When it comes to the mommy wars, I’m an outspoken pacifist. I hate that we’ve found ways to insert “versus” into all of these pools of women: nursing moms versus bottle-feeding moms, working moms versus stay-at-home moms and women who want children versus women who don’t. This last point was emphasized this week when the New York Post ran an article about the author of the book Meternity.
The premise: All women are entitled to a span of time away from the office, during which they can restore themselves and immerse themselves in their pursuits and interests unhindered by their day-to-day jobs.
It’s a great premise when you call it by the name it has been called for hundreds of years: a sabbatical. In her article, Meghann Foye envisions a “sabbatical-like break,” affording women who don’t have children that same restorative stretch that new mothers enjoy in the weeks and months after their new baby is born. She writes that in her early 30s, “it seemed that parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility.” She continues: “I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves.”
Cue the collective jaw drop of every mother in America.
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I salute the women around Foye who so convincingly projected that confidence and calm, and I even admire Foye’s optimism in her rosy view of returning to an office after having a new baby. But those perceptions are so spectacularly divorced from reality that I think it’s crucial we come to a screeching halt and have an honest conversation about what it truly means to be a working mother in America.
First and foremost: There’s little about maternity leave that’s restorative. One of the things I was entirely clueless about before having a baby is what a newborn’s schedule really looks like. I hadn’t understood that babies need to eat every two hours and that two hours is measured from start time to start time. If you spend 45 minutes in the middle of the night trying to breastfeed and then you have to change a diaper, burp your baby, go to the bathroom yourself and maybe gulp down a glass of water, you’re left with less than an hour to sleep. And that is your life around the clock for the first four weeks (maybe longer!) with your newborn.
If you’ve never suffered prolonged and extreme sleep deprivation, you have no conceivable way of understanding how debilitating it is. It wrecks you physically, and it can destroy you emotionally. And it has lingering effects for many, many months.
Then, there’s that pesky motherhood penalty, through which women who have children get paid less for doing the same work. In a 2007 Cornell University study, sociologists found that the recommended starting salary for women with children was $11,000 less, on average, than what it was for their child-free counterparts.
And that’s if they can get the same work! Foye enviously references a friend who left the corporate world to start her own business after returning from maternity leave—and I can’t help but wonder if that friend’s departure may have been influenced by a changed climate in her corporate environment. I, too, left a corporate job and ultimately launched my own business, but it wasn’t willingly. During my pregnancy, my male colleagues simply stopped returning my phone calls.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that not every mom gets paid maternity leave: Right now, only 12% of people working in the private sector have access to paid family leave through their employers—and some women aren’t entitled to any job-protected leave at all, which means they can’t even take unpaid time off to recover from childbirth.
I understand Foye’s point: that our working lives have swollen and bloated and are encroaching on our personal lives. But that affects all of us. Imagining those of us who have birthed children as essentially being on a tropical island for three months, making us the lucky (greedy?) people who get to waltz out of the office while everyone else is still hunched over their desks, is another bloody and winnerless battle in the mommy (or not-mommy, as the case may be) wars.
Yes, some parents may be permitted to leave at 5:30 p.m. But I don’t know any woman who feels good when she walks out of the office because she’s got a ticking clock of child-care pickup hovering over her head. I interviewed almost 75 working mothers as part of the research for the book I just published, Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood. One of the things I came to count on in those conversations was a statement like this: “It never gets easier to leave at 6 p.m.” “I feel like I get dirty looks when I walk out of the office for daycare pickup.” One woman referred to it as “pulling the ripcord,” that on a daily basis she braced herself for the jarring discomfort that came when she had to walk past colleagues still at their desks. Most told me that they’d get back on their computers after putting their children to bed, to put in the “extra” time they felt necessary to make up for the fact that they had to leave “early.” (And I should note here that early is usually 5 p.m., sometimes even 6 p.m.; they were still working at least 40-hour weeks.)
No one is talking in the office about the rippling undercurrents of guilt and resentment that exist in any workplace that includes parents. It’s unseemly to bring it up: Parents don’t want to call attention to this thing that’s already making them feel terrible, and their colleagues don’t want to begrudge them time with their kids. Yet in burying this perceived inequity, we’re just adding to the toxicity in the environment.
Talking with your boss and colleagues about the intersection of work and family is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but having those difficult conversations is the only way we’ll ever effect change. Even the simple act of acknowledging the unfairness (and it is all-encompassing unfairness: that work schedules aren’t more flexible, that there’s no on-site daycare, that anyone needs to work more than eight hours in a day, that our childbearing years correspond to when our careers are often just starting to take off) can release the pressure valve.
Once we’ve acknowledged that no one has it easy, we can start to talk about what can be done to make the office or organizational culture more employee-friendly. Not just family-friendly: employee-friendly.
Allyson Downey is the founder of weeSpring and the author of Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood.