June 6, 2023
Unique challenges for parent-lawyers fuel creation of support program by law alumna
Wouldn't it be great if there was a way that lawyers who are on parental leave, or about to go on parental leave, could come together and support each other?
That’s the question Kay Johnson (née She), BA’11, MPP’13, JD’16, asked herself during her maternity leave this past year.
- Photo above: Law alumni in this photo: Top row, centre: Courtney Carston, JD'17. Bottom row: Kay Johnson, JD'16 (left); Hannah Buckley, JD'17 (centre); Lan Nguyen, BComm'13 (second from right).
“I’m in a bunch of mom groups, and they’re great. We learn how to navigate motherhood together. But everyone is in a different profession, so they didn’t have a first-hand understanding of what it's like to go on parental leave in the legal industry, and to return to work,” explains Johnson.
“I was looking for other lawyers who would get it and who were going through the same journey, and that’s how Returnity YYC was born.”
Program designed for lawyer-parents
Returnity started as a six-month pilot program designed for lawyers in Calgary on parental leave to support them in a challenging time as they welcome a baby into their family and eventually return to work. All lawyers in Calgary on, or about to go on, parental leave (maternity, paternity, or adoption leave) are welcome. Monthly events bring new parents together in a safe, non-judgmental space to share concerns and be vulnerable about the challenges of being a lawyer and a parent.
The inaugural cohort welcomed 22 lawyers and 22 babies to the group for various activities such as Baby & Me Yoga, Baby & Me Dance, baby massage, and infant CPR.
“One of the best events we’ve had so far was a panel with parents who recently returned to the workplace, and no topic or question was taboo, including questions like ‘Where do you pump in the office?’, ‘What do you do with your law society status?’ and ‘How do you protect the boundaries you need to serve your family?’. The panellists shared candid answers on the tough questions, and everyone really appreciated it,” says Johnson.
All parents welcome
While the first cohort consists of parents who all identify as female, Johnson hopes people who identify as male are eager to join the next cohort, which is crucial to achieving gender equality in the workplace and parenting.
“One of the best ways we’re going to be able to achieve gender equality in the workplace is to have men feel empowered to take their parental leave,” Johnson explains.
“Anecdotally, the uptake of male lawyers who take parental leave is quite low. Until men feel empowered to take that leave without having reputational concerns, it will be difficult for female-identifying lawyers to gain equal footing in the workplace.”
Additionally, members of Returnity talk about ways for partners to play a more prominent role at home, further building equality across the entire spectrum of being a parent.
A place for support and to drive change within the profession
For Johnson, starting Returnity helped her fully understand parents' pressures when they return to work, which she didn’t fully appreciate before she had her son, Archer.
“I reflect on when I worked with parents returning to the workplace, and I thought I had grace and understanding towards them, but now I wish I had more.”
“This can look like asking before booking meetings at the beginning or end of the day when parents are figuring out daycare logistics, being more communicative about what flexibility looks like, and just being empathetic about all the things parents are dealing with behind the scenes.”
The purpose of Returnity isn’t just about building a network and support group for lawyer-parents. She has a big, hairy, audacious goal in mind as well. And that’s to start pushing for changes in the legal profession around parental leave and parental policies in the workplace.
“It can be as simple as employers disclosing parental-leave policies during the interview process, without applicants having to ask, to something as big as sharing parental-leave compensation from different law firms as part of the informal salary survey. These disclosures of information can empower people to make career decisions that work best for them and their families.”
Have a newborn? Returnity is for you!
Whether someone is a new parent or has more than one child, Returnity is open to anyone with a newborn. The monthly meet-ups and a very active WhatsApp chat are places to bond and connect with other parents going through the same things with newborns, from sleeping (or lack of it), eating, and postpartum mental health concerns. It’s also an opportunity to talk about being a parent in the legal profession and the associated demands.
“Particularly for parents and lawyers who identify as female, we often have insecurities about how we perform, whether it’s ‘Mom Brain’ or just something going on in our personal lives that affects how we perform professionally,” says Johnson.
“One of the things Returnity does well is to reassure parents that they have the skills and to be confident in those skills. Many of us deal with impostor syndrome, and hearing from people who are also going through the same thing reminds you that ‘okay, I can do this, I have the skills to do this, and I have the talent.’”