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Baby (& Breastfeeding)-Friendly Workplaces: Can This Really Work?

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As you may or may not know, I love me a good entrepreneur mom story (see here, and here, and here). There’s rarely much separation between work and family life when starting a company from your dining table, so these accounts usually include surprising insights into what makes a family-friendly workplace, well, work. And since so many of the relentless questions posed to, and debates ignited between, moms (stay-at-home vs. work, can we really have it all, how to deal with uber-short American maternity leaves, how to make ends meet, how to practice Attachment-style philosophies when going to work each day, how to pump at the office, etc.) circle around the not-so-family-friendly American workplace, I think we can really benefit from looking to these success stories for answers and solutions. Moms are, after all, a huge part of the work force, and thus of the economy, so it’s to everyone’s benefit that these answers and solutions emerge. And it’s essential to moms, who often must ‘make it work’ but find themselves weaning their babies before they wanted to, and far from having it all, must make an endless string of difficult and unsatisfactory choices in their babies’ first year, with burnout looming far nearer than the promise of some kind of balance.

So let’s talk answers. Enter: Zutano. Yes, that sounds familiar, as in the makers of super-adorbz, colorific children’s clothing we all know and covet. (My endorsement is candid and not prompted by any cash, or goods… Given the choice, I’d take Zutano goods over cash any day, though!) Theirs is an entrepreneur-family story, featuring a dad (slash CEO) who believes (and said, when interviewed by The Leaky Boob), “The idea that you hand your baby off at 6 weeks is a problem,” “I find it astonishing that feeding a baby could ever be seen as inappropriate,” and “We need bigger investments, not just what companies can do, society. You do need to have a year to focus on your baby when your baby is born.” (He believes American paid maternity leave should match Canada’s: one year.) Accounting for these convictions – and lacking domestic policy backing the last one, anyway – Michael Belenky and his wife, Uli, have asked themselves “What can we do creatively to make it work now? In safe environments, like offices, what can do we do?”

They’ve asked these questions since their own babies were babies (both daughters are now grown), and they were in fact working from their dining room table. At that time, the babies were just part of the Zutano scene. And it’s been that way ever since. The company allows parents to bring their babies to work when they return from maternity leave, to nurse when and where they need to, and to essentially parent and work in this way until the babies are a year old. As they point out, small babies sleep a lot, and – despite popular belief – don’t actually scream all the time (especially when they’re allowed their normal routines, and proximity to their mothers). The moms clearly score, as well; they save significantly on childcare costs, are afforded a far smoother transition back into their working lives (wherein they can parent in whatever ways they choose—babywearing and breastfeeding included), and they’re part of a workplace that’s family-friendly to the point of everyone pitching in (way easier than going it alone at home, if you ask me, and wondering when you get to pee).

And what about the company? Does this all work out on the bottom line? Belenky says it does. “Employee retention. The people that have been in our company the longest, most important to our company are the people that have brought many babies, participated in this program. From a financial point of view this program costs us nothing. No liability, babies are with their parents. Offers a priceless benefit. Also, for a baby clothing company, it helps us be in touch and know what we’re about. We literally breathe baby every day.” He also adds that having babies around makes for a more social atmosphere; people connect over the cuteness, instead of gossiping around the water cooler.

I find it highly encouraging to hear about win-win-win examples of family-friendly workplace practices, and I wonder if (and hope) this kind of thing paves the way for other companies to follow suit. One hesitation I have around this, however, although Zutano sounds a little bit like mommy-baby heaven, is that I wonder if parents in a baby-friendly workplace would feel an unstated expectation that they be at work all the time. (I.e. Why go home to be with your family when your family’s right here at the office?) Is this the mom-style equivalent of chic restaurants, tricked-out gyms, spas and ping-pong tables in cutting-edge new media companies, which basically create environments single 20-somethings will never need, or want, to leave (thus getting more work out of them)? It does sound like Zutano values balance, but the question did occur to me.

Do you think Zutano’s model is a reasonable ideal for workplaces to work toward? Do you feel that you’ve sacrificed elements of your professional life, or preferred parenting style, because of the sharp divide between work and family life in America? Do you work in a family-friendly workplace right now? Did you switch gears when your baby arrived (I went freelance)? Canadians, how do you like your system? Leave a comment!

PS. Speaking of work-life balance, I’m going to be on vacation with my family next week, so I’m taking a short break from blogging. See you when I get back!