Recently, after a friend came back to the office from maternity leave, her coworkers asked her, “So, how was your time off?” Americans are known for being stingy with vacation time, especially compared to other countries in the Western world. We are workaholics, and often proud of that fact. For most people in the modern workplace, maternity leave is one of the only acceptable instances in which we can take extended time off of work.
Even in this realm, Americans face challenges. Six to twelve weeks is standard among those who even get maternity leave, and some or all of that time is usually unpaid. I have friends who sat for legal bar exams days after giving birth or were expected to come into mandatory work meetings two weeks afterwards, while still technically on maternity leave. By contrast, friends in Israel and Europe have between six to twelve months off, and they are often paid during their leave.
I notice an interesting phenomenon as soon as a friend has a baby: she immediately realizes how broken our country is in terms of maternity leave. A problem that has been staring us in the face for years suddenly becomes visible when a person realizes that six or twelve weeks “off” isn’t actually enough time, even though it might sound like a lot. Many of these new mothers begin posting two things on Facebook: baby pictures and articles about maternity leave.
And then there are the people who think American parents have it far too easy already. For the past week, the Internet has been abuzz with the recriminations of a woman who, jealous of the time off enjoyed by her colleagues who are parents, demanded “Me-ternity” leave—time for herself akin to what her coworkers were getting after becoming parents. This Me-ternity advocate, Meghann Foye, believes this is necessary for her to regroup and recalibrate after working long hours, hours which (she is quick to point out) her colleagues who are parents don’t work.
In one sense, Foye is on point about the long hours all Americans—parents and not—put into their jobs. What Foye doesn’t seem to understand is what life is like for parents after work and during maternity leave. Writing in the New York Post [full disclosure: my husband is an editor there] Foye argued,
After 10 years of working in a job where I was always on deadline, I couldn’t help but feel envious when parents on staff left the office at 6 p.m. to tend to their children, while it was assumed co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack.
Three years ago, before I became a mother, I, too, didn’t know what life was like for my friends who had already crossed the threshold of parenthood. So for Foye and all the others who may feel jealous of this time “off,” let me share with you some highlights of my “maternity leave” (the first six weeks after each of my children was born). Just to preface: I had remarkably easy deliveries both times. My daughter was born in eight hours; my son in ninety minutes. I didn’t have a C-section (which, let’s remember, is major abdominal surgery), an epidural, or even an IV either time. This account is what recovery is like under the absolute best possible circumstances.
The first day, I was feeling pretty cocky. I rocked that whole childbirth thing, I thought, I can totally handle this motherhood business. After that first hormonal high wore off, however, I had to face some really scary moments, like dealing with the pain of performing my normal bodily functions (ahem) while still healing from childbirth, and figuring out the challenge of nursing. I was constantly in pain or in fear of being in pain. Despite never making a peep when I was in labor with my daughter, I screamed in agony every time she latched on to one of my breasts, which was every three hours. I bled so much post-delivery and Googled “postpartum hemorrhage” so many times I eventually called my midwife and asked if I should head to the emergency room. The bleeding lasted for a full six weeks, which coincides with how long most women’s maternity leave lasts. Just so you understand what that means: during the first six weeks at home, both mom and baby are wearing a diaper.
And after 6 p.m., when Foye complains about her colleagues heading home to their kids while she toils on at the office? It’s called the “witching hour” for a reason. After walking in the door, most working parents have just ninety minutes to cook, feed, bathe and put their children to sleep, all while negotiating with tired siblings and spouses. I’m home with my children all day, and while it’s mostly enjoyable, sometimes it takes me the rest of the evening just to recover from that last few hours of their day.
This might sound like old news to most parents, but given the rise of unmarried and childless people, and the trend toward delaying childbearing, neither Foye nor her friends understand this reality. Indeed, few outside parents’ immediate family and friends witness the carnage that is the first six weeks at home with a baby or the rituals of the daily witching hour.
And parents often avoid sharing their parenthood struggles with others in the workplace. Doing so risks making them appear to be complainers (not a problem for Foye, obviously). Perhaps that’s why their childless colleagues have an image of maternity leave much like the one Foye entertains—more like a spa visit than a gauntlet of sleepless nights, painful recovery, and constant caregiving. So let me enlighten Foye and her ilk: when new parents disappear for six weeks after the birth of a child, or after 6 p.m. to get home to their kids, it isn’t to enjoy an extended vacation. It’s to raise children, which is the toughest job in the world.