Maternity Leave Isn’t a Break From Work

By
A working mother in the United States
A working mother in the United StatesPhoto: Raoul Minsart

Yesterday, mothers across the country clicked on the New York Post headline “I want all the perks of maternity leave — without having any kids” with some sense of the irony therein.

A lighthearted call for some “me” time from a childless woman who works too much? In the New York Post? As a tie-in for a lighthearted novel about a woman who fakes a pregnancy in order to get some time off? Surely we’ve got bigger fish to fry than this. But as I read on, I wasn’t sure I did, actually.

In fact, I came away wondering if the article wasn’t somehow emblematic of the entire problem our nation has with mothers in particular, and parents in general: i.e. we aren’t curious about their lives, we do almost nothing to support them, and we consider them an unwelcome burden on all fronts. We are a nation that hates children, parents, and families — as a matter of policy, not just in bars and airplanes.

But author Meghann Foye has a point, doesn’t she? Americans work too hard: Study after study suggests that not only are we more stressed out than people living in other industrialized nations, we work a lot more hours than they do, too. So her call for flexibility in the workplace seems at first glance to be totally rational. Unfortunately, it’s couched in numerous assumptions that she hasn’t bothered to investigate.

Foye defines her concept of “meternity leave” as “socially mandated time and space for self-reflection [that] may never come” otherwise, suggesting that workplaces should build this flexibility in for “women, and to a lesser degree, men.”

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that, in the United States, almost no women actually get maternity leave — the figure hovers around 13 percent, since leave is not mandated either socially or legally — Foye seems to misunderstand what maternity leave actually is. It has, essentially, two functions: for the body to repair itself from the drastic event that is giving birth (an event that, for one in three U.S. women, includes major abdominal surgery) and to keep the newborn human baby alive and cared for in a particularly fragile period. 

This is a period that most mothers, I suspect, would suggest has little “space for self-reflection.” I didn’t shower for days, wore only sweatpants, and broke out in post-baby acne during my maternity leave. I actively avoided mirrors: no self-reflection here.

But beyond that, much of what Foye seems to be annoyed about isn’t that birthing women get a “vacation” post-baby: It’s her assertion that they get flexibility once they’re back to work. “I couldn’t help but feel envious when parents on staff left the office at 6 p.m. to tend to their children, while it was assumed co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack,” she writes. “It seemed that parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility.”

Sure, there are jobs that offer some flexibility for parents. There are workplaces with understanding bosses (especially when those bosses have children themselves). But there are many more bosses who don’t understand or care, who fire women for being late once again, who say “no” to time off for a doctor’s appointment. In fact, the gender pay gap between women and men is widened when women become mothers. The suggestion that women get perks or a pass professionally when they have children is so unfounded that it verges on absurd, surrounded as we are by evidence that becoming a mother will hurt or end your career, that you’ll make less money for the same work, and that you will have a harder time getting promoted.

I do sympathize with Foye: Being a parent is one of those things that is completely uninteresting until you become one. I, too, lingered under the supposition that I could blog from home sans child care with a newborn; that I’d get back into the gym six weeks postpartum; that I’d still go to the dentist regularly.

But two and a half years into my journey as a mother, the reality couldn’t be more different. The truth is that there is nothing in this world less flexible than an infant (besides a toddler), and being a parent means never doing anything spur of the moment again. It means relentlessly planning backups for backups and often, it means constant anxiety about work: Will you get fired if you’re late once more because the kid threw up all over you? Will you be passed over for promotion in favor of a woman without children, or literally any man? Probably!

Foye may have hit upon a cute premise for a novel, but she’s ignoring the fact that, after maternity leave, most women’s careers will absolutely suffer. And it is much worse for working-class parents than for the ones she worked alongside as an editor at a magazine. Remember: 69.9 percent of U.S. mothers work, yet we have no parental-leave policy in the U.S., nor do we have adequate or affordable child-care options.

“Bottom line: Women are bad at putting ourselves first,” Foye writes. “But when you have a child, you learn how to self-advocate to put the needs of your family first.” It’s clear she doesn’t understand the difference between the needs of an individual woman, and the needs of her family. When that co-worker disappears at six, she’s not going home to watch Game of Thrones; she’s clocking in to job No. 2, also known as “the second shift.” It doesn’t take a ton of detective work to figure this out — all it requires is a degree of empathy.

There are many perks to being a mother: Kids are fun, and they force you to learn a lot about yourself. What they don’t do, though, is make your life more flexible. Creating flexibility is all your responsibility — something to try to achieve once all the emails are read and the laundry is folded and lunch is packed for tomorrow. Bottom line: The working mothers of this country could use “meternity leave,” too.