As a mother and a professional, Lori Mihalich-Levin experienced the many challenges of working parents firsthand and discovered that there is all too often very little support for parents transitioning back to the workplace after the birth of a child. So, Lori created Mindful Return to empower parents with knowledge and a supportive community. Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Lori about valuable strategies for both parents and employers that encourage a mindful approach to working parenthood—helping parents to be present for their children while remaining engaged in their careers.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin is an attorney and the CEO and founder of Mindful Return, a program that guides new parents through the transition back to work after maternity and paternity leave.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Lori Mihalich-Levin join us today. Lori believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder and CEO of Mindful Return, author of ‘Back to Work After Bab: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave’ and co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast. She is the mother of two wonderful red-headed boys ages 9 and 11 and a healthcare lawyer in private practice. Her though leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times, Parenting and Thrive Global. Lori, could you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Sure JoAnn and thank you so much thank you so much for having me on today. I like to say that i wear three main hats in life which you’ve summarized a little bit in the bio. The first hat is that I am mom to two wonderful redheaded boys, ages 9 and 11 and they spent 15 straight months with us at home during the pandemic so i am very glad that they are back in school and all the activities are going again. Hat number two is that I am a practicing regulatory healthcare lawyer. I’m a Medicare reimbursement nerd and I represent academic medical centers in teaching hospitals and I do that now in about 10% of my professional work week and it’s sort of my legal side gig so to speak. My main professional hat is what is under hat number three I suppose which is that I am the CEO and founder of Mindful Return, a program that is designed to support working parents particularly through the transition back to work after having a baby, but then also along the working parent continuum.
Molly Ranns: Lori, thank you so much for being here with us today. As a mother who also wears a number of hats and whose children also spent what seems like ages at home with me during the pandemic, I’m very much looking forward to this conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a lawyer, as a mom and how you started doing this work?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Sure Molly. And yes, it sounds like we were both in the trenches together during the pandemic. It was quite the crazy time. I’d say, it was — the pandemic for us was perhaps the second hardest year of our lives, maybe first, i don’t know. It was vying In for that title. The other hardest year of our Lives, my husband and I, being the first year that we had two children and it was really that year in my professional career that prompted me to create Mindful Return in the first place. So I was a healthcare lawyer initially in private practice, clerked for a year after law school, then went into private practice and after a number of years in the private sector, i went and was counsel in-house at Healthcare trade Association. And when I had my two boys, I went back to work, full-time after both of them and found it to be challenging after baby number one and then after baby number two, the wheels definitely came off. My husband and I like to say that one plus one felt like 85 and things were not going very smoothly.
I looked around for resources at the time that could support me in this very intense personal and professional identity transition into working parenthood and I came up short. i found really snarky advice that perhaps you’ve seen out there as a working mom on the internet Molly, all about, you know, how not to put photos of your baby up on your desk or maybe people won’t take you seriously. Or, you know, this was also 8 and 10 years ago or 9 and 11 years ago. And so, hopefully the conversations have changed but I found advice on, you know, how I might leak on my shirt or you know, how I should perhaps not tell people when I’m off to go do a school function, et cetera. And I found all of that advice not helpful and I looked for courses that I could take, you know, what class I could take, how to puree baby food course. I could take how to massage my baby course. I could take a birth plan creation course, but I could not take how to go back to work after having a baby course.
And so really, I set out to create what I wished had existed for myself at the time because I realized that this was a problem that was really just much bigger than me, myself.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Lori, what are the most common challenges you see among new parents returning to work after parental leave?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: JoAnn, there are probably 752 challenges that happen to you returning from parental leave and so, you know, we don’t have that kind of time but I will talk about a couple of the big challenges. Some of them are logistical, some of them are emotional and some of them I think are very much identity related.
So you’ve got the logistical challenges right of especially with people returning to offices now post pandemic. How do I get another human being dressed and out the door and ready to go at a time that fits on my schedule with all of the, like, accoutrement of all the baby supplies and the pump parts, if you’re pumping and all the logistical stuff, right? There’s that. There’s the emotional piece around I’m entrusting my child with another caregiver, right, for the day, someone who probably hasn’t necessarily spent much time with my child and while I’m a intellectually trust this person and know that they have a great resume, trust builds over time and I haven’t built that up yet, right? So there’s the emotional piece, there’s, you know, the G word, the guilt that comes up for working parents, of feeling like they should be in two places at once.
And then there’s the identity piece that happens in new working parenthood which is, you know, especially lawyers. Like we like to think we’re really good at what we’re doing and we spent all these years learning how to do our craft and we have clients and we’re taking care of them and we’ve gotten into a groove professionally oftentimes, and then we’re presented with a situation where we have absolutely no idea what’s going on. We don’t know how to keep this little amazing, beautiful and wonderful blob of a human being alive. We feel fairly incompetent in that role and we’re faced with the question of well, who am I now in this new season of my life and how does one piece of my life? In fact, the other and it’s sort of an existential crisis. So that would be some of the highlights of the challenges that people are going through as they transition to working parenthood JoAnn.
Molly Ranns: I could not agree Lori. How can legal employers support new parents through this major life transition?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Mmm, such a great question Molly. There are so many things legal employers can do. And, you know, sort of like, the list of 572 challenges, there are 572 wonderful things you can do to help. I’d say, first of all is to have a mindset of believing in the new parent. So I want to share some interesting neuroscience research with you. So there is a professor at Yale University who has studied the human brains development and the adult human brains development and her name is Ruth Feldman and she has found that the one year in our entire adult human experience when the brain is the most neuroplastic is the year following the birth of one’s child.
So, what does that mean to you as an employer? It means that you’ve got employees, you have people, you know, colleagues, people you’re working with, who are gaining amazing and career critical skills through parenthood. Their brain is literally exploding this year and they wind up being more focused, more able to prioritize, more courageous, more able to pivot in situations that they previously maybe couldn’t have. In other words, they’re growing up really quickly in the world by having a parent and so to the extent you as an employer can commit to believing in them for the long haul and say, “Hey, we know this is a period of time when transition is happening and yeah, you’re probably going to be a little sleepless for a little while. We know that this is a big change and we want you to come back and know that you are going to be an asset to our organization.” I think that is the mindset to have as an employer.
There are also very specific things that employers can do. They can adopt paid parental leave policies, they can adopt really good ramp up on-ramp and off-ramp policies so that t when someone is preparing for leave, they can taper down their work leading up to leave and then be able to come back to work in a phased-in sort of flexible manner. Also, they can provide supports around the return to work. You know, there is the Mindful Return course that they can take. There’s mentoring programs and coaching and things that they can put into place to make sure that the parent is supported through that return.
I’d also say there are a lot of things that an employer can do, but as a final note, to really help the new parent not feel isolated, it can be really helpful to make sure that they’re tapped into a working parent community at your own place of employment. For example, ask the question, is there a working parent affinity group or employee resource group? If not, is it possible to start convening one. I am a serial founder of working parent group so I’ve gotten one stood up both at the Trade Association where I worked and at Dentons, the global law irm where I worked as well. And these groups can be fantastic for making sure parents are not feeling isolated and also for these business development opportunities. I got work from the other parents I was hanging out with that the brown bag lunch that I went to with the other parents. So there are a lot of support you can put into place. It’s not a hopeless cause and your efforts will be rewarded by greater employee retention.
Molly Ranns: I love those suggestions Lori and that research is very interesting and I can certainly see it to be true. We are now going to take a short break from our conversation with Attorney Lori Mihalich-Levin to thank our sponsors.
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JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We’re here today with Lori Mihalich-Levin: talking about empowering working parents. Lori, why is it so important to encourage both moms and dads to take parental leave?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Oh JoAnn. So I truly and deeply believe that we are not going to get to a place of gender parity in our world until we can degender the idea of caregiving, right, and degender the idea of flexibility. And so if we long for a world where men and women are both offered equal advancement opportunities, where men and women are both paid equally in the workforce, then I strongly, strongly believe that parental leave is the area where we do have an opportunity to make good change. So for example, whenever you have men who take the paternity leave that is offered to them, you often see a couple of things happen. One, that father tends to be more engaged in the household activities and the care of the child and some data has shown that his partner, his female partner’s career tends to do better over time if he takes his paternity leave. So really if we want to be encouraging women in the workforce, we should be encouraging dad’s to take their time off.
The other piece that we see happen is that when a father feels empowered to take his parental leave, then others around him are also encouraged to take the leave. So if you’re a dad listening to this and you’re like, “I’m not sure if I should take my leave or not.” Take the leave because it will mean something to the next person after you. When we can have a conversation that it is just as normal for a father to take the time off as a mother to take the time off, then maybe we’ll get a little closer to a place where women aren’t discriminated against because, oh, they might go on leave so I’m not going to give them that project or I’m not going to hire them for that position. So I think degendering parental leave is so, so important to overall gender equality.
Molly Ranns: Absolutely Lori. I’m hearing you talk today about loving your kids and loving your career. What strategies do you have for dealing with that inner conflict?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Mmm, so this is a conflict that probably every working parent has to lean into. And for me, i think a couple of key strategies have been really important. One, focusing on the idea that although there is tension between work and life, there are a host of rewards from having work in life. Dr. Yael Schonbrun at Brown University talks about that concept of work life enrichment and that is a concept that really, really hits home for me. It’s the idea that work actually enriches life and life enriches work. So I know that I am a better lawyer because I take time every day away from working and lawyering to be a parent and to connect with my children and to think in creative ways that I otherwise wouldn’t and I know I’m a better parent because I do not try to attend to my children 24/7 and I have a career and I have passions that I pursue. I know I’m modeling for my boys the idea that a woman can be really passionate about a career and that she takes care of herself, right, and carves out time and boundaries to support herself.
So I mean, i have a daily micro mindfulness practice. I have a daily Yoga practice. I really try to make sure that I have some ways to anchor myself on a daily basis so that I don’t, you know, get pushed into the overwhelm and the burnout phase that I know is entirely possible and has happened to me before in working parenthood. So very good at setting the boundaries, very good at focusing on work life enrichment and I’d like to remember and call to mind all the strengths that parenthood gives me. The last thing I’ll say in response to this particular question is that I have learned a number of ways to reframe guilt.
And one of my favorites that I have learned from a coach has been when you’re saying to yourself, i feel guilty because, it could be I feel guilty because I’m sitting here working on this brief or this memo when, you know, would otherwise be at my kid’s softball game or something like that. To change that narrative in our head from I feel guilty because to I made this decision because it’s much more empowering to ground in our own values and say I made this decision to write this memo right now so that tonight, i can be fully present and fully engaged with my kids whenever we’re having dinner and trick-or-treating or whatever it is. So, you know, just those little word reframes i think can make a big difference in how we’re thinking about that work parent tension.
JoAnn Hathaway: Lori, before we wrap up today, do you have any last-minute thoughts to share with our guest?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Yes. So, working parents out there, you are doing an amazing job. This is my announcement to you. The systems that we live in are not always set up to support working parenthood. We don’t have national paid leave, we don’t live in societies where there are villages to help, you know, take care of our children. I will even, you know, walk on teetering edge here and say that the billable hour systems that a lot of us live on, they are not particularly conducive to people who become more efficient through working parenthood. So there a lot of systemic problems and to the extent you’re ever feeling like this is me, I’m doing a bad job, I’m not set up for this. Reassure yourself that it’s not you, it’s that there are a lot of systems that are in place that are not necessarily ideal for working parents and you are doing the best you can. So I just want to sort of reach out into the airwaves and give all the working parents out there some encouragement and a big hug and say like you’re doing a great job, keep putting one foot in front of the other and you got this.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful! Well, it seems like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Lori Mihalich-Levin for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Lori, if our listeners would like to follow up with you, what is the best way to do so?
Lori Mihalich-Levin: Thanks Molly. Yes, you can feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. You can check out our website, mindfulreturn.com. For all of our resources, we have programs specifically to help retain working parents so there’s a page on our website specifically for employers who can use our programs to encourage their employees. We’ve got all the social media sites covered so you can find us on Instagram where I do a Tuesday tip every week for working parents. We are on Facebook, you can feel free to link in with me and say that you listened to this podcast. I also co-host a podcast called Parents at Work that you can feel free to check out and I know this was mentioned at the beginning but I have a book called “Back to Work After Baby’ that you can find on Amazon and all the places that one finds books. Thank you Molly.
Molly Ranns: Lori, thank you so much. Again, this is information that I certainly could have used nine years ago when my first child was born. So thank you so much for being with us today.
Lori Mihalich-Levin: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Molly Ranns:This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time. Thank you for listening.
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