likely to make it to the ‘top job’ than men who don’t have such responsibilities. In any case, pressure has been building for organizations to make their workplace more mother-friendly. And research has suggested that coaching can help!Pregnant businesswomanA recent study in the Journal of Human Resource Management by a team in South Africa has explored the ways in which maternity coaching can help women negotiate career transitions related to motherhood. The study is qualitative and exploratory, so it’s not quite as conclusive as the previous research revelations of randomized control trials, but it offers some important information. The authors aimed to understand the ways that maternity coaching might help mothers navigate periods of career transitions (e.g., pregnancy, maternity leave, and return-to-work). They conducted in-depth interviews with four groups: 1) professional women who had undergone maternity coaching, 2) professional women who had not undergone maternity coaching, 3) maternity coaches, and 4) organizations themselves. The interviewer’s questions concerned the reasoning for and effects of maternity coaching programs for women in the workplace.

Woman holding a small baby while she worksThe first set of findings explored why maternity coaching might be necessary. All four groups suggested that organizational cultures can be harsh, male-dominated, unsupportive of women, unclear or inflexible about maternity resources. All of the groups pointed out that mothers at work face increased physical changes and demands, require ongoing flexibility and adjustments, must establish new boundaries, roles, and identities, and more. 

The next question examined how maternity coaching might be structured. All of the women who received maternity coaching described their ‘immensely positive experiences’ with it. The sessions were usually during maternity leave, but the specifics varied by the structure and timing of sessions. The authors mention past literature showing that maternity coaching can help women because of the expression of empathy and/or helpful, practical mentorship. One of the participants said that coaching helped her have a difficult conversation with her employer, and helped her realize that she was important and competent enough to have that discussion despite her fears. Some also mentioned the importance of sharing their practical concerns: childcare, household support, and more. Others mentioned sharing their emotional experiences of guilt, fear, struggles with self-confidence, and uncertainty about balancing their time commitments. In any case, these anecdotal accounts of maternity coaching suggest that coaches can help support women through challenging times of transition. 

The authors conclude with a few practical notes about what they call the ‘Maternity Transition Coaching Model’. They split proposed guidelines according to the three transition phases of pregnancy, maternity leave, and return-to-work. During pregnancy, they suggest that coaching should help mothers disclose their pregnancy to employers, address concerns and fears that women have about their pregnancy affecting their careers, and talk with their managers about the details of maternity leave. During maternity leave, coaching should discuss aspects of ‘readiness to work’, including the practical steps of childcare, breastfeeding, homecare, and partner support. There are also emotional components of readiness to work such as fears related to integrating life and career demands, separation anxiety, and low self-confidence about being able to manage everything. Finally, the suggestions for return-to-work coaching included discussions about performance, balance, and career re-engagement as a working mother.

Working mom holding a baby with toddler watchingThis study cannot conclusively determine the positive effects of maternity coaching for women; however, these in-depth interviews can provide rich suggestions for future research topics and it also offers some important information for coaches to consider. Overall, it seems clear that women struggle disproportionately with integrating personal life and work demands compared to men, as women have traditionally been the ones taking on domestic/familial life at a higher rate than men. In my experience, mothers have benefited tremendously from working one-on-one and in small groups with a coach who can support them while also assisting them in making plans for how to respond to the many challenges they encounter.