Panic, Compromise, And Other Maternity-Leave Predicaments

After a lifetime of work, leaving to care for a baby can be a shock--but so can going back when maternity leave is done. Tread carefully.

I took my first job, answering phones in the evening at the rectory of the Catholic parish my family belonged to, when I was in 6th grade. I’ve worked steadily ever since. I worked my way through bachelor's and master's degrees. I am a worker.

And then I wasn’t.

One day I found myself, unemployed on a Tuesday afternoon, watching my nine-month-old baby manhandle a remote control while I sipped tea with my two former nannies. “How in the hell did I get here?” I wondered. “And how can I get out?”

When I became pregnant with my first child at age 30, I never had the desire to be a stay-at-home mom. My plan was to work until my water broke and return after my three-month, paid maternity leave ran out.

The pregnancy was rough. I ended up leaving work three weeks before the baby was born and, in turn, going back to work when she was just over two months old.

After four excruciating, heartsick months back on the job at a prominent literary agency, I could no longer handle being away from my still-tiny baby for 10 hours straight every day. My husband and I dipped into our savings. We cut the cable and gave up the local CSA farm share delivery. The aforementioned nannies were my brother and his girlfriend, who had moved in with us to take care of the baby when I went to work. Instead of us paying for their services, they began to pay us rent. We worked it out and I was able to stay home with my baby.

The joy and relief, however, did not last long. I loved being with my daughter, but I also felt as though every day I stayed away from the workforce, my world contracted. Instead of knowing what was going on in the publishing world, I was well versed in the sing-along schedule at our local library. Instead of organizing international book sales figures on spreadsheets, I was arranging the contents of the changing table.

I began to panic.

So, the next stop in my search for comfortable ground as a working mom was the part-time world. I felt like I won the lottery when I landed a job in my field that allowed me to work three days a week--two in the office and one from home. What could be better?

What would have been better was twice as much time each week. With the new arrangement, I found myself painfully stretched with my feet in two different worlds. I felt as though I was performing below par at both of my jobs. I admit that, after many years straddling the line, the balance improved, but my career never took off in ways I’d envisioned before kids.

Last year, I took on a temporary full-time contract position for nine months. Before it began, I worried incessantly about what would happen to the household with my presence vastly diminished. After it was over, my worries shifted to what would happen to me, once again, hanging out on the periphery of a career.

In conversation with feminist Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir infamously said, "No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

Although I’d never go as far as Madame de Beauvoir, having spent too much time stumbling around in no-man’s land after "off-ramping" (oh, how I hate that term) from my career, I can see what she’s getting at. Society should be totally different.

Would I have stuck with my job and currently be running my own agency if my maternity leave had been longer? Ten-week-old babies are really tiny. If I lived in Sweden and had a year of paid maternity leave, I’m sure I’d have been ready to go back when leave ended. I won’t further infuriate anyone with details of the oft-touted French and Spanish approach to keeping mothers in the workforce, but I can’t help but wonder at the fact that the United States ranks second to last in a list of 21 high-income countries and their (lack of) policies regarding protected job leave for parents. In a study involving 185 countries, the United States shares last place with Oman and Papua New Guinea when it comes to paid maternity leave. I was one of the lucky ones?

Many working mothers don’t have a choice, which, with my apologies to French feminists of the past, I consider even more heartbreaking. On the one hand, working parents--particularly mothers--must contend with scads of articles like this one that discuss the effects of moms returning to work too soon, including dumber, smaller kids, as well as unruly students, and higher rates of depression for the mothers. No parent wants to hear that. At the same time, we must face the reality that the longer we say out of the game, the harder it is to protect our jobs. Thanks a lot, society.

In Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg contemplates the statistic that “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.” That’s a lot of women facing the same career outback I accidentally wandered into.

What’s the solution for parents in this predicament? I’d love to hear about it if you know of one. In the meantime, think hard about what you want for the long-term, whether it’s being at home with your baby, rising in the ranks at your job, or trying to figure out the tricky equation of doing both. You’ll be singing “Sunrise, Sunset” in no time.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin N. Murphy]

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2 Comments

  • Unfortunately, some moms just dont have the luxury of making the choice to stay home. I have a 1 year old and stayed home with her for 9 months before going back to work. Not because I wanted to, but because I needed to. Now, pregnant again and at a new job, I am faced with the reality that maternity leave benefits are just the worst. I get 3 month leave with no pay. Nothing. Zilch. We cant survive so, I have to accept that I can only take half of that time and get back to work as much as it kills me. With mortgage payments and car payments, and not to mention Christmas, there is just no way. I am finding that a lot of women are faced with this situation. With the fear of losing the job and not being able to be financially secure without it, many of us have no choice to get back to work.

  • Sara Heaser

    Neat article, Catherine. As an adjunct professor, I'm also torn between career (well, perhaps just decent pay and benefits) and my 9-mo-old son. I think societal norms need to change - this summer I participated in RAGBRAI and got looks of shock, curiosity, and disbelief several times when I shared that my baby son was home with dad for the week. What's the big deal? And don't get me started on ads the feign dads as inept morons who are unable to attend to another human's basic needs. Secondly, there's this stigma that women need to have and do it all (yes, I'm referencing The Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All") - without asking for help. What a perfect recipe for chaos, stress, guilt, and exhaustion on all fronts. It takes a village, but unfortunately, too many women are too ashamed to throw their hands up, wave the white flag, and ask for help when they're desperate. My husband, my son, my students, even my dog all suffer when I try to be Super Mom.