Work

I asked Facebook if I could work part-time from home after I had my baby. They said no—so I quit

Eliza Khuner and her daughter
(Photo: Eliot Khuner | ekphoto.com)

A year ago, I had to make the hardest decision of my life: Choose between my dream job and my baby girl.

I loved being a data scientist in Facebook's Social Good department. The open culture and shared sense that we could reach so many people and improve their lives made me enjoy my work even more.

Facebook's benefits for new parents were quite generous by US standards, including four months' paid leave, $4,000 in "baby cash," partial reimbursement of childcare expenses and ample lactation rooms in every building.

I was incredibly lucky to work there for five months while pregnant with my third baby. My 5-year-old and 3-year-old spent the day with a patchwork of family members and babysitters, while my husband worked as a software developer. Working full-time left me just enough time to feed my kids, tuck them into bed and catch enough sleep for myself and my unborn baby. I was both exhilarated and exhausted.

After my daughter was born, I soaked up as much time with her as I could. I loved her tiny yawns and delicious toes — and dreaded the end of my leave. During wakeful nights of nursing, my mind ran in circles scheming on how to return full-time. I wished for on-site child care so I could bring her to work and take nursing breaks.

Maybe I could leave early and make up the hours after my kids went to bed. I'd catch up on missed sleep over the weekends. Holding the baby who saw me as her world, I tried to convince myself that I could leave her all day. I couldn't.

(Pictured above: Eliza and her daughter; Photo: Eliot Khuner)

When it was time to return to work, I asked HR if I could work part-time from home, while my baby was young. They said no. How about unpaid leave until she's a bit older? Also no. Heavyhearted, I submitted my resignation letter.

I also wrote another letter about my experience and shared it on Facebook in an internal group for all Facebook employees. I told them I knew the company could do better. Almost instantly, my phone buzzed with a comment. Then again, and again.

Hundreds of employees wrote to say, "Me, too." Mothers said they cried every day dropping their babies off at daycare, that it physically hurt to be apart. Fathers said they longed to be in their children's lives more. Young women were afraid to risk their career; some said they were freezing their eggs, while others said they simply gave up on their dreams of ever having kids.

My post received over 5,000 likes, 700 comments, and 80 shares on Facebook. Employees called for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer. COO Sheryl Sandberg chimed in, explaining that it was something they wanted to do, but that it just wasn't the right time.

Reading through the comments, I thought about how, in Sandberg's book "Lean In," she urged companies to accommodate women and mothers, but conspicuously never mentioned part-time options or extended parental leave.

An in-office, 40-hour workweek requirement is at odds with the human need for family and community.

Three days later, I stood in front of Zuckerberg with my baby strapped to my chest and told him, "I see the posters here every day that say, 'What would you do if you weren't afraid?'"

I asked him what he would do: "Would you lead this company and the US in supporting working parents? Would you give us the chance to show you how kick-ass and loyal we can be with fewer hours at our desks — if you weren't afraid?"

I challenged him to stop making us choose.

Zuckerberg's response was no different than Sandberg's. He valued time with kids and thought it was important, he said, but offering more options for parents couldn't happen right now.

I walked away still feeling torn, but knowing that I wasn't alone in needing more time. An in-office, 40-hour workweek requirement is at odds with the human need for family and community.

When I shared my story with the public last year, the widespread response proved once again how common my struggle was. Thousands of parents said they want more time to care for their babies.

Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, posted my story on his LinkedIn page. "Surprising that even the wealthiest companies don't offer more flexible and compelling situations for moms," he wrote in the caption.

A few commented on how spoiled I sounded, and that the company isn't obligated to pay for my child. "I hope you get the time to care for your loved ones when you need it. You deserve it. Everyone does," I wrote back.

(Pictured above: Eliza and her second son; Photo: Eliot Khuner)

One person said that it was unfair of me to ask a company I had worked at for less than a year for a flexible schedule. I responded by saying that I did disclose my pregnancy — and the fact that I had two young children — before I was given an offer.

"They were terrific about it and super supportive. I also stated clearly from the start that I would happily take a pay cut in exchange for fewer hours, but they said that had to be worked out with my team," I added. "That's why I went ahead and asked for it after my daughter was born."

If such a successful company refuses to acknowledge this, then what chance do the rest of working families have?

I know I'm unusually fortunate to have a partner who supports our family while I care for my kids. Most working Americans do not have this option, much less paid leave of any length. The US is the only industrialized nation that doesn't require employers to provide paid leave for new parents.

Only eight states and 40% of employers in the US currently offer any paid parental leave. But a company that boasts three meals a day for employees and a redwood grove inside one of its offices has the resources to accommodate parents who need more time with their children. If such a successful company refuses to acknowledge this, then what chance do the rest of working families have?

(Pictured above: Eliza and her oldest son; Photo: Eliot Khuner)

Time to care and connect is something we all need. Remote work, part-time hours and longer leave need to be an option for everyone. In recent years, more mothers have shared publicly how they stepped down, having buckled under the stress of juggling work and care-taking.

Tech companies lament lack of diversity with words not backed by action; policy change has been depressingly sluggish. Telecommuting, working off-hours and job-sharing are all within reach thanks to technology, yet leaders resist taking the leap.

Companies that push the boundaries of what's possible with their products turn conservative when it comes to supporting families. If you want to keep parents and get the best from your employees, expand your idea of work beyond the nine-to-five desk model. For every parent who protests, there are many more who suffer silently because they can't afford to lose their job or cut their hours.

In our lives we build our careers and we build our communities. I'm calling for the time and space to do both.

I encourage everyone to stand up for their own needs — and for those who don't have a voice. Tell your managers and colleagues to take the lead in doing what's right. The whole society benefits when work-life balance is attainable for all.

Beneath the rigidity in number of hours worked and resistance to paid time off is a question of values: Do we value the universal need to connect and care for each other? Are we a nation of human resources, or are we a nation of human beings?

My daughter walks and calls me "mama" now. I'm still looking for part-time work; the opportunities are scarce — not just for my area of work, but across the board.

I don't regret my choice, but a mother is not all of who I am. In our lives we build our careers and we build our communities. I'm calling for the time and space to do both — for each other and for our future. What would you do if you weren't afraid?

*CNBC Make It reached out to Facebook, who declined to comment.

Eliza Khuner is a data scientist who worked at Facebook from November 2017 to July 2018. She currently lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three kids.

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Eliza Khuner and her daughter
(Photo: Eliot Khuner | ekphoto.com)
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