Parent Stories

Christina Ironside

Mother to:
Zelda (6), Ingram (4), and two angel babies (1st & 3rd pregnancies)
Current roles:
Global Portfolio Manager, Scotch(™) tape at 3M | Previously at: Target Corporation, General Mills
Christina's story

How this (self-identified) type-a planner used her pregnancies, losses and parental leave experiences to pave the way for others, end stigma & build community

When Christina was preparing for her first maternity leave at 3M, she had a lot of questions: Are there other mothers who have gone through this? How much leave did they take? How did they go about it with HR? What pitfalls did they experience?

She quickly realized that there was no cookie-cutter approach for expecting parents going on leave, which inspired her to use her personal experience to build something that helped her and her peers for years to come.

As Christina thought more about what she could do to contribute, she knew she had one main goal: to create a safe space for expecting and working caregivers to share their questions, experiences and challenges.

This was especially important to Christina, as she had two miscarriages during her time at 3M, which were extremely difficult to navigate both personally and professionally.

After her first loss, she threw herself back into work because she felt work was all she had - to the point that she presented at an international strategy conference to hundreds of colleagues just six hours after having emergency surgery at 1am…the outcome of a missed miscarriage and botched D&C.

Christina’s second loss left her shell-shocked - but she still went to work the next day to attend her division’s family picnic, feeling obligated due to having RSVP’d ‘yes.’ Additionally, she knew her daughter would enjoy it and she was struggling to parent her child while grieving her baby.

Neither loss had been ‘announced’ to her teams, which meant support from her colleagues and supervisors varied. She remembers wishing her peers just knew what happened because relaying the news over and over again kept the wounds fresh and also made colleagues uncomfortable due to the stigma and secrecy of miscarriages.

Though it was her choice to work through her losses, navigating this kind of trauma at work is hard. Having been employed at other organizations with parent communities, Christina thought 3M would benefit from something similar, so she began working on what would become The Parents Network (TPN) in 2016 - a support network for 3M caregivers.

TPN came to life before Christina actually gave birth and after experiencing her first loss. Not only did it feel good to build a safe space for others who may have been going through similar experiences; it was designed to address working parenthood across the whole gamut: from sharing tips and tricks about planning the logistics of taking parental leave, to addressing broad topics like balancing your career with family.

Today, it is a thriving employee resource group touching and benefiting thousands of lives across 3M and is driving a true cultural shift of embracing and supporting employees’ whole selves.

<p class="content-highlight">Read Christina’s full Q&A below to learn how she created a successful leave and return plan, prioritized family without sacrificing her career goals, and championed parents in her organization.</p>

Tell us about your experience preparing for parental leave. What things did you find MOST helpful to do before you went on leave?

I am a type-a planner - as “J” as it gets on the Myers-Briggs scale - so take my prep with a grain of salt!  For context, my first and second leaves (and subsequent preps) looked very different, as I was in two very different roles and 3M made incredible improvements in our leave policy in the two years between. Additionally, my first & third pregnancies ended in miscarriages, so planning was an attempt to maintain control & keep “worst case scenarios” at bay.

Professionally, I created a work plan so the contractor I hired had a weekly task list to follow to maintain all my projects. I included all relevant team members, background on each project, detailed tasks and timelines, and the milestones to hit in the time I was out.

I also created a task list for my supervisor so she could push the buttons needed, at the times needed, to maintain my employment status while out… and then reinstate my return to work, as planned.

Personally, I created a spreadsheet to calculate the logistics of [how time off would be calculated] taking leave, the amount I was going (or, more accurately, not going) to make over the leave period, and created calendar reminders for all the paperwork i would need to file to maintain my employment.

I also requested access to the lactation rooms so that I could pump on my first day back & not have to monkey with chasing down requests/access upon my hectic return.

How was your “return to work” period? How did that experience change your perspective on working parenthood?

The anticipation of returning is always worse than the actual act of returning. So much of your “old life” muscle memory kicks in, so for me, returning to work felt familiar after a 4th trimester of all new everything.

For my first maternity leave, return-to-work was a huge challenge because I had triggered a change in employment status with the amount of unpaid time off I took. Luckily, the night before my return, a colleague emailed me to prepare me with some tips: I wouldn’t have badge access, so I arranged to meet a friend at the door to let me in.

This same colleague also met me by the elevators to show me where and how to access the lactation room and suggested I arrange lunch with friends to have a safe space, if I felt emotional on that first day. I was on an internal consulting/strategy team with project-based work, so my actual work reentry was pretty low key. I had tied up all my projects ahead of leave and could pick up projects as resources were needed (aka as I was ready to take on more).

During my leave, a second time mom had shared, “Your 80% is like everyone else’s 100% because you were running at 120% before.” As my project worked ramped back up again, I saw this come to fruition and it became my mantra when I would start to feel like I wasn’t doing “enough.” I learned to be gentler on myself and accepted the 80% version of my work.

I started a new job three months into being back, so while it was difficult to onboard with a new team, it was also great to set distinct boundaries on working hours. My boss was super supportive (she had had 2 children in her career) and encouraged me to catch my breath while pumping (“read a magazine, don’t do emails”) and gave me the onus on decisions related to business travel & after-hours events. I opted in to most, but it was nice to have the choice.

My return after my second maternity leave was almost anticlimactic: No one else knew I was returning! I was shocked to see how little had progressed due to challenges outside of our control that no one had anticipated.

I came back in the midst of a massive global platform launch and traveled to Europe when my son was six months old. Due to lack of refrigeration and different donor standards, I dumped well over 2 gallons of milk in Poland…and cried watching it go down the drain.

Outside of the traditional return to work following parental leave, I also experienced it after loss. Neither of the pregnancies we lost had been ‘announced’ to teams and thus support varied. My closest friends and colleagues knew and after the losses, I shared with my immediate supervisors. It was important to me to be authentic and vulnerable about this time in my life because I was in bereavement, while trying to maintain my work. I didn’t want to make excuses, but I did appreciate grace and understanding of the significant trauma I and my family were experiencing. Working through the loss was both a choice (a distraction) but also a necessity (no recognized time off for the grieving period).

After my first loss in 2015, I threw myself back into work because it was “all I had.” I had emergency surgery at 1am and was presenting at an international strategy conference to hundreds of colleagues by 7am.

Following my next loss in 2017, I was shell-shocked. I went to work, I attended our division’s family picnic because I had RSVP’d and our daughter would enjoy it, but could hardly speak because I was so gutted. I wanted people to just know what had happened because I couldn’t actually say the words out loud, but colleagues who knew were trying to be respectful and didn’t widely share because of the stigma usually attached to loss… so then I just felt weird & awkward for months.

You started 3M’s parents ERG (“The Parents Network”). Why did you decide to launch this group?

Planning for my maternity leave laid the foundation of The Parent Network. It started as an effort to find other mothers who had gone through it all. I just kept thinking, “I am NOT the first and I will NOT be the last,” and having worked at two companies I knew had active mom groups and maternity leave communities, I was shocked we didn’t have something similar at our large corporation, which is why I set out to create it.

But another idea had nagged me since I started at the company. I would attend Women’s Leadership Forum events where executive women spoke about their global careers and I always wanted to ask, “What did your partner do for work while you were in x country? Did your children enjoy the experience? Did you opt to separate the family while you were on assignment? How did parental leave affect your career?”

But it was just not quite appropriate in that setting (they may not have a partner, they may not have children, etc). So the other aspect of TPN was creating a supportive and safe space to broach the topics that fall within the “Double Burden:” balancing your career with your family.

Can you share a few tips and tricks about how to structure a successful parents ERG? What things worked really well with TPN, and what mistakes did you make along the way that other companies/employees should avoid?

My advice:

  • Take the right partners & intentionally socialize the idea across the organization to gain support. It may not be the full organization you are planning & hoping for, but you have to start with the idea that will be backed by HR and can grow it from there.
  • Be as inclusive as possible: the need for support is greater than mom’s alone. The dialogue must really be on parents. And beyond that, the dialogue must also include the notion of caregiving in any capacity and any point along the parent journey.
  • Take your time: I started conversations in January 2016 and the first event for TPN was hosted in January 2018. There was a 16.5 week “break” in efforts while I was on leave but it took almost an entire year to gain approvals, solicit and construct a steering committee - and then build a plan for the upcoming year. Treat it like a marathon vs. a sprint to bring the right partners on board and get the right levels of support.
  • Be sure it lives beyond the founder. In every step of the process I was sure to consider the sustainability of the organization. I chaired the network until my son’s birth and was sure to identify a chair-elect prior to my leave and put rigor behind our leadership succession planning to be sure the group would live on after my tenure.
  • Take on an executive sponsor. We had a vocal executive who believed in our mission and advocated for our group to receive funding, attention & priority.

If I could rename our organization, it would be The Caregiver Network to truly embody the inclusion of our topics.

How does TPN work with company leadership to enact change at scale for working parents?

3M | TPN offers a multi-pronged approach for caregivers at 3M: both a safe space to learn, share & grow with one another, but also a key body of advocacy to drive change via policies. There was a big caution flag that TPN would become a dumping ground for complaints, so our first steering committee/leadership team made a calculated effort to remain a neutral party to collect and raise the collective voices of caregivers.

An example of our advocacy was securing expectant mother parking spots. I shared a personal story from my pregnancy where I had slipped and fallen on our icy surface lot in the winter. My daughter and I were ultimately fine, but I was terrified. I ended up applying for a handicap space (doctor’s note & DMV required to do so) because of my frequent doctor’s appointments during the winter months. Our executive sponsor was ignited by my experience and, with the steering committee, advocated to HR, building services and facilities to reserve spaces and create a process for getting assigned the spaces.  

You’ve been at 3M for a long time - over 8 years so far - and since before you had children. To what do you credit your long tenure at 3M especially as it relates to working parenthood? Are there specific things (processes, policies, culture, coworkers, projects) that you have found most helpful in supporting your continued career within the same company?

Following grad school, I had a few employment offers and specifically chose to come to 3M knowing we wanted to try to start a family in the not-too-distant future. I appreciated that they did NOT have an up-or-out culture and that it is a culture that rewards hard work but does not penalize you for taking a breath when needed. Also, given the multinational conglomerate operating model, I liked that I could have variety in my career (functional, international and industry), as well as have the opportunity for international assignments to expose our family to other cultures.

Since becoming a mother, I fiercely protect 4-8pm on my calendar and am forthright across my teams about this priority: it is often the ONLY 4 hours a day I spend with my children. I have been on calls with our CMO and President and been asked if I could stay on (past pickup time) and honestly replied “No, because I have to pick up my children” and their response was nothing but supportive and positive. THAT support and caring is what is helpful and truly inspiring to see in real life.

You’re a strong advocate for working parents and specifically working mothers. Why do you feel so passionately about advocating for working parents?

Not everyone can be a mother and not everyone can work. It's such a privilege to be a working parent, but the double burden is very real. Across our lives we are confronted with guilt and conditioned to hold up a shield of perfection. Life is not perfect and I am not perfect - and every time I have been “real” about this, I get waves of appreciation from other working parents for voicing our realities. My reputation is still intact, my career is still on course, my ambition is still in place: I am still me, AND I am a mother, too. I want all working parents to feel they have agency, that they can be their whole authentic selves everyday and bring their entire identity to the office.