Saturday, May 7, 2016

My Take on "Me-ternity Leave"

I hadn't really thought about blogging about this, as I was apparently just content with being annoyed on Facebook, but then there was another story about "Paw-Ternity Leave", and I think that might have put me over the top.  When I was thinking about it to myself in the car, I realized perhaps I needed to vent about this one here, as that's what usually allows things to process and leave my brain in peace.

So, in case you haven't heard, author Meghann Foye came out with the idea of "Me-ternity Leave", the childless equivalent of maternity leave.  After all, who doesn't want six or more weeks of job-approved time off?  Before you get as upset as I did when I first heard this idea, hold on.  If you read her essay for the New York Post, it is actually more balanced that you would think based on the media's coverage.  For example, one of her biggest beefs about parents in the workplace was that they have an excuse to leave the office on time because they have to get their kids.  She realized, after taking a "me-ternity leave" (a.k.a. sabbatical) of her own, that the pressure to stay and "pick up the slack" was self-inflicted.  If I've learned anything from nearly eight years as a parent, it's that most of the time, work will wait until tomorrow.  I get that there are deadlines and we need to do our fair share, but if we're honest, most of the time the work we're doing when we have to run out of the office for an urgent kid-related issue will be there for us in the morning...and it's the same for the day-to-day work.  And I think work-life balance is important to everyone, so why should other people have to stay late either?  I think a lot of corporate cultures know this goes on but don't comment either way.  Technically they'll say that the office closes at 5pm, and you're free to go if your work has been completed, but they'll never discourage you from putting in the extra time.  It would almost be nice if they kicked everyone out the door at 5pm and told them to go enjoy their lives until the next morning, so everyone is on equal footing!  But that doesn't happen, so those without that "legal" excuse feel compelled to stay.  And I know there are times when it is important and necessary to work late, but it would be nice if corporate culture was more outwardly supportive of a true work-life balance.  Luckily I have a fantastic boss who also has two little boys, so she is more than accommodating when it comes to working around schedules and sicknesses, but sometimes I wonder if the powers that be would frown upon that if they decided to scrutinize things.

So, my point here is that the entire attitude around work-life balance and parents in the workplace and the perceived burdens they leave behind is really the point of all of this.  And yes, I know that there are those parents who take full advantage of their situation and use every excuse in the book related to their kid to ditch work.  And yes, those people do leave an annoying burden on others.  In addition, having taken two seven-week maternity leaves myself (partial pay for most of it, plus one week of vacation), I know that maternity leave can completely suck for those who have to pick up the slack.  I felt super guilty about it both times, to the point that I (illegally) offered to help if they really needed it.  The first time we called someone who used to do my job who was in a position to help out and flew her in to retrain her on everything so she could do my work remotely.  It worked out pretty well, even though it was one heck of a process.  The second time I spent a couple months training my co-analyst on all of the stuff I did exclusively, which was pretty hellish for both of us.  It took a lot of time, a lot of brain power, and still didn't really cover everything.  And those seven weeks were pretty awful for my two department mates, which is why I felt horribly awful the day I got let go, as that bad temporary reality was now permanent.  I didn't enjoy putting that off on them at all, but obviously my family came first and I wasn't the first person ever to go on maternity leave.  Heck, the first time around there were three of us out of the office at once!

But what really gets me is that the surface concept that comes from this larger story plants the seed in the minds of the childless that they deserve time off to explore themselves, just because other people take off to care for their newborn child.  They are two totally different things, and people that have never had kids won't completely understand that.  I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of people who are well aware that maternity leave is not a vacation, but I feel like there are plenty who have no idea what caring for a child really entails, and they feel slighted by all of this.  That's what bugs me.  Even if the author knows the truth, it's starting this faulty thought process for the less enlightened.

As I said, maternity leave is not a vacation.  It is a time of physical healing, and it is a time for essential bonding with your newborn.  Whether the birth was vaginal or a C-section, both involve significant healing.  It's hard to walk around the house for days, if not weeks, and there are so many weird things that the body does that no one needs a front-row seat for back in the office.  The bleeding and the cramping alone are pretty awful.  I had a round of the worst cramping of my life a week or two after Carter was born, to the point I thought something was really wrong.  Thank goodness I wasn't back in the office for that!  And when you're dealing with a nursing mom, oh good Lord...there few things as bizarre and disorienting as what a pair of nursing boobs go through in those first weeks.  They are sore, they leak, they crack and bleed (thank God, mine never did that--but they sure hurt enough that it seemed like it), they become rock hard, and they can get infected or plugged.  I had a plugged duct once and it was horrible.  I can't even imagine having to navigate that while working.  Pumping two to three times a day seven weeks in was hard enough.  Add in the massive sleep deprivation and a hardy dose of hormones and you've got yourself one big mess.  A mushy, in-love, fulfilled mess, perhaps...but a mess.  You know what's harder than doing someone else's work?  Fixing someone else's mistakes.  And in that physical and emotional state, I can guarantee there would be a lot of mistakes being made by a mom forced back to work too soon.

And that's not even getting into the benefits for the baby.  That time to bond is so important.  The security, the ability to get into a groove/schedule, the chance to nurse, and the chance to become comfortable in their setting are all so helpful for having a happy and secure baby.  I can't imagine how many moms would give up nursing immediately if they had to go right back to work, or how disorienting it might be to have a baby moving between parents and daycare providers right away. Early on, at least, I can see it being very hard to give your baby a comfortable, secure world.  Without maternity leave, I feel like babies would have such a difficult time acclimating to their surroundings and bonding with their parents.

Of course, some people are probably thinking, if this is all about the physical, then why do dads deserve parental leave?  Well, in the beginning when moms are still so sore, it is immensely helpful to have another set of legs, arms, and hands to help.  When you're not used to the sleep deprivation, it's very nice to have someone who can take over when you're so exhausted you can barely hold the baby.  They're pretty tired themselves, no less, so that break from work and general adjustment time is helpful for them, too.  They really deserve a chance to bond with their baby for more than just an hour or two at night, so it's great if they can be there and comfort their baby within that home setting so the mom doesn't always become the go-to girl.  With nursing that's going to be the case anyway, but getting the baby used to Daddy, as well, is really smart.  I wish Craig would have had more time to be home after the boys were born, but he had to use vacation and the timing wasn't great in either case to be gone for an extended period.  As you may recall, Craig was broadcasting a game the night after Carter was born!

My maternity leaves were so different from one another.  I definitely enjoyed one more than the other.  Jacob's was hot, exhausting, and overwhelming.  Carter's was considerably more peaceful (possibly because the active four-year-old was at daycare), but I was still exhausted and at the end I was very emotional because I had to make the decision to stop nursing.  But either way, I can assure you that there was no glorious opportunity for self-reflection or acting upon my goals.  The author points out that she saw many women come back from maternity leave only to completely change their career or start moving toward another goal.  My guess is that in 95% of those cases, the catalyst for those changes was not maternity leave, but motherhood itself.  Once you become a mother, it puts your priorities in order very quickly.  Whether you don't want to spend hours commuting because you'd rather be with your baby, or you realize that you've achieved one life goal in being a mother and you need to start working on the next one, I truly think it's the act of motherhood and being responsible for another human life that makes you examine your life and move forward.  Keep in mind, of course, that those decisions are being made in a sleep-deprived, emotional state that's often compared to alcohol intoxication, so please make decisions at your own risk!  In those cases where maternity leave does play a role, it's probably more that it makes people realize that there is another life outside of the 9-5 (or worse) that they've been living for so long.  It's easy to forget that some people don't actually live like that, and maternity leave may provide that reminder even if it doesn't ultimately provide the means to get there.  And maybe, in all of those hours of baby holding and semi-conscious thought, there's a moment where you manage to ponder life with a moment of clarity.  Your brain may not be clear, but at least the career part of it isn't clouding the picture for a bit.  So, sure, it's possible that maternity leave changes people.  But I don't think it's anything you couldn't get from a glorious week or two away by using your vacation time.  I had about 12 weeks off last year, and I can tell you that was a completely different experience than maternity leave.  Sure, they had similarities (lots of TV, a kid companion, lots of worries), but I definitely did have time to think through my life, ponder my goals, and get my house back in order this time around.  And yes, it was lovely.  But add a baby into that mix and it would have been a totally different picture.

Ultimately it all comes down to priorities and choices.  You can choose to blow your vacation and alienate co-workers for an extended paid leave.  You can choose to dig into your back account and give up your security by quitting your job and chasing your dreams.  You can choose to go through nine months of bodily torture and get six weeks of partially paid time off as your door prize.  Of course, that last option involves giving up your money and independence and comes with a whole heck of a lot of lifelong baggage (of the best kind), but hey...if those six weeks mean that much to you, that's how many of us got them.  But we chose to welcome a baby into our lives forever, and those six weeks were necessary to start us all off on the right foot.  It was not a vacation, nor was it a time to think deeply about anything except my baby and how to get more than a couple hours of sleep at a time. 

I hope that those who think they're due their "me-ternity leave" do find a way to take the time to find whatever it is that they need to find.  But it is not something that life owes you.  Please consider it a sabbatical and don't compare it to maternity leave at all, because there is absolutely no comparison.  Becoming a mom is hands-down the most life-changing experience you can have, and it just happens to come with a few weeks off.  There are plenty of things you can do with a voluntary sabbatical that will be life-changing, but none will compare to making another person an inextricable part of your world.  Nothing will ever be the same.  Trust me, those six weeks were not worth all of the exhaustion and hard work that parenthood has brought.  But the joy and accomplishment of the many years since have made it all worthwhile. 

Pick your priorities and make your choices.  But remember that nothing about parenthood involves the word "me"...and neither should "maternity leave".  Just do me a favor and leave it alone, please.

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