Why Women Should Stop Saying They Are Lucky to Get a Maternity Leave

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied.

The conversation is the same at every playground, library, or mommy-meet up. A bleary-eyed mother walks in with an irresistibly tiny newborn strapped to her chest. The questions pour in:

“Oh how sweet! How old?”

“Boy or girl?”

“Is she a good sleeper?”

“Do you stay-at-home or work?”

“How much maternity leave do you get?”

The new mom diligently answers all the questions, even the one about having a good sleeper, to which the answer is clearly, “No.” But when it turns to maternity leave, she perks up.

“Well, I’m home for 12 weeks. Which I know I’m really fortunate to get. And I’m really lucky, because the first six weeks are paid. I can actually take four months off, and I’m really grateful I have that option, but we can’t go without my salary that long. So I’m just taking three. But I’m really happy I can even do that. And that I get paid at all, because I work for a small company so they don’t have to pay me. I know how lucky I am.”

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Mothers fall all over themselves explaining the gratitude they have for getting any amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid. We treat any mention of time with our families with extreme humility and appreciation, lest we appear callous to the millions of parents who have no access to paid leave. Mothers on maternity leave know exactly how fortunate they are.

Most parents in the workforce don’t have any paid leave to appear grateful for. An estimated one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Only 12 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. receive paid leave from their employer. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off, and only for certain employees. Just over 40 percent of workers in the United States are not eligible for FMLA.

But should we really consider ourselves “lucky” for having time off to care for our family? Or should having access to paid family leave so parents can care for their most vulnerable family member without fear of losing their jobs be considered a basic workers’ right?

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard anyone gush about how lucky they felt that their employer adhered to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. It’s been a long time since anyone has praised their boss for recognizing the standard 40 hour work week, honoring federal holidays, or paying overtime when required by law. We consider these to be basic parts of an employment agreement, whereas parental leave is still considered a luxury.

Anyone who has ever spent time caring for a newborn knows that it is anything but luxurious. Care for a new family member is vitally important work, and the effects of a too-short leave are measurable. One study found that mothers of three-month-old babies who worked full time had greater rates of depression, stress, and poorer health than mothers who stayed at home. The study found that down the road, working mothers ultimately had lower rates of depression, but returning to work after a short leave had a negative impact on maternal mental health.

Women who receive paid time off are also more likely to return to work, work more hours, and also earn higher wages – factors which are good for businesses looking to avoid turnover. When mothers work more hours for higher pay, it impacts a family’s financial security not only in the first few months after birth, but for years down the road.

Maternity leave can also influence how long a mother breastfeeds – one study found that women who returned to work after at least six weeks were more likely to be breastfeeding when their child was six months old. Paternity leave has numerous benefits as well, from better behavioral and mental health for children to fathers taking a more active role in family life.

It is clear that caring for a newborn or newly adopted family member is much more than a time to take a break from your job to enjoy your new family. The consequences of this important work extend much farther than one’s own nuclear family and yet American companies still treat paid leave simply as a perk, like free coffee in the break room or attending a conference in Hawaii.

There is nothing wrong with being grateful for every moment you have to care for a new family member, or being thankful to work for an employer who recognizes the need for rest, recovery, and bonding during this time. Recognizing the fact that millions of mothers and fathers are forced to return to work before they or their child are physically and emotionally ready is certainly laudable.

We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied. We can feel grateful to have access to paid leave and indignant that others do not. New families benefit when they are able to spend time together without worrying about losing their jobs or foregoing months of income.

We should all be so lucky.

Saying No: A Nursing Mom’s Struggle with Work-Related Travel

The decision to continue breastfeeding while returning to work was challenging enough; I wasn’t ready to add multi-day traveling to the equation.

I remember so clearly what it felt like. I was sharing a hotel room with a colleague I didn’t know very well and discretely pumping at the desk in front of my bed in the double queen hotel room. Tears were welling up as I desperately wished for more milk to magically appear in those bottles and for relief from the pressure I was feeling.
It was day two of a conference and my son was nine months old. He was still nursing multiple times a day so I had brought along my pump as well as all of the necessary supplies to keep the milk cold until I arrived back at home on a flight a day and a half later. But something was wrong. My supply was definitely there, but my pump didn’t seem to be working.
I started to panic. Forgoing the next two conference sessions, I made my way around the city of Indianapolis desperately searching for a different breast pump to try. Through the magic of mid-west kindness, a local drug store about a mile from my hotel had their other branch across the city drive a hand pump over for me.
I walked the mile back to my hotel, pump in hand, praying that it would work and wondering: What use it was to travel for work if I was going to have to miss half of the conference?  
Over the next few months, I made the choice to skip other potential out-of-town conferences and consulting opportunities because my son was still breastfeeding and I couldn’t bear going through that experience again. Four years later, when my daughter was born, I declared a blanket rule that I would not consider traveling for the first 18 months.  
A 2015 study confirmed what I was feeling: Moms who continue breastfeeding when they return to work often experience more family-to-work conflict and overload. The decision to continue breastfeeding while returning to work was challenging enough; I wasn’t ready to add multi-day traveling to the equation.
Sure, some women find ways to comfortably travel with newborns and toddlers. Maybe long-term pumping works for them, or they make the choice to stop breastfeeding earlier. Others can afford to bring family members along for the ride to help take care of the child. We did this once but quickly learned that we didn’t have the bankroll or the spousal vacation time to do this very frequently. These solutions just weren’t working for me.
Holding my ground on travel was difficult, and I was sometimes tempted to “hang up the horns” and give up pumping; multiple studies have shown that I would not have been alone. For example, a 2006 study on predictors of breastfeeding duration and a 2008 study of maternal employment and breastfeeding both identified early return to work as negatively associated with breastfeeding duration.
A 2009 study showed that “lack of long-term infant-mother separation” was a positive predictor of continued breastfeeding and a 2013 study showed that encouragement from colleagues and supervisors was positively associated with continued breastfeeding. Social and workplace support are important predictors of whether a mother continues breastfeeding and pumping; any mother who has been in that position has experienced these factors first-hand.
How did my own colleagues respond to my choices around nursing and travel? On the one hand, there were people who questioned my commitment to collegial priorities by saying things like “We haven’t seen you at the meeting recently; we do hope that you’ll make it a priority this year.”
When another meeting was going to take four days of travel and my daughter was still nursing three times a day, I respectfully informed my colleagues that I would not be joining them but offered to join a conference call or webinar if they were willing to make that happen; they did not explore the technological option.
Even local travel options were challenging. Despite regulations around workplace accommodations for nursing mothers, my emails asking where I would be able to find a lactation room or nursing mothers’ room during a day-long meeting were often met with embarrassment or surprise. “I don’t know,” they’d say, “let me look into that.” I actually found myself feeling proud of the role I was playing in breaking ground for the women who would ask that question after me.
Other colleagues were more understanding and offered plentiful support. One college campus in my state referred me to an online guide listing the availability at least a dozen nursing mothers’ rooms with locking doors, comfortable chairs, outlets, and lovely artwork. Six years later, I still do an annual web-based workshop for a university in another state because we discovered, when I wasn’t traveling, that being there in person wasn’t actually necessary to meet their goals.
Not only was it cheaper and more convenient to have me do a webinar for her group, it remained engaging and useful because web-based technology has come a long way in making it possible for us to actively engage with others, no matter where they are.
Sometimes I question whether I lost ground in my career by not presenting at national conferences or showing up for a meeting that colleagues wanted to host in-person. I found other ways to contribute – publishing papers, delivering webinars, attending phone conferences – but there is still a lingering sense that some of my colleagues (both male and female) didn’t support my choice.  
“I’m so glad that you’re back,” they’d say, sounding genuinely collegial, yet communicating an underlying disapproval or simple lack of understanding. Was I really gone?  If I was, was it my fault? Why couldn’t I be “engaged” and still be able to be available for my children and my own medical needs?
Hasn’t technology made that more than possible, especially for the relatively short term of giving birth and caring for an infant? Despite the fact that even the Surgeon General has called for increased workplace support for breastfeeding women, comprehensive understanding of accommodations and widespread social support in the workplace are obviously still lacking.
As I write, I am sitting on a plane on my way to a professional training. My daughter is two-and-a-half, no longer nursing, and my husband and I are back in the travel game, so to speak.  I’m spending this whole flight reflecting on what it felt like to take that break. It was right for me, it was right for my family, and I kept up with my high performance at work.
Yet, some colleagues still judged me and in some ways I’m still digging out of that hole. I’m not bitter; I have enough local support to not mind distant colleagues passing judgement. I’ve learned a lot about how I want to treat others when they find themselves in this situation.
Research on strategies to better accommodate breastfeeding women is plentiful, but beyond policies and regulations we also need cultural change that allows us to support colleagues and talk to one another about these challenges, (as demonstrated by this article about the importance of workplace communication around breastfeeding).  I hope that I will not automatically assume that traveling to a meeting or a conference is the best choice for me or one of my staff members or one of my colleagues who works across the country.  
I pledge to find ways to make them feel welcome in ways that I was not, and I encourage them to share their perspective if we are making decisions in which they cannot be included. I pledge to consider them a valuable colleague and appreciate the work that they are doing even if I’m not always seeing them on a regular basis. I also hope to gently remind others when they are creating scenarios that ostracize those in our community who must limit travel.  
Nursing moms are not the only ones who deserve this support. Whether someone is caring for a child, an elderly parent, or a sick spouse, or we have our own medical or personal needs, saying no to travel while we are in these circumstances should not be a punishable offense.

Returning to Work After Giving Birth: Keeping Up With the Herd

Making the surprising choice to forgo maternity leave and return directly to work. That is, to become a wildebeest.

Back in the 90s when I worked at Microsoft there was a vice president in charge of my division, who I’ll call “J.”

Even though she never cracked a smile or ate lunch with us non-management types, I was somewhat in awe of J. We were both in our 30s, but while she had quickly ascended to within elbow-rubbing distance of Bill Gates, I slaved away in a windowless office trying to produce websites for people who still used dial-up connections to get on the internet.

Then J got pregnant.

As she strolled the hallways on her way to some presumably important meeting wearing absurdly expensive suits I watched her growing belly with growing interest. I privately aspired to being a working mother just like J, but being as I was still a newlywed, I was in no great rush.
During a meeting on a Thursday morning J’s water broke and she was rapidly whisked off to the hospital.

Five days later she was back at her desk.

“She’s like a freakin’ wildebeest,” I may have uttered a tad too loudly, because my officemate turned around and asked me why I’d just referred to our boss’s boss as an ungulate.
Wildebeests, I explained after tossing a handful of Skittles in my mouth, are migratory. They’re constantly on the move in search of food and water. Nothing stops them; not even giving birth. Mere minutes after a wildebeest drops her calf, it’s up on its legs, keeping up with the herd, because if either of them were to fall behind, chances are they’d get eaten by a lion.

“So, you know; it’s like she dropped her calf and just kept going.”

“Ah. I get it. That’s funny,” she remarked before going back to her keyboard.

Sure it was funny, but I just didn’t get why J chose to hire a nanny instead of hanging out at home with her newborn. Granted, the U.S. has about the worst policy on the planet when it comes to maternity leave: in fact, the U.S., along with that well-known democratic society, Papua New Guinea, are the only two countries that aren’t legally obliged to offer paid time off for new mothers. But hello? This was Microsoft, not Wal-Mart.

When I ran into J pumping her milk in the women’s bathroom I felt really sad for her. I’m never going to be like J, I said to myself as I peed, the hum of the breast pump mingling with the whoosh of flushing toilets. Unless my financial situation was dire, I would never put work above my baby.

Five years later I ate my words; gobbled them up and swallowed. I was six months pregnant when my agent sold my first book to a hotshot editor in New York City. Not taking any chances, I waited until the contract was signed before divulging my impending motherhood.

“That’s lovely news, Lisa,” the editor cooed into the phone on a rainy November afternoon.

“When are you due?”

“February.”

“Okay; no problem. I’ll be sure to get the edits to you before the baby comes.”

I thanked her for being so gracious and generous, then hung up, patted my belly, and waited for her emails to start rolling in.

Loy was born February 23. On March 1, just as I was just beginning to glow with maternal bliss, I finally received my manuscript, shot-through with red marker. The attached note said: “As you can see there is a substantial amount of work to do before the book goes to print. I hope to have the rewrite back from you as soon as possible.”

Since my husband worked full-time I suddenly had to make a choice: I could ask the publisher if they wouldn’t mind delaying the release of the book so I could bond with my baby; or I could hire a nanny to take care of her, and GO BACK TO WORK.

I went back to work.

Every morning after I breastfed Loy I handed her over to Melissa, a sweet-smelling 20-year-old woman whose father was the pastor of the Baptist Church down the street. Then I’d edit until Loy’s cries made my breasts leak, whereupon I’d hit SAVE and wander upstairs to sit in my rocker and nurse her. Fifteen minutes later, I’d put my sleeping infant in another woman’s arms and head back to my office.

For eight hours a day, five days a week, I didn’t read to my baby or cuddle her. I didn’t change her diapers or sing her songs. Instead, I worked. I didn’t need to work because of money. I chose to forgo maternity leave and let someone else watch my baby because, well, because I wanted to be a writer; not a full-time stay-at-home mother.

I’d become a wildebeest.

Just like J, who I had judged so harshly all those years ago. It shouldn’t have mattered that she reappeared so soon because she was afraid of losing her place in Microsoft’s power queue, or because she missed wearing stylish clothing, or simply because she loved her job. To be sure, a lot of new mothers don’t have a choice in the matter. Nearly one-quarter of American women are forced to return to work – some as soon as two weeks after giving birth – almost always for financial reasons.

Instead of hurling insults behind J’s back I should have celebrated the fact that she had a choice. I should have high-fived her when I passed her in the hall, congratulating her for having both the means and the tenacity to travel down the trail of her choosing. I should have told her how lucky she was that she got to do what she wanted to do.