So this article is trending: “I want all the perks of maternity leave — without having any kids.” It’s an interview with Meghann Foye, author of a book entitled “Meternity,” about how she believes that American society, and particularly woman, need to stop allowing our careers to control our lives and make more time for ourselves. Of course, it’s provocative enough to get a rise out of women – mothers and non-mothers alike. On the week leading up to Mother’s Day, it seems like a fitting time to address some misconceptions about maternity leave.
Misconception #1: Maternity leave is in any way comparable to a vacation.
In the Facebook groups I’m in, several women are enraged by the premise of the piece. How dare Foye glorify maternity leave by making it seem like it’s refreshing? Does she really not understand what it’s like to take care of a newborn? The sleepless nights? The endless feedings? The hundreds of dirty diapers? The dishes and laundry piling up? The sheer luxury of that first 10-minute shower after 3 days? Does she not grasp the pain and discomfort associated with recovering from childbirth, and the raging hormonal roller-coaster that ensues?
Misconception #2: Maternity leave is 12 weeks of paid time off.
One statement Foye made in the NY Post piece that interested me was, “It seemed that parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility.” This is apparently related to a perception that mothers have the “excuse” of leaving work at a reasonable time to pick up children.
This whole concept left me feeling confused – what flexibility? When you work full time and have children, there is nothing you crave more than flexibility! But unfortunately, most jobs aren’t very family-friendly or flexible. My son needs to go to the dentist? My daughter has an unexpected pediatrician visit? I have to take the same sick leave that I accrue at the same rate as my childless colleagues. Well, except that I’ve exhausted it all by taking “maternity leave,” during which there is no mandated paid time off. Let me emphasize: The US is still the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.
Misconception #3: Women with children have flexibility in the workplace.
There’s no special flexibility at my job because I have kids. And as a disabled mother, there are even more challenges. Murphy’s law says that my adaptive vehicle, power wheelchair, and small children will all malfunction or take ill the same week that I have an important deadline, and the next week I’ll be down sick with whatever crud they passed on, all whilst taking care of them on my day home from work sick. I don’t get extra hours of leave; that is not a “perk” of motherhood. If anything, women with children are careful not to push the envelope at work, because of our heightened awareness that we may be seen as less dedicated employees if we seem to be too focused on family. In fact, I rarely take the time off that I should, because so much of my leave goes to my children’s health or disability related medical appointments. No “mental health days” and precious few vacation days for this mama.
Misconception #4: Women return to work from maternity leave feeling refreshed.
Another quote that surprised me was, “As I watched my friends take their real maternity leaves, I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves… it seemed like those few weeks of them shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.” Wow, Foye’s co-workers are either highly unusual or possibly in line for an Oscar. Coming back from maternity leave is one of the most difficult and scary things a woman can do. Confidence? You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re worried about your job performance, your child, your leaky boobs, and the perceptions of those around you. You’re still in the fog of getting very little sleep and recovering from the hormonal and physical changes to your body. You might have to pump every couple hours. Your focus hasn’t shifted; it’s been divided over and over!
Misconception #5: It’s easy for women to balance their career and family demands.
Foye goes on to state, “Women are bad at putting ourselves first. But when you have a child, you learn how to self-advocate to put the needs of your family first.” What I think she fails to understand here is that when women advocate to set boundaries with work, we are judged harshly, and viewed as not taking our careers seriously – just as she alleged, making childless co-workers “pick up the slack.” The reality about trying to balance your family and your career as a woman is that you often lose opportunities, especially for promotion. To make matters worse, you are likely to feel a tremendous amount of guilt every time you have to put your family second, when you miss your child’s school party at 2:45 PM or you can’t volunteer to attend a field trip because of work obligations or lack of accessible transportation. For career moms, it’s a lose-lose situation. Especially for those of us with disabilities.
While I applaud Foye’s efforts to illuminate the problem with our contemporary work-obsessed culture, I disagree with any attempt to compare me-time to maternity leave. If by work-life balance she means choosing to nurture your passions and set boundaries with your career, by all means we should do that – all of us. The key is choice. Foye appears to have the choice, and by that I mean the opportunity and the privilege to choose to quit a job, and write a book. Good for her! I mean that. It’s important to remember, though, that there are so many other women who don’t have very many choices. Women who work more than one job to make ends meet. Mothers who care for their children and their aging parents and struggle every day just to provide for their families.
Work-life balance isn’t about a few weeks off. No maternity leave, vacation, or sabbatical is going to give any woman “balance.” We think of work-life balance as a goal, something we can achieve or gain, but really it’s a value. Values are like a compass that guides us on this journey called life. It’s a series of choices we make every day, moment by moment. It’s choosing to be fully present while we prioritize our demands and shape our boundaries. It’s choosing to be aware and mindful of all our relationships, at work and at home.
When days are hard, I want more “me-time” too. But I can reflect on my life and appreciate how many privileges I have, including an education, a well-paying jobs, and a supportive family. And I made the choice to have children. I chose to bring two beautiful young people into this world. That choice changed me. There will never be any decision in my life now that is just about me. No matter what stage my children are at, being a good mother to them is one of my core values. Instead of “meternity,” I chose an eternity of maternity. This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate all the women who make those sacrifices, and in return accept innumerable gifts.