I was really scared about sharing my story, but I’ve had great support from friends and my loving partner. I wrote this piece for myself to put into words everything I felt and agonized over this last year. The ongoing lesson I’m learning is that I don’t want to make decisions from a place of fear. It’s in that spirit that I hit publish and have kept myself from running over here and hitting delete.
Around this time last year, I was headed back to work after my maternity leave. It was a time fraught with emotional highs and lows. Now, almost everywhere I turn, I read something that hits me where it (still) hurts. I recently read an interview by the New York Post with Meghann Foye, in which she promotes an idea through her novel that childless women deserve time off to find themselves, a meternity leave, a benefit she sees her childbearing counterparts have over her. I’m not going to say that the concept of meternity leave is stupid per se, because I am not against anyone getting a break from work if they need it, but I will say that Foye’s ideas about maternity leave are wrong.
Maternity leave, paid or unpaid, if you are lucky enough to get it in any capacity in the US, is hard work. Babies are demanding, including the most even-tempered of them—and nothing can really prepare you for their relentless needs. Entering parenthood is about learning an entirely new mode of survival; it’s not the idyllic or “self-reflective” time that some might imagine. While “self-advocacy” is certainly a skill some mothers learn, let’s not jump to the conclusion that mothers are confident or “sure of themselves” when they return to work, or that their workplace “provides a modicum of flexibility,” as Foye claims in her interview with Anna Davies about her novel.
I was nervous to go back to work last year, but I had never seriously considered being a stay at home parent either. I lacked any sort of models in my life of what that might look like. Simply put, dual income households were all that I knew. I prepared by doing my research and following helpful checklists provided by many bloggers. My first major hurdle was lining up child care when I didn’t get my first choice at the conveniently located campus daycare, though I’d been on a wait list for almost a year. I opted for an in-home provider about four miles away from campus, thinking that I could make the trip there and back during lunch to see my son and nurse. I had heard from so many working mothers that finding childcare close to the office was key in making the transition back to work a relatively happy one. After that, I made freezer meals, practiced with my breast pump, bought postpartum work clothes, gave myself an at-home mani-pedi, and packed up all my essentials in a new little bag. I was as ready as I’d ever be.
I knew that going back to my office would be difficult. The dynamic had changed substantially with new leadership and staff changes, but nothing could really prepare me for the reality of what that would mean as a new mom. My whole first month of work was a comedy of errors—it started with needing to queue with dozens of others just to get my parking privileges reinstated, having to pump breastmilk in a common room with only paper signs providing security because the mini-blinds I’d doggedly requested for months before my leave were still not ordered (and when they did arrive were the wrong size and my fourth floor window was broken during the installation), organizing a massive clean up of the 4×4 office kitchen because it was Kitchen Nightmares‘ level of filthy, and having so many mistakes on my paycheck that I became a frequent visitor at Accounting (and probably should have received one of those frozen yogurt punch cards because at least then I would have gotten something free on my tenth visit). Those things were all stressful, but the absolute most gut-wrenching thing that happened was on my very first day back. I asked my new supervisor if I could leave ten minutes early, and she asked me why. Why do you need to leave early?
Why? WHY??? I felt flames on the side of my face. I needed to leave early that day and would probably need to on others for the same reason—my child. I was parked a quarter mile away from my office since I’d been at parking services for over an hour (see above) and by the time I had a permit all the closer lots were full. I was responsible for drop-offs and pick-ups and there was no margin for error. You have to pay fines at daycare if you’re late, on top of the incredibly hefty monthly price tag (think mortgage payment or college tuition).
Next she asked when. When are you going to make up your time? I had no real way of making up my time—I had allotted my lunch breaks for seeing my kid to nurse, and if I stayed at work instead I’d still need to take another (unpaid) break to pump breastmilk. I couldn’t come to work earlier or stay later because I had to do the pick-ups and drop-offs (see above). So what could I say? I had no answer that would be acceptable. I mumbled something and darted out of the building, embarrassed and truly worried about my future as a working mom.
I felt the weight of my decision to return to work for what it was—a nightmare, a waking one that kept me on edge all the time. I couldn’t sleep, I felt sick and anxious at night and on the weekends because I was scared to go to work. What if I was late? What if I had to leave early? What if someone needed me while I was pumping breastmilk? What if I hadn’t anticipated the needs of everyone else around me like I used to before I had a child?
I felt alone, and everyone I turned to was in a different (and sometimes) slightly better situation than me. I talked to women who were in positions of authority and I found that they largely got to make their own rules about their schedule. I talked to friends who had very flexible supervisors and cooperative units that did give them the “modicum of flexibility” to work from home a couple hours a week or clock a few hours checking email on nights and weekends. I had friends who were able to work part-time, and had a family network of support for childcare. I had none of those things in my favor, so I clung to the idea that it would get easier with time. It didn’t.
This is just part of my story, but I’ll end it here for today. I’ll leave you with this beautiful rant from People I Want to Punch in the Throat. Read it and laugh out loud like I did.
Photo credits // agenda (featured in graphic): Willy Sietsma via Ultra HD Wallpapers / unicorn pouch: Invented Charm
You are ever my favorite superhero. So glad you decided to share this experience. I’m sure it will be such a comfort to others going through the same thing.
Thank you so much. You are MY hero.
I did in fact read this post when you initially put it up. And I did also read the People I Want to Punch in the Throat article that you linked to. I’ve honestly been mulling over thoughts on this in the back of my mind since, and now that I’m finally having time to catch up on reading blogs, here we go.
First and foremost, you are an amazing woman and I am so sorry that you ever had to deal with that toxic work environment, let alone right after returning to work. I know how good you were at your job, and how much of a shit show that place was for years. I honestly can’t believe they wouldn’t just let you leave work a little early each day and make up the time casually from home. I mean, it’s not like you were leaving hours early or not getting your work done! Ugh. That just pisses me off for you.
Somehow the article managed to rub me a little bit the wrong way though. And not that I don’t think we should allow people to have the freedom to leave a little early when needed, because we should, but I’ve been that person staying late to cover for coworkers with kids a million times. And I get it, I do, and I would never ask them to stay late if they had to go get their kids, or catch a dance recital, or anything like that. But being one of the few unmarried childless people I get asked to cover so many “extras” and asked to work on so many shitty field jobs because of that and it just sucks.
I guess in some ways it felt like the article was implying I wasn’t allowed to think that and I should suck it up because at the end of the day I had it easier all around. Coming back almost two months later to reread this this all I didn’t get that feeling to the same extent, so maybe I was particularly sensitive about work the day I initially read it, but I still think I’m allowed to think it sucks. No, I would never demand that my coworkers with kids miss anything important. And if I had kids I would probably expect that the childless coworkers covered for me when I needed it. But I think at the very least I deserve an extra thank you now and again for the additional expectation of “Oh, well Cassie will just cover it.”
Now, my situation is different in that it’s not just covering an hour late every once and a while in the office. For me it’s fieldwork too. Last Christmas I got pitched to work a job OVER Christmas, because I was single and had no kids. That was the only reason I was chosen. And when this happened my argument wasn’t that we should be pitching people with kids too, because that’s absurd. My argument was why are we even proposing to do this work at all! I mean I still have a family, I still have traditions, and I still enjoy the holidays. But because I don’t have kids of my own it’s okay to tell me I’m leaving for close to a month over the holidays? I’m just not okay with that. But in many ways that is the mentality in workplaces. (So kind of opposite of your old workplace…) It’s just guaranteed though that if there’s a long field job, or one around the holidays, I will be told to go.
I watch my coworker who recently had a kid take endless “working from home”/watching his son days. (This is time that all gets charged to our group’s overhead usually, because he’s not being productive at home. And then the rest of us need to work more hours to cover his salary essentially.) He takes time off constantly to go on extra family trips to visit relatives (because they all want to visit with the baby all the time). And he gets out of basically any fieldwork he wants to by playing the kid/”my wife will kill me” card. And I’m sure I sound petty and unsupportive, and I’m not trying to be, but it’s exhausting being the person to always have to pick up what other people can’t/won’t do.
When his son was first born I volunteered to take all of his fieldwork for the first few months so he could be at home. I made sure our boss didn’t schedule him for anything. I did whatever I could so that transition would be smooth for him. And I don’t expect him to ever do the same level of fieldwork that he did pre-kid. But at what point does that become someone else’s issue other than mine (the childless employee)? I mean, if he knew he wouldn’t be able to do as much fieldwork post kid (and righfully so) isn’t it a discussion that should have been had with our manager? So we could consider even hiring someone part time to help with fieldwork. But instead he’s chosen to say he can still do fieldwork, but when it comes down to it he gets out of doing it and it falls to someone else, who often already had a fuller workload.
I’m asking this honestly, am I just totally out of line? Should I just accept that this is the way of the world and I really don’t have any grounds to say it sucks? That it’s my decision to not have kids and that comes with having to do the worst of our field jobs 99% of the time and constantly cover any after hours work including weekends? According to this coworker “it sucks, Cassie, but just have a kid if you want more time off”
I mean, surely there has to be a middle ground. Where we can give people the trust and freedom to adjust their schedule as needed to take into account a life with kids, but where it doesn’t get taken so far that the people without kids are getting too much loaded on them.
And again, I really want to drive home I think what happened to you in your workplace was ridiculous. There was no reason they couldn’t have been a little bit flexible and have everything work out just fine. So please, don’t think I’m in any way shape or form saying what happened in your situation was okay. But I do think that being on the other side of that situation can suck too.
I’m seriously interested to hear your thoughts on this, because it’s a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a long time. And obviously having the conversation with people I work with directly is probably not the best choice…