The Case for Maternity Leave

newbornYears ago I was firmly encamped on the “why should anyone have to pay for my choices?” side of the equation. It seemed pretty straight forward to me. An employer pays you to work and while on maternity leave you are *not* working so why should a paycheck come along with your leave? It wasn’t fair to the other employees and gave mothers a benefit that other workers didn’t get.

I was all about the equality. Then a funny thing happened along the way. I started working full time and got pregnant.

We had not intended to be pregnant so soon after I started work. I looked at the calendar and realized two things: 1) I could not afford to take any time off during the pregnancy if I wanted to get a paycheck during maternity leave and 2) if I had gotten pregnant a month earlier, I would not be eligible for any maternity leave at all. We barely dodged a bullet on that one. For the remainder of that pregnancy, I doggedly dragged myself to work no matter how bad I felt because I wanted to be able to take as much time as possible after the baby was born, but we could not afford to go unpaid. It was a hard pregnancy, not from a medical standpoint, but from a physical endurance standpoint. Oh, the places I threw up… Even still, I only managed to save about six weeks of leave. Luckily that leave happened to fall over Christmas time so the built-in work holidays extended my time to about seven weeks. It is very hard to leave a seven week old baby to go to work, but this was the choice we had made and it was just the way it was.

After that pregnancy we decided that amassing enough maternity leave for the next potential pregnancy would be a top priority. I scrimped and saved days, only taking time when it was absolutely required or over Christmas time. Family vacations were pretty much out. We did manage to take three days to go to Chattanooga for a long weekend once, but that was it.

Every possible day went into the bank and by the time I was pregnant again, I had built up enough time to be able to take a handful of days off during the pregnancy and then take nine full weeks off after the baby was born.

That pregnancy was a little bit easier because I didn’t get quite as sick–is that a boy thing?–and on the very worst days, I had enough time to call in sick. It wasn’t very many days, less than a week over the whole pregnancy, but enough so I felt like I could stay home if I was feeling especially horrible every now and again.

It is very hard leaving a nine week old baby to go back to work, but this was the choice we made and it was just the way it was. I was generally pleased with my second maternity leave. We made a plan and executed it. I got to stay home for nine weeks this time. I imposed no undue burden on my employer and I was only paid for days that everyone else got paid. Why should my decision to bear children obligate my employer?

Again after that pregnancy we decided that amassing enough maternity leave for the next potential pregnancy was a top priority. Again I scrimped and saved days. Again family vacations were out. With each maternity leave, my leave time was emptied out to zero and I had to start all over again every time. Every day put in the time bank was security for the potential of next time.

It was during this interim between pregnancies that my thoughts about maternity leave began to change. I admit my changing opinions were prompted by my own flagging energy. I was tired. I needed a vacation. I worried about children getting sick, me getting sick, something happening which required time from me. I had exhausted my paid time and almost all of my FMLA time. If something unexpected happened that required more than a day or two off, I would quickly go unpaid which would be catastrophic for our family. With FMLA I only had three weeks of time off left of guaranteed employment which had to last an entire year. If anything major went wrong, we would be totally screwed. It was very stressful.

As I had to deal with this cloud of unease over my head, I watched my non-childbearing coworkers go on leisurely vacations to the Bahamas, take regular extended weekend gambling trips, go on impromptu vacations all over the country, and take whole weeks to visit family far away. None of this was possible for me. I wasn’t exactly jealous–well, perhaps–but the inequity of my equality began to clarify itself in my mind. While our employer treated us exactly the same, I was using my time to create and foster the next generation, which is exhausting, and my coworkers were using their time to relax and recharge their batteries. I was excluded from this renewal because I “chose” to have a baby and then another one and, maybe soon, another one. It was wasn’t that I regretted my decision to have babies, but that I realized that having babies is a fundamentally different activity than going on vacation. And given the length of my childbearing years, I could potentially go another decade without a vacation.

I came to the conclusion that there is no fair way to treat maternity in the workplace. You can either make allowance for women to have babies which means that non-childbearing employees will not get as much paid time off as the one who bears a child, or you treat pregnant women exactly the same which effectively means they forfeit any potential time off in favor of maternity leave. No wonder most women abandon childbearing after once or twice. It is an exhausting way to live. The question for society to decide is who will bear the brunt of the unfairness: grown adults who would be restricted from a benefit that did not apply or newly delivered mothers and their newborns?

Soon enough I was pregnant again. This pregnancy proceeded in a similar manner to the second working pregnancy. I had enough time to be able to take a handful of days off during the pregnancy, could even take time at the end of the pregnancy to start my leave before I actually delivered, and stayed home until the baby was nine weeks old. I suppose I could have been stricter with myself during the pregnancy and squeezed out another postpartum week, but coming to work day after day after day while pregnant after not having had a vacation for multiple years is a drag. I returned to work and had to start my time bank from scratch again, but a change in leave policies means that finally, after all these years, I can regularly go on vacation again.

Thus far I have whined a lot about my inability to use my vacation time as vacation time because that is the general extent of my problem, assuming all goes well. I am a professional, white-collar employee with paid sick and vacation time who was previously allowed to bank almost as much as I could. Since my income is our family’s only income, we could not afford for me to take unpaid time during maternity leave. The consequence is that I go to work everyday, we don’t go on vacation, and my leave is never as long as I am technically, legally entitled. This is tiring, but also the best case scenario for the majority of working mothers in the United States. Once my eyes were opened, through my own self-pity, to plight of pregnant women trying to live the ideal that “no one should have any obligation to pay for my choices,” I didn’t have to look far to find horror stories. I am supremely pampered and privileged compared to other women dependent on their own incomes to survive.

One woman I know had to have an unexpected, surprise emergency C-section, ending her first pregnancy when she was rushed directly from a regular prenatal visit into the operating room at the hospital. The extreme discomfort she was experiencing, which she had dismissed as the normal pains of late pregnancy because she didn’t know any better, was actually her son’s foot hanging out of her cervix at 37 weeks. Her employer at the time was a small company which did not have to comply with FMLA. She did not have paid time off. Two weeks after delivering a baby through major abdominal surgery, she returned to work. Two weeks was as long as she could afford to go unpaid. What choice did she have?

Another woman I know was a coach at a small college for a few minor sports. She had been pregnant when she got the job so FMLA, which guarantees time off after a full year of employment, did not apply to her. Her employer would not make any allowances for her to miss any time during the seasons. It just so happened she was due in the middle of one of the seasons. She looked at her game calendar and her due date. She found a stretch of time around her due date where there were five days between games. She coached a game on one day, scheduled an induction for the next day, delivered the baby, and then returned to her full coaching duties on the fifth day. What choice did she have? Missing a game opened the door for her to be fired and the law did not protect her.

Another woman I know is an immigrant to the US. She had been planning a trip back to her home country for years with her high school class reunion being the occasion. She had saved money and days for years to make it happen. Less than a year before this event was scheduled, she discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant. She had previously had some problems with infertility so this pregnancy was a joyous surprise, but also presented a conundrum. If she took a maternity leave, her time bank would be depleted and she would have to cancel her long-planned trip home. This was a severe disappointment to her. As her pregnancy progressed and she was generally healthy, she decided to shortchange her maternity leave, return to work early, and take her long anticipated trip home. Three weeks after delivering her baby, she returned to work. This is not necessarily the choice I would have made, but her opportunities for going home and seeing family and friends were extremely limited and I understand why she made it.

mother and childThese stories are not uncommon and they range from mildly vexing to unbelievably cruel. It isn’t that I know a whole bunch of unlucky pregnant women. It is that the average working pregnant woman faces these situations. As I take them in, what surprises me the most is the general unawareness that others have about the choices pregnant women have to make. I have been asked at work by coworkers how much extra paid leave I get for maternity. They are shocked when I say there is nothing extra. They have access to the same policies and documents that I do. Why do they think there is extra maternity leave? Consultants come through the building and ask pregnant women when they are going to start their maternity leave. They are aghast when the standard answer is “when the baby is born.” It is explained repeatedly that every day taken before birth is a day missed with the baby later, but they do not seem to comprehend. There seems to be this blind adherence to the widely held image of maternity leave beginning weeks before birth and extending three full months afterwards. This image has no basis in the reality of the lives of most working pregnant women. The reality is that the vast majority of every pregnant woman you see in any type of employment have had to make difficult, calculated, and usually exhausting choices to balance their health, their babies’ health, the demands of their employer, and their need for income. Most of the time, the woman’s health is deemed the most expendable by the woman herself.

If we, as a society, have decided we want women well represented in the workplace–and we have–we need to come to grips with the fact that women have babies. The act of bearing children is not aberrational but fundamental to human society. There needs to be allowances made for this one unique task that only a minority of the population can complete. An allowance that does not function on the assumption that one employee’s periodic gambling habit has the same value as another employee producing a baby. Mothers and babies deserve paid maternity leave.

Every time I make this declaration, someone always clutches his pearls and fears for the Republic. I don’t really understand this reaction. We make demands on employers and general society all the time. The standard benefit package required by law includes unemployment insurance, worker’s comp insurance, retirement insurance, old age medical insurance, and now, rightly or wrongly, medical insurance. Why couldn’t maternity coverage be added to these basic requirements? We have to stop viewing maternity leave with suspicion or idealization and begin seeing it as a normal part of a woman’s life.

What could this look like in the United States? It could take a variety of forms and I am open to many of them. We could impose a requirement on employers to provide the income, or we could impose a tax that would be paid out as a benefit by the government. Or, most interesting to me, we could require the widespread availability of maternity insurance subsidized by employers. This maternity insurance would look a lot like currently existing short-term disability, except it would be specially designed for pregnancy and the postpartum period. I don’t have a problem with employees having to pay into such insurance as long as the employers are also required to pay into the system. Currently this type of insurance is generally limited to companies who provide access to it instead of it being available to all workers, regardless of company.

I support a limited but guaranteed income for employed women on maternity leave. I do not support or approve of European or Canadian-style maternity leave. In my mind, their overly generous policies go far beyond the basic support necessary for the health and welfare of mothers and babies and have become lifestyle support. Onerous taxes are imposed, which force some mothers into employment who never would have chosen it on their own. They also set up a situation where one woman who happened to be employed at the right time can keep a paycheck coming for years while staying home with children and another women living a very similar life, but unemployed at the wrong moment, gets nothing. Long, open-ended paid leaves are not my goal, only that the health and well-being of pregnant mothers and babies are protected around the natal period.

To me, the ideal balance of the wants and needs of mothers and babies with the desire to not create extended lifestyle support would be a maternity leave policy that would begin at 38 weeks of pregnancy, to allow the mother a little time to prepare for birth, and continue until the baby is 12 weeks old. This period of time would allow the mother to completely heal, establish a good supply of milk, and bond with her baby for a short period of time beyond the intense and exhausting newborn phase. Again, this is an ideal. In my mind, anything has to be better than what currently exists which is nothing.

It is time for this country to understand that there is no equality or fairness when dealing with issues around childbirth. The burden will be borne. The question we have to answer is do we choose compassion or do we choose cruelty towards those bearing the burden. Thus far, we have chosen cruelty. I can only hope that someday we change our minds.

Extenuating Circumstances

Elizabeth Duffy published a piece about finding the middle ground between the noxious Prosperity Gospel and forever playing the martyr in order to be miserable for God:

Barring serious illness or extenuating circumstances, times of extreme difficulty with normal life should be temporary.

 If they are not temporary, it could be time to wonder if we’re setting traps for ourselves or creating a life of soft controversy because joy seems untrustworthy, or undeserved, or we have past associations with fun and sin, or maybe we just don’t feel good about feeling good when there’s so much suffering in the world.

Extenuating circumstances. How do you discern if you have them? What is extreme difficulty? What is temporary?

Mary and JesusFor several years now I have been haunted by an enduring sadness. That’s not to say I am sad all the time, but it doesn’t take much scratching under the surface to find it. Depression runs in my family so I have thoroughly questioned myself to search for symptoms of that illness, but no, I don’t think I am depressed, just sad.

I started my career, fresh out of graduate school, at about the same time I became a mother. This was not an accident. The decision for me to work was made because my potential career was much more lucrative and because I do not know how to cook very well. That’s it. No grand statements about “having it all” or overriding feminist philosophies or really any deep thought. Only that I could make more money and not cook at the same time.

I began this journey of career and motherhood and it was hard. Physically hard. Mentally hard. More challenging than I had ever imagined. Being pregnant and working was dreadful. Having a newborn and working was maybe worse. But I managed. I missed my babies, but they were with their Daddy so I never worried about them. I was working because I could make more money and we would be financially sound. I also wouldn’t have to touch raw meat. I liked my job and it suited me. I busted my rear in the beginning knowing the money would come, the opportunities would open, and I would provide for my family.

After awhile it became apparent that my job was a dead end. The expected payday never came. I got rave reviews and few raises. I was denied promotions, never given any new job responsibilities, but was told I was a vital member of the team. I was shunted to an obsolete system which had no concrete transferable skills with which I could run to another company. I had lots of recognition as a dependable and steady worker and not a lot else. A new job meant another entry level position. This is not how the script was supposed to play out.

At the same time, my attitude toward the vocation of motherhood was undergoing a radical change. The wisdom of protecting the mother as she protects the child shone like a light in my ever-reasonable mind. I was running myself ragged for rewards that were not coming.

And then my oldest started school. This was the touchpoint of a crisis. It became very obvious to me that swooping in at suppertime for an hour or two of company with my family was not enough for me. I’ve always laughed at the notion of “quality time” because it seemed such an absurd notion. Children need and demand quantity in addition to quality, but there I was with “quality time” being the only option. I wanted to be highly involved in her school and her education and the truth was I didn’t have time. Every day was a whirlwind of events and I could barely grasp what was happening in her life. I also wanted to sit and rock my baby.

These two distinct strands in my life suddenly began to make sense together. My job was not panning out and I wanted to be home anyway. It is hard to describe the thought process without it sounding like sour grapes so just believe me when I say it wasn’t. All at once I could see the blessing of being denied these promotions and raises because it made it easier to walk away from work. I wanted to come home, there was not much holding me to work, and the gap in income was not as great as it might have been. I could even learn to cook.

That was three years ago.

For whatever reason or set of reasons, this simple reordering of our employment arrangement has not been so simple. I thought it would be the work of a few months or maybe a whole year, but that has not turned out to be the case. I mourn for what I have missed, for what I am currently missing, for what I will miss. I do not remember the infancy of my second child. Memory is closely tied to sleep and I was severely sleep deprived. I search for a tangible memory and find an 18 month hole. This fact stabs me.

What is extreme difficulty? Over these years I have discovered that my acceptance of this situation depends a lot on the seasons. In the spring and summer, I am usually hopeful and accepting. The possibility of change is palpable. The work is not so daunting, the commute not so deadening, and I vow that I can endure for as long as it takes. In the fall and winter, I struggle with despair. It seems like this will never end. Nothing will ever change. I cry driving into work more times than I care to recall. My mood is as dark as the weather. I struggle with anger that this has been so unsolvable.

What is temporary? Over the course of a lifetime, three years is temporary even if it feels long while living it. I hope for the day when I can look back and point at this time and say, “It was temporary.” But when does it cease to be temporary? What if it isn’t temporary? I can’t bear to think it. Even in this “temporary” time, my children continue to grow and I am not home.

What are extenuating circumstances? From a modern perspective this angst is absurd. My life is completely normal. Mothers work every day. Society encourages mothers to work. You go, girl. A mother at home is wasting her potential or “has never worked a day in her life,” right? The idea that there is something unusual about my situation is not true. There are millions of mothers all around the country doing exactly what I am doing every day: leaving their children and driving to work. Many of these women are in far worse situations than I am. How arrogant and expectant for me not to be satisfied. I have a stable marriage, four wonderful and healthy children, and a job that allows us to live comfortably even if there is not much left for extras. The list of people who would change places with me is quite long, but I can’t help but feel there is something deeply wrong here and the sadness remains.

…and her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy.  –Jane Austen

What is God’s Will in all this? I have no idea. Surely there is more intended in this situation than for me to play the starring role in a cautionary tale. It seems that if I were meant to fully live out my vocation at home, the job situation would not be so impenetrable. It also seems that if I were meant to continue working, there would be some kind of encouragement in my employment: a raise, increased responsibility, something. The truth is I don’t want that kind of encouragement. If I am supposed to work, it would also seem that my yearning to be home would soften and lessen. If anything, my longing is stronger now than it was at the beginning. Three years is definitely not a phase. To be given this desire to live this vocation full time but only be allowed to fulfill its duties poorly, part-time, and incompletely is agony. I cry out to be rescued. I am supposed to want what God wants, but the truth is I want to be home, beg for my way, and find cold comfort in the notion of sacrificing my children’s childhood.

I cling to hope even when it tastes bitter. When a new opportunity arises, I tell myself not to get excited, not to daydream about the future, not to get ahead of the process, but even with these internal precautions, I am devastated all over again when it doesn’t work out. I hope in spite of myself.

Even among all this sadness, there is still joy and blessing to be found. The clarity of mind and purpose this period of waiting has brought is a tremendous blessing. The space I have had to ponder about vocation and faith, beauty and truth is nothing but blessing. The time I have been given to develop friendships in this strange purgatory is blessing again.

When people wonder why God allows suffering, I think the answer is so much about God’s knowledge of joy. That somehow, strangely, the relief and shock of being rescued from something is greater and more wonderful than never having been in trouble at all. We want never to be in trouble, but God knows that by us being in trouble, being in the way of perishing, and then him snatching us out and setting us on dry ground in safety, we will have seen who he is where we couldn’t have before.  —Anne Kennedy

I am awaiting rescue, confident it is coming, doubting it will ever get here. I am ready to learn how to cook.

I Don’t Know How You Do It

There is nothing that prompted this post except memory. For some reason this phrase bubbled to the forefront of my mind and I remembered the pain it can sometimes bring:

I don’t know how you do it.

Usually the context of this phrase is when a mother who normally stays home with her children has had to leave town without them for a few days. She is struck by how much she misses her children and how happy she is to be reunited and then the fatal phrase is uttered:

I don’t know how you working mothers do it. I missed my children so much. I could not do this every day.

unhappy womanIt stabs. The intent is almost never malicious. It is an innocent wonder at how such a burden could consistently be borne. The problem with voicing such a thought is not that it isn’t reasonable or true. The problem is that it very reasonable and terribly true.

Other working mothers might have a different perspective, but here is my response to those who might wonder.

First of all, I leave every day because I have to do it. You could do it too if you had to do it. There isn’t anything special about me that makes it possible for me to leave which you might lack. The truth is that I experience the same pain that you do from being separated. I am not inured from it; I just get used to it.

When I first have to leave an infant, the pain is overwhelming. It is stabbing and constant. Every day is a battle and it takes every fiber of my being to make myself go where I have to go. The first few weeks are the worst because I feel like I am being ripped in half. Leaving every day opens the wound again. It stings. It does get easier but it doesn’t get better. Over time, after poking open the wound day after day, the pain subsides not because the wound is healing but because scar tissue forms. The scar tissue is numb. It isn’t that it doesn’t feel, but that it can’t.

I function in this state of numbness until something interrupts the daily routine. An illness, a few days off, anything at all breaks open the wound anew. Returning to work after such an interruption is hard, almost as hard as it is in the beginning. All of that scar tissue gets rips away and it takes time to build that newly hardened layer again.

This alternating state between raw pain and numb scar tissue lasts for the first year or so of baby’s life. It is so intense, I think, because of the hormonal dance between mother and baby and because the baby is so dependent. I cannot kid myself into believing the baby is happy with our separation because each night brings a baby desperately clinging to me. The baby may not be directly unhappy while I am gone, but her behavior after our nightly reunion clearly indicates that my absence is disruptive. Her behavior isn’t even one of distress, but of needing to be close all the time. Happily wanting to be held and nursed and toted by me all evening. I cannot pretend she does not notice my absence because I know she does.

After the first year of separation is over, the acuteness of the pain mellows into a hollowness. The baby is growing up and needs you less and less. This isn’t to say that a toddler doesn’t need his mother, but only to say the desperation of the need is less. He is happy with others and plays more independently. As the baby grows through toddlerhood and preschool and begins elementary school, the routine of leaving is just part of life. It is not like I am being ripped in half to leave anymore, but this easing of the acuity of the pain also comes with the aching hollowness in the realization of how much I
miss.

This pain is a different kind of pain. It doesn’t stab; it only sighs. It sighs at the missed moments and activities, the missed library trips and school parties, the missed outings that mothers do with their children. It sighs as the children get old enough to ask why you have to leave everyday and you have to explain.

Absence is the constant companion of my motherhood. There is a hollow spot where the memories of my children’s days should be. Spending too much time examining this spot is counterproductive, but it’s there even as I avert my view from it.

So how do I do it? One day at a time, sometimes one moment at a time. I keep my attention fixed on what is required and try not to think about what is preferred. I take comfort in the knowledge that if I was supposed to have been doing something else, I would have been doing it even while I don’t understand why this way was best. I work to make the future look less like the past and know, if I do my part, all will be well, whatever ‘well’ ends up being. Wait. Trust. Hope. Love.

Mostly though I want you to understand there isn’t anything special about me that makes it easier or even possible. It’s just the way it is. You could do it too, if you had to.

This post originally appeared on Jenny’s personal blog, Just Another Jenny.