Please note that I use “maternity leave” instead of parental leave to reflect my own experience.
I heard that “leave is basically a vacation” from co-workers, older mentors, and, even close friends.
Before leave I read and researched, Googled, and Instagrammed. I knew about the Fourth Trimester – the twelve weeks following childbirth during which a woman’s body recovers and regulates to pre-birth conditions – and had a general idea of what to expect. I knew having a newborn would be tough, but not impossible. After all, I had (still have) an amazing husband, a support system, and am fortunate enough to have resources to help me recover.
Thankfully, I had a smooth labor and delivered a healthy 8 lb. 14-ounce baby girl, and consider myself fortunate, especially given maternal health stats and an uptick in c-section births. But even with a healthy and routine delivery and all the support and gift boxes in the world, I was not prepared. Managing my recovery – emotionally and physically – alongside caring for a newborn was difficult and taxing.
While in the in the trenches of new motherhood I recalled every conversation where I was told that that maternity leave was a breeze after the first month, that it would be a relaxing time, that I would catch up on all my TV shows and get so much done around the house. I realized that my leave was being reduced and casually dismissed because my labor as a parent was not valued and maternity leave was misunderstood as optional instead of as a necessary child bonding experience.
Then, three weeks into leave my (former) employer asked if I
could jump on a quick call and whip together a presentation.
Why so soon? Because his wife returned to work full-time just
four weeks postpartum so I should be ready “any day now.”
I skipped the call. I did not whip up a presentation. I did not make myself available for the remainder of my leave. And I did not compare myself to his wife.
But I did worry if I would be perceived as “not a team player” or “difficult.” I considered whether this decision to make myself unavailable would affect my career. Would some of the bigger, more notable projects in the pipeline be passed on to male colleagues when I returned? Would this affect my annual review? How would I be compared to my male coworkers – some of whom were fathers – who did not take more than a few days of leave?
These are important questions. But they have a time and place, and it was not three weeks postpartum. It was not the time to consider them whilst I was exhausted, unshowered, breastfeeding a ravenous infant. My employer put me an unfair position where I had to choose, even though it was not explicitly implied or asked, between my career or my child. I was placed in a disadvantageous situation because, regardless of which I picked, the other would suffer. I wish my employer realized the burden he was placing on me.
Here are a few things I wish my employer knew about maternity leave:
- Maternity leave is not a vacation. It is not time off. It is not a break. Moms are not sitting around watching TV all day, at your expense. We are working. We are working harder than we’ve ever worked before. And we’re mostly just winging it.
- The first few weeks of leave are spent surviving. Recovering after childbirth is hard for all moms, more so for others. It is a physically exhausting time. It is emotionally draining. The first few weeks are often a blur and asking more than “how are you?” and “what do you need” is asking too much.
- Mental load – the cognitive labor associated with managing the household, baby, and self – is linked to stress and maternal health. Moms have exhausted their mental ability to take on more stress. We do not need to also worry about our careers and job security. We value our work, our identity, and the career we’ve worked hard for but we are enjoying this new experience and time.
- Respect the boundaries set during leave. Unless we have asked to be contacted for XYZ or in an emergency, kindly do not email, text, or call for work. We will not be available for quick calls, presentations, or meetings unless it relates to our return-to-work transition towards the end of our leave.
- Leave as not an escape from work or professional commitments. It does not mean we will never be devoted employees again or that we are not returning to work. If you support us while we are on leave, especially by respecting our healthy boundaries, we will be indebted to you and will be excited to return to work.
In case it needs to be said again: maternity leave is not a vacation
and working parents must feel supported before, during, and after
leave because parenting is hard work, and parents are always on the clock.