Why You Should Take a Maternity Leave as a Stay-At-Home Mom

The first few weeks of having a newborn should be full of rest, quiet, and bonding. That’s hard to achieve if you have other kids and a house to care for.

Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn knows that maternity leave is far from a vacation. When you are a stay-at-home mom, those early months, which are supposed to be full of rest, recovery, and relationship-building, can end up simply being stressful. Adding a newborn on top of other household responsibilities (primarily that of caring for older children) can make for a hectic few months.
When my first son was born, I had little to do while on my maternity leave other than take care of him. We could survive on take-out and frozen pizzas for a few months, and there wasn’t much mess to clean up. But by the time I had my second, life was another story.
 
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We couldn’t afford to keep my oldest in daycare those first few months because our income had dropped significantly. Frozen pizzas weren’t an option with a dairy-allergic toddler who needed more variety in his diet. And the mess had multiplied 10-fold. Caring for a newborn wasn’t difficult – the hard part was caring for a toddler while caring for a newborn.
I decided I would take things as easy as I could those first few months to give myself a “maternity leave” from household obligations. When your work is caring for your family, there is only so much you can outsource. But everything you can, you should.
Here are some tips on how to take a maternity leave, even as a stay-at-home mom:

1 | Get help, and space it out

My mom had planned to fly out as soon as my second son was born. But because he was born a month early, she had prior obligations and couldn’t come for three more weeks. In the meantime, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law came to stay with us a few days at a time.
Having help caring for my older son in those first four weeks was invaluable. The first time around, all the family had piled in for the first few days and then headed home right as my husband was going back to work. Spreading out family visits over several weeks gave me a better chance to focus on my newborn.

2 | Don’t clean your house

Sure, pick up some toys occasionally. You probably want to load the dishwasher once a day and take out the trash when needed. Do laundry when you are out of clean underwear and out of the mesh stuff as well. That’s it.
Don’t scrub the baseboards, dust ceiling fans, mop the floor, vacuum cobwebs. If the windows get so sticky with fingerprints they start to look like frosted glass, draw the curtains. Let the grass grow long. It’s supposed to be better for your lawn, anyway.
If anyone asks you what you want for the new baby, tell them a visit from a housecleaner. If you’ve got all the baby gear already, this will do you far more good than another set of onesies.

3 | Don’t cook either

Here’s a recipe for you: a few chicken breasts (or thighs), a jar of salsa, some salt. Add in a can of black beans and a cup of frozen corn if you’re feeling fancy and your kids aren’t screaming yet. Dump in your slow cooker and cook on low for six to eight hours. Serve over rice, on salad, or in tortillas.
That’s about the only thing I cooked for the first few months of my “maternity leave,” unless you count frozen fish sticks and chicken nuggets. I didn’t want to chop, stir, or sauté until I could do so without holding at least one or two children. If you order take out, don’t feel guilty. Just get something that leaves you with lots of leftovers.

4 | Put those tax dollars to work

Did you know that for $1.35 a year, you can get hours of babysitting in exchange? It’s a heck of a deal. For less than two dollars per person in taxes, PBS will teach your children about anything from emotions to elephants. Nursing a preemie required at least two hands, and thus my oldest son repeatedly decided to take advantage of my preoccupation by repeatedly diving off the couch.
So I turned on Daniel Tiger. Every time baby went to breast, he went to the screen. Eventually, he started trying to convince me that baby was hungry even when he wasn’t just so he could watch some more of his favorite show.
I felt guilty at first, but more and more, we started to use the jingles Daniel Tiger sang to help himself through difficult situations. Research shows that children who watch shows like Daniel Tiger learn empathy and other school readiness skills.
So let go of the guilt, and know that a little high quality, educational television won’t hurt them. After a few months, he watched less TV, and we had gained several new coping skills.

5 | Be clear about what you can and can’t do

Maybe you can take the baby to her doctor appointment one day. But that doesn’t mean you can go grocery shopping, get an oil change, and swing by the pharmacy the next. Be sure to talk with your partner about how you plan on taking a few weeks or months to focus on the baby and will be happy to help with non-essential tasks – when you’re ready.
Your own mental and physical recovery is important, so set boundaries and expectations. If you volunteer or have other obligations, step back from those as well until you figure out how much time you can commit.
There’s no need – and really, no benefit – to try to be a supermom. You will eventually fall into a new rhythm and figure out how to balance taking care of a new life along with everything else that you do. Take a few months to recover and enjoy before diving back into caring for an entire household. You’ll be glad you did.

For Babies Born Prematurely, Family Leave Benefits Are Crucial

Having a baby in the NICU is stressful. Having two babies in the NICU is doubly stressful. Knowing you have a paycheck still coming in is one saving grace.

My twin daughters weren’t supposed to be born in December. They were due in February.

Their birth wasn’t a joyous occasion. I didn’t have a birth plan, a doula, or an orgasmic experience. My daughters’ birth was an emergency that wasn’t supposed to happen. The doctors sent me home from the hospital just three hours before we made our way back with blood dripping down my thighs.

As we drove to the hospital, I held the fetal heart rate monitor against my stomach and reassured myself that my unborn daughters would be okay. When my doctor told me it was time, my heart sank. It might have been time for them to come out of me, but it was way too early for them to be born.

My pregnancy was high-risk from the start. What began as a triplet pregnancy became twins after only nine weeks. The ultrasound tech was kind as she measured and re-measured Baby B, but there was no heart beat, and I knew my baby was dead before she even spoke the words. I was cramping and bleeding, barren yet gestating, and my doctor put me on bed rest. My employer winced, but approved my paid short-term disability leave without hesitation.

I had my first placental abruption the night before Thanksgiving. I was only about 28 weeks pregnant, and by then my doctor had upgraded me to light activity. That night, I baked two pies and did a load of laundry. As I moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer, I thought I peed myself. It wasn’t pee.

I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in the hospital. I opened gifts in my hospital bed, hooked up to monitors. A few days later, I finally went home. I was nervous about going home, but my doctors told me the babies would be fine.

I made it home without incident. In fact, I begged my husband to stop and get me a sandwich on and I dug into it like a starving woman after weeks of hospital food. As I stood up to wash my hands, I felt a familiar gush. I didn’t wonder if I’d peed myself, I knew it was blood.

My daughters were born eight weeks early. Like most parents of preemies, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) became our second home. My husband and I celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day there, listening to the angry hum of the ventilator. Sometimes I found myself wondering whether we would still be there by the time Valentine’s Day rolled around.

Valentine’s Day has always been my favorite holiday. I love how flagrantly cheesy it is, and when I was still pregnant with my daughters, I liked to imagine decking them out in matching pink outfits for the occasion. Those silly dreams faded quickly as I forced myself up and out of bed only a few hours after my C-section and the nurses wheeled me into the NICU.

I wasn’t allowed to hold one of my daughters right away, but the NICU nurse handed me the other one gently. She was hooked up to a machine to help her breathe, and it covered most of her face. As I held my miniature daughter, taking in her scent and staring into her inky eyes, maternity leave was the last thing on my mind.

I didn’t have to worry about maternity leave. My company offered generous family leave benefits. Between maternity leave and vacation time, I was able to stay home with full pay and job security for nearly five months. My husband worked at the same company and received four weeks of paid paternity leave as well. He chose to wait and save his paid time off for when our daughters came home from the hospital, so we soon fell into a routine – he dropped me off at the hospital in the morning on his way to work, and picked me up again on his way home.

Time stops in the NICU. As hours became days, and days became weeks, the world collapsed around me, and my reality was the length of the hallway between the parking lot and their hospital room. I basically lived in the NICU, and when I went home to sleep, I pumped my breast milk every two and a half hours around the clock. My motherhood was confined to those drops of breast milk and the few moments in the NICU when I was able to change a tiny diaper, or rock my daughters quietly.

When my daughters finally came home, just in time for Valentine’s Day, all of that changed in an instant. Gone were the wires and tubes, but also gone were the nurses with their calm demeanors and ready hands. My daughters slept fitfully and fought their feeds, and my life became a whirlwind of feeding, changing, and pumping. My husband and I split up the night shift so and each of us would try to get a couple of hours of sleep. I learned how to feed two babies and pump breast milk at the same time, and to function on two hours sleep.

Without that help from my husband, I don’t know how either of us would’ve survived. It was difficult for him to go to work every day when they were in the NICU, but having him available for our daughters’ first month at home saved my sanity. And not having to worry about money in an otherwise difficult time was a gift I’ve never forgotten.

It was the only thing that seemed to go well in a pregnancy, and birth, marked by nothing but complexity.

6 Ways American Policies Fail to Support Families

Taking time to do anything other than hold a full-time, paying job levies a heavy price for American women. And the proof is in our workplace policies.

When I first began staying at home with my kids, I noticed a change in the conversations I would have with new acquaintances. “I’m home taking care of the little ones right now,” I would answer when asked what I did.

“How nice. Must be so fun! Now what kind of law did you say you practiced?” my conversation companion would reply, turning away from me and back to my husband.

No longer do people engage me about my field of work, interests, or background. When I tell people I’m a stay-at-home mother, I’m met with pats on the back, and quickly brushed aside for not doing real, adult work.

The judgment I feel when people ask me if I work is anecdotal, and hopefully only in my imagination. But the reality is that we still don’t place much value on caregiving as a legitimate contribution to society, and our failure to do so hurts all women, both those at home and in the workplace.

The media has crafted the “mommy wars” narrative – pitting mothers who stay home against mothers who have a job outside the house. The reality is that women support their families, workplaces, and communities in a wide variety of ways – raising children, working part-time, volunteering, returning to work after time taking to care for children, homeschooling, telecommuting, running small businesses from home, etc. Society, however, values only one type of contribution – paid employment. Taking time to do anything other than hold a full-time, paying job levies a heavy price for American women.

The proof is in our workplace policies:

1 | High daycare costs.

Daycare costs have been rising over the last 20 years, and are now more than 7% of the average family’s income, according to the Pew Research Center. For families that have more than one child in care, or for low income families, daycare costs can be more than a working mother is able to earn.

Despite rising costs, the federal government actually invests less now in childcare assistance than it did in 2002, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. And this issue goes beyond just helping moms – high quality preschools can help reduce the racial/ethnic and income achievement gap, according the National Institute for Early Education Research.

2 | Lack of unemployment insurance.

When a parent (usually the mother) leaves the workforce to take care of children – perhaps because they aren’t able to afford the rising daycare cost – they aren’t treated like other employees who are forced to leave.

Only 15 states allow women who leave the workforce due to compelling family circumstances to collect unemployment insurance, according to the National Employment Law Project

3 | No guaranteed paid maternity leave.

The United States is one of only two advanced economies that does not guarantee paid leave for its workers.

Besides the obvious benefit of letting parents and children bond without worrying about lost incomes, there are other compelling reasons paid leave is beneficial. According to the Center for American Progressit’s good for the child’s health, it helps employers keep their employees, and it improves lifetime earnings and retirement savings, especially for women.

4 | No guaranteed paid sick leave. 

Likewise, many working parents do not have access to paid sick leave, a solution that the American Medical Association says would help improve public health.

With guaranteed paid sick leave, parents would not be forced to work when they’re sick in order to save their sick days in case of a sick child. Nor would they be forced to risk employment in order to care for a sick kid.

5 | Wage gap.

The “Motherhood Penalty” is real. Mothers earn 5% less than per child than childless women.

They also have a harder time getting hired and being promoted, concluded researchers at Stanford University. This is part of the reason that women only earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the U.S. Census.

6 | Underpaid caregivers.

When we do pay someone to take care of children, we don’t pay them very much. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that childcare workers earn nearly 25% less than workers in other similar occupations, and they’re less likely to receive benefits.

We can’t have it both ways – telling women to dedicate themselves to raising kids, and then punishing them whenever they take time to do so. No matter how we slice it, someone’s got to be the caregiver.

For some families, it makes the most sense for the primary caregiver to be one of the parents, and other families operate better when both parents are working and the parents subcontract the childcare. Gone are the days when the father is the breadwinner, and the mother is meant to care for her children and the home.

So while our families have evolved, the workplace, and the social systems that support it, have not. Despite the tremendous strides we’ve made, we continue to place little value on parenting.

Devaluing caregiving does more than create awkward cocktail conversations for stay-at-home mothers like myself. It creates real financial, physical, and emotional problems for parents who work, or wish to return to work, by penalizing them for caring for their children. 

While we may call motherhood “the most important job,” it’s obvious that we give it little actual weight, either socially or fiscally. And yet, the economic future of our country depends not just on the financial success of our businesses, but on the ability of mothers and fathers to do all of their jobs well.

Raising children is not a second class form of work, a workplace inconvenience, or simply a personal undertaking; it is an essential job with ramifications far beyond the home.

Editor’s note: To hear more about the practical and emotional challenges many stay-at-home parents face when returning to work, check out our podcast, “Where Was I…?

What Maternity Leave Looks Like for One Family in a Tiny Apartment

A day in the life of one mom, her husband, a toddler, a baby, and a visiting Grandma all sharing the space of a two-bedroom, one bath apartment.

Baby Mabel and I wake up in the big bedroom, formerly the living room. I change her diaper and open the door. The cat and dog stroll in and take their places on the changing table and bed, respectively.

Carrying the baby, I walk into three-year-old Harvey’s room, formerly the big bedroom. We find my husband and Harvey watching videos quietly. We all greet each other and the adults inquire about sleep quality and length. Mabel was up three times but slept til 8. Harvey was up once but slept til 6:30. My husband, Justin, and I cannot decide who had it worse. I suspect it was my husband due to the sleepily discarded PlayStation controller that tripped me outside of Harvey’s bedroom door.

Mabel goes into her vibrating chair as I make breakfast. My husband and I reach around each other and a large Moses basket on a rolling stand to get to the coffee. I dodge for the milk; he lunges for the butter knives. The Moses basket is uneffected.

Harvey jumps on the couch near Mabel’s vibrating chair so I pick her up and put her into the big bedroom for her nap. My husband tells Harvey, “No drumming,” so that the baby can fall asleep. The baby falls asleep.

Carefully, I remove first the dog then, more carefully, the cat who is louder and more pointed. They both lay down under the couch and on the recliner, respectively. My husband tells Harvey, “No drumming,” so that the baby stays asleep. The baby wakes up. Everyone freezes. The baby falls back to sleep.

Grandma arrives. Harvey and the dog jump and bark with excitement. The baby wakes up. I push Grandma and Harvey into his bedroom to jump on the bed and close the door behind them. Hoping to do some work, my husband slogs up to the bonus room, formerly the second bedroom but ornamented with a set of slippery stairs no preschooler would survive in the middle of the night in my opinion, which is the correct opinion.

I put the baby in a wrap and pace around the living room dodging the vibrating chair, the swinging chair, and the toddler-sized Papasan chair that nobody uses. The baby falls asleep. I put her down in the big bedroom.

Harvey and Grandma dash up the slippery stairs to the bonus room and play with the train table. Justin flees the bonus room and settles in the living room. I put my hand on Justin’s shoulder and squeeze it, briefly. Harvey and Grandma, dressed as a black cat and a unicorn, respectively, come to dance in the living room. My husband retreats to the kitchen. The dog is back in the big bedroom. I do not know where the cat is.

I use the one bathroom for the first time that day. As I use the one bathroom Harvey pounds on the door saying he needs to pee. Together we use the one bathroom and discuss what we are both doing in greater detail than I would like. I make Harvey wash his hands despite the fact that, “There no pee on them, mommy!”

The baby wakes up. Harvey and I leave the one bathroom. Harvey races up the slippery stairs to the bonus room where Grandma is waiting with the drum. The baby is now swearing at me in baby talk.

Justin withdraws to Harvey’s bedroom. I put the baby into a wrap and we take the dog for a walk. The baby swears at me until we get back to the house, then falls asleep. Inside, Harvey is drumming. Mabel stays asleep. I put Mabel down into her crib. Mabel wakes up. I put Mabel down into her Rock ‘n Play and rock her. Mabel chooses play and stays awake.

I sit on the recliner with Mabel. Mabel and I look at each other glassy-eyed. Harvey and Grandma want to dance in the living room. I don’t know where my husband is. I don’t dare look in the bonus room because I fear the slippery stairs. Harvey and Grandma go to the backyard with the dog.

I lay down on the big bed with Mabel and nurse her. The cat appears and screams at me. I pet the cat on the head while physically holding him back from the baby. His claws affectionately tear the flesh of my hand. I stifle back cries of pain so the baby won’t wake up. The cat bites me and I wail for my husband, which wakes the baby.

Justin removes the cat and the baby falls asleep and will remain asleep as long as I keep a nipple in her mouth. Hours pass. I don’t know where my son, mother, or husband are and I have no feeling in my right arm.

I remember a different small apartment from an emptier time. My husband and I are there, alone, slunk together on a raggedy couch watching movies until late and using the one bathroom one at a time. I kiss the baby. The baby wakes up.

Grandma announces that she’s leaving. I invite her to stay a little bit longer. She laughs at my killer joke. I assure her I’m serious. She looks at me through eyes that speak of a thousand sleepless nights 30 years past and squeezes my shoulder, briefly. She announces she is still leaving. I thank her and ask her where my husband is and she tells me he’s in the one bathroom.

I knock on the door of the one bathroom and ask my husband if he got any work done. He sighs from behind the door. Harvey pounds on the door and tells my husband he needs to pee. They both use the one bathroom.

I put Mabel in the swinging chair and she cries. I put her in the vibrating chair and she cries. I trip over the toddler-sized Papasan. I hate the toddler-sized Papasan. Harvey wants to dance in the living room. The cat is stalking me from the slippery stairs. The dog has been left in the backyard.

It’s nighttime and the children need to eat dinner and go to bed. They don’t, but then hours later they do. I fall asleep in the big bedroom next to the baby in her Rock ‘n Play. I don’t know where my husband is, but wherever it may be, I hope that he’s happy.

How to Plan and Negotiate Your Maternity Leave Like a Boss

It’s not easy to approach your company (or a company you hope to work for) with the needs of pregnancy. These tips can help.

Dealing with pregnancy and postpartum care is a uniquely female topic that happens to intersect with the co-ed world of work, and this creates some tricky scenarios for women.

Over the last few years, I’ve fielded questions from friends that go beyond, “How much maternity leave can I take?” and reveal the challenge women face to demonstrate commitment to their careers while prioritizing the new demands of motherhood.

They’ve confided in me, in part, because I used to work in Human Resources, so my advice is spiked with eight years of behind the scenes experience, a dose of U.S. employment law, and a dash of common sense. Now, I’m sharing that guidance with you.

This is not official legal counsel (I’m not an attorney) or even official HR guidance, for that matter, since I don’t know the nuances of your situation. So, be sure to seek out advice from your personal network and company resources. In general, though, if you were to come to me with any of these questions, here’s what I’d say to you.

I’m interviewing for a new job. Should I tell them I’m pregnant?

Nope. You’re not required to do this, but I understand that it’s tempting. We all want to start off on the right foot, and it can feel dishonest to not disclose such a big impending life change.

I like to give hiring managers the benefit of the doubt that they would not use this bit of information against you during the hiring process (and I would never let them, if I was their HR person), but human beings are fallible. While they want to fill this position with the best candidate, which could be you, they also want to fill it quickly, and the thought of covering a looming maternity leave may consciously or subconsciously dissuade them from choosing you.

Of course, if you were the most qualified person for the job and your pregnancy was the real reason you didn’t get it, they’d be breaking discrimination laws, but this might be hard to prove, so it’s best not to offer up the information in the first place.

I got the job! Now do I tell them I’m pregnant?

Maybe. I’d prefer you wait to tell them until you’re clear on the job’s pay and benefits and have the offer in writing. I’d be very surprised (and angry) if they backed out of the offer or tried to change its terms after learning you’re pregnant. But in case of any fishy business, it’s safer to have a written offer in hand.

When you do let your new manager know that you’re pregnant (see the next question for considerations on timing), present it as a statement of fact rather than an apology. You haven’t done anything wrong by keeping your personal business private until you knew that you’d have an ongoing relationship with this company, so an apology isn’t necessary.

Say something like, “I’m very excited about this opportunity. I can’t wait to start contributing to the team and to learn from them, as well. I do want to make you aware of a few important dates, so that we plan my work appropriately. I’m pregnant and will need to take maternity leave beginning on [date] and expect to be out for [specify time]. Between now and then, I’m committed to this role and want to make sure that my temporary absence is covered as seamlessly as possible.”

When should I tell my boss that I’m pregnant?

It depends. There are a lot of factors to consider, and it’ll likely come down to what you’re comfortable doing. I told my manager as soon as I was past twelve weeks because I wanted to wait until the risk of miscarriage was significantly reduced but also give him plenty of time to plan for my absence (and I hate keeping secrets).

I have a girlfriend who waited much longer, until after her managers had finalized performance reviews and promotions, so that she was sure her pregnancy wasn’t factored into any of these things. If you work in a job that requires very heavy lifting or other duties that may be unsafe during pregnancy, then you’ll want to notify your boss right away, so they can work out temporary accommodations for you.

People from work keep calling me with questions while I’m on maternity leave. Are they supposed to do this?

Probably not. At some companies, email access for employees on any leave of absence is cut off to prevent them from working while they’re out. If, as an HR person, I got wind of this, I’d put an end to it to protect you – the employee – who is not supposed to be working. As well as to avoid any complications for the company.

In the real world, though, this may happen, and you’re going to have to set your own boundaries. You may like the feeling of staying connected and knowing you’re missed at work and won’t mind answering a quick question here or there. Or, you will mind, but you pick up the phone anyway to demonstrate your commitment to your job. You don’t owe them your time right now, and they’ll keep calling, if you keep answering, so make sure you feel comfortable being accessible.

Also keep in mind that because you’re not immersed in day-to-day work while you’re out, you may not have all of the information you need to make appropriate decisions or to provide the guidance for which your boss or co-workers are asking. Use your judgment on how to contribute in an appropriate way and don’t feel guilty for ignoring their calls or messages.

My manager asked me to come back from maternity leave early. What should I do?

As if maternity leave wasn’t short enough in the United States, now they want you to come back early. Chances are they can’t legally make you return before the official end of your leave, especially if your time away is protected under the Family Medical Leave Act, a similar state-level protected leave law or a union contract. 

Of course, you want to keep a good relationship with your manager and you may feel like you need to prove you’ll still be reliable and loyal, so it’s tempting to agree to a shortened leave. Consider this as you make your decision: You can never get these early days with your baby back.

Do what is in your best interest while you’re on leave because if the company is asking this of you, they’re only looking out for their best interest. If you do decide to start sooner than you anticipated, negotiate something for yourself, even if, in reality, you can’t wait to jump back into work and get a break from baby land. Maybe you agree to come back part-time for a few months or maybe you get extra time off down the road around the holidays or for a vacation you’ve been planning.

If they want you back, then you have leverage. Use it.

I don’t want to come back to work yet, but I’ve used up all of my time off. Can I still ask for an extension?

You can ask, but it may not be granted. The company may really need you back, or they may be concerned with what type of precedent this will set for future maternity leaves if they give you more time off.

For the best response from your manager, make this request as early as possible, so that he or she has time to plan for your longer absence. If there are any benefits to the business by extending your leave, remind them of this. For example, they may be over budget on salary costs and having you out for a little longer will help balance the books.

Keep in mind that if they do agree to an extended leave, it will likely be unprotected, meaning they no longer have an obligation to hold your job open for you. If you’re only asking for a few days or one more week away, chances are good that your job will still be there when you’re ready to come back. If you’re asking for several more months off, then you’re running the risk that the company fills your job and doesn’t have one for you when you want to return.

Make sure you’re clear on the terms of the extension, so there are no surprises when you’re ready to come back.

Final Thoughts

I’ve worked for two very different Fortune 500 companies and, in my experience, both have invested significant time and money to create a culture of respect and support for all employees and especially for working parents. I don’t want to leave you with a cynical view that companies will take advantage of women who are pregnant, or on maternity leave. That’s truly not what I’ve seen. I’ve been in several meetings where promotions for women out on maternity leave were planned, and where concern for employee well-being was as important as the bottom line.

But not all workplaces are created equal, and some won’t value employees this much. Even the good ones that do, at their core, are just a group of people. And sometimes people make mistakes.

So, when it comes to navigating pregnancy, maternity leave, and careers, women are smart to consider their approach carefully. It’s a balancing act – the first of many for working mothers – to maintain your professional presence, reaffirm your commitment to your careers, and also take the personal time you need (and deserve) to adjust to life with a new baby. It can be done, and if, throughout the process, you show respect both for yourself and for your company, you’ll do it well.

The Unbearable Monotony of Maternity Leave

This three months off isn’t a decadent vacation. It’s three months of being stranded in motherhood.

Maternity leave is the movie “Castaway.” I am Tom Hanks and Cora, my three-week-old, is Wilson. We are stranded alone on an island (my 505-square-foot Brooklyn apartment) all day, every day. And, hey, islands are nice! You can hang out on the couch all day watching Netflix!

Yes. I am still watching.


You have little to no human interaction, so you start talking to inanimate objects. For Tom Hanks, it was a volleyball. For me, it is my kid. She has no control of her arms and her smiles are reflexes. They aren’t real. Just as Wilson’s face wasn’t real. But damn if I haven’t started to tell myself that her smiles are real. I spend all day trying to get a smile reflex pointed in my general direction.

It’s a time of paradoxes. Everyone tells you that this is the “precious infant time” and, “She doesn’t stay small forever.” I get it. When I go back to work in a couple of months I’m going to hate current me. I’m going to want to punch current me in the face.

But, OH MY GOD, am I bored. 

Do you know what my hyperactive, overstimulated, NYC brain does all day? Imagine and prepare for baby disaster scenarios. And then this doomsday thinking leads to this really fun game that Cora and I play called, “Why Are You Crying?”

I try to guess why Cora is crying and then she tries to guess why I am crying.

And then we feed, again.

I don’t think I realized what a same-thing-happens-every-2.5-hours schedule was going to be like. This is how it plays out.

2:45-3 p.m. Change the baby.

Wonder why the baby hates getting changed so much? Having someone wipe your ass is probably nice, right? Once the baby is changed I put the little baby outfit back on her. Her outfits usually last until about noon because she has shit all over them or I just decide to stop trying to get her flailing limbs into the tiny clothing holes. Plus, who is going to see her anyway? It’s just me. Did Tom Hanks put Wilson in tiny outfits everyday? No. Cause that would be dumb.

3-3:30 p.m. Feed the baby.

Hope that she latches right away. Laugh to yourself when your baby sounds like a baby dragon while trying to latch. Hope that her latch is a good one and doesn’t feel like a tiny human chewing off your nipple for 30 minutes. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT’S HAPPENING.

3:30-5:15 p.m. Try to figure out why the baby is crying.

Maybe she needs to be changed again? So you try that. Nope it wasn’t that. But as soon as you change her she rips a massive wet fart and you change her again. But she is still crying. You may try walking her. Then rocking her. Then bouncing her. Then putting her in the swing thing. Then talking to her. Then singing to her. Then putting her skin-to-skin on your chest. Then playing an ocean white noise playlist you find on Spotify. Then you try the pacifier. Then you check the clock. It’s been an hour since the last feeding. So you bounce her some more. Then maybe you just say, “F*ck it,” and feed her again cause you don’t know what else to try.

5:15-5:30 p.m. Change the baby.

And the whole thing starts over. You do this 24 hours a day. For months. Maybe years!

Yeah. Give yourself a second to think about what that is like. Then call your mom and thank her. I keep thanking my mom – I think I’m freaking her out.

But seriously. This is motherhood. I am completely shocked that so many people do this. I just stare at people on the streets and think about all of their mothers and all of the shit they had to deal with. I feel like more people should know about this. It’s insane.

“Three months off” is what people say. And maternity leave sounds like this decadent thing. A beach oasis sounds like a decadent thing, too. But stranded on a deserted island is a more accurate way to explain what Tom Hanks was experiencing. So let’s try this. I am not having “three months off” – I am “stranded in motherhood for three months.”

Okay. Okay. Now the guilt sets in. So let’s take a moment to be grateful…

I was lucky to get pregnant. I was lucky to not die in childbirth (am I the only one who was legitimately worried about that?) I am lucky to have a healthy baby. I am lucky to have supportive friends and family.

And I like Cora. I really do. I think her baby dragon sounds are funny. She makes a ridiculously adorable face when she stretches after feeding. And sometimes when she sleeps, she laughs and it tears my heart apart.

I am lucky.

But, damn, this is super monotonous, hard work.

Thank you, mom.

20 Days of Unpaid Maternity Leave and a Brand New Baby

Eighty-eight percent of the U.S. work force lacks access to paid maternity leave. This is one mother’s all-too-common story. (via The Atlantic)

The Atlantic published the first installment of a two-part series, Life in the Only Industrialized Country Without Paid Maternity Leave.

The story follows “Tara” through the birth of her second child, the 20 days of unpaid maternity leave that follow, and her return to work.

Many cultures have rules for new mothers and babies. The Latin American cuarentena and the Uzbek chilla represent 40 days of rest and social support. In China, women rest in bed for a month; in Korea, for 21 days.

In the United States, however, the time for rest, bonding, and recovery often is determined not by tradition, or even by a doctor’s recommendations, but by the new mother’s employment situation.

Parents deal with the enormous implications of this difficult reality every day right here in the good ol’ USofA — the only industrialized nation in the world without universal paid maternity leave.

Tara’s situation is pretty typical in the U.S., where 70 percent of mothers work outside the home and 40 percent of households are led by a female breadwinner. When it comes to a new baby or a sick family member, 88 percent of the American workforce has no access to paid leave, and half of new, working mothers are ineligible even for the Family Medical Leave Act’s unpaid leave.

Tara’s husband suffers from a severe, painful autoimmune disorder and is unable to work. Tara is the family’s sole earner. Her company offers no paid leave and she is ineligible for unpaid leave because her employer falls below FMLA’s 50-employee threshold. Even if she were eligible for unpaid leave time, she wouldn’t take it, saying, “My family can’t afford the loss of even one paycheck.”

So Tara’s “maternity leave” was to consist of her 13 vacation days; these were mostly rolled over from 2015, with her boss’ permission. Weekends and President’s Day brought her total days off to 20.

Tara corresponded with author Jessica Shortall by texting updates.

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The messages are straightforward — not overly dramatic, sometimes a bit humorous — telling the true story of what it’s like to simultaneously heal from invasive surgery, breastfeed a newborn, care for an older child, and go back to breadwinning.

For more of this all-too-common and distinctly American story, head over to The Atlantic.

 

 

 

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.