I recently read that the average maternity leave for mothers in the US is 6 weeks but a baby rat needs its mother for 4 weeks after it’s born. So, it seems that American working moms have a 2-week advantage over rats. I felt my gut burn as I read this and was brought back to my own maternity leave.
My maternity leave was 9 weeks, and I was one of the lucky ones. The institution I worked for at the time had a generous sick time bank upon hire. Lucky me, I had nine weeks paid. Anything more than that would be unpaid and had to be ‘approved’ by seniors, most of whom were old white males. State law is 8 weeks leave, not necessarily paid but your job is kept for you, in some capacity, upon return. Leave is also determined by your ‘eligibility’- how long you’ve worked there so it could be 8 weeks, or more, or less. Apparently just being pregnant doesn’t make you fully ‘eligible’ for a standard leave.
So I left work for 9 weeks and came back with no vacation or sick time left. None. Zero. Because that’s what paid maternity leave is – you suck up all of your resources, then are expected to come back and act as if nothing has happened in your life and just slip back into the old routine. God forbid I need a day to take the baby to the doctor, or if I needed extra days – it wasn’t happening if I wanted to get paid. What a feeling! Was I being persecuted for having a baby? It’s like whomever made up maternity leave let out a big frustrate sigh and exhaled, “OKaaaayyyyy, fiiine, if the women feel like they must be in the workplace AND have babies, give’em a couple of weeks, but that’s it, they don’t deserve more.”
I am coming from a position where I wasn’t married to my job, but I was committed; I liked the paycheck, benefits, the familiarity and my boss. My first day back, I walked in as one of the Senior Execs was walking out. Took him a second to say, “oh, yeah, hey, how’s the baby?” The second person I saw was a very grumpy Executive Assistant, cursing and grumbling under her breath, and didn’t bother looking up at me. Was I expecting too much? Was I being too full of myself on my first day back? The first person to give me a warm welcome back was my boss, who was sincere. The young woman who worked for me also greeted me warmly. Lastly, one other colleague, who was an outcast in the office, a bit of a pariah actually, but I found her interesting and nice. She bought me lunch and told me that yes, indeed, I was important and I just underwent a significant life change and it should be recognized. It was appalling, she said, that there was barely a fluster upon my return. So maybe wanting a little comfort wasn’t so completely outrageous.
I just remember feeling so out of it and damaged my first day back but was offered no wiggle room, as I was expected to pick up where I had left off and hit the ground running. So I did. Only I didn’t run very far because I wore out pretty quickly.
At work, all I could think about was my 8 week old baby in a day care facility that had a white board schedule of when to change her diaper. I thought about her getting her diaper changed, then lying in her own poo until she was next on the rotation 3 hours later. Would she care that she was sitting in a full diaper for that long? No, probably not. But 8 weeks, to me, was way too young for my baby to be under the care of well-meaning strangers. Was anyone holding her? Soothing her? Playing with her? Will they remember to feed her? It was my job, my responsibility, my baby. I should be changing her diaper as soon as it is filled. If she cries, I am the one who should be there to soothe her. If she smiles, I should be the first one to see it.
Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I could have made myself feel better with, “Well, at least I’m not a mother rat. THAT would really suck.”