The Maternity Leave Myth
I can understand why many of the moms I know are irritated by the selfishness and presumption of this “Me-ternity Leave” woman.
But here’s the thing.
We don’t tell women in this country how hard it is to be a new mom. We don’t tell women breastfeeding hurts like crazy and you basically never sleep again and your hormones are haywire for a heck of a long time and that sometimes you will cry for an hour about the fact that the cat is sitting on the floor while your partner looks at you, bewildered, trying to figure out how to help.
We talk about the Facebook version of childbirth and brand new parenthood — that you will love this tiny human like nothing you’ve ever loved before (usually true, though not necessarily right away). We make the sleep deprivation seem cute rather than debilitating. We share things like “he had trouble latching” but we don’t say “the first 8 weeks of breastfeeding I thought he might be trying to chew off my nipples.”
This author is unbelievable wrong about how maternity leave works. You don’t have any “me time” for self reflection. Your self reflection involves wondering how many days it's been since you were last able to shower. Or wondering if this time you remembered that the dirty clothes go in the hamper rather than the dishwasher.
Could all women (and men!) use a sabbatical from work in their 30s where they engage in meaningful self reflection? You bet. I think that would be awesome. But maternity leave isn’t some vacation or mindfulness retreat. It’s a couple of months — if you’re lucky — of trying to figure out how to take care of a tiny person that the doctors let you take home from the hospital without an instruction manual.
Maternity leave is definitely not a vacation, but I think people like this author believe it might be because we aren’t honest with each other about how difficult birth and new parenthood can be.
In my experience, many new parents feel ashamed when they don’t immediately fall completely in love with their baby. Or worry that there is something intensely wrong with them when they feel really sad or emotional. Or think they must be a failure when breastfeeding is HARD.
They worry that something is wrong with them because they don’t know that there’s a huge range of “normal” for how challenging things can be after birth.
I only have some degree of perspective on this because I spend my career talking to and working with parents, nurses, early childhood educators, lactation consultants and many others who are intimately aware of the challenges that go along with giving birth and becoming a new parent. I’m a 30 something woman without kids who has some small inkling of just how freaking hard it is to become a parent.
And I believe I’m a rarity.
I think most women without children have absolutely no idea how hard it is. Intensely rewarding and amazing. And also so. Incredibly. Hard.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as a country we have a great many misconceptions about birth and new parenthood, and we also are woefully behind in granting any sort of paid parental leave on a national level. We don’t understand as a nation just what goes on in those first essential months and consequently don’t see any reason to provide universal paid leave.
I would love to see more openness in our culture about this. I would love for it to feel safe for new moms to talk more freely about the challenges. I would love for our culture to understand new parenthood well enough that not only is paid leave offered to all new parents, but that articles like this one never need be written because instead of making assumptions and feeling jealous of non-existent “me time” we’re actually reaching out to help each other.
I have so much respect for all the new parents out there, and particular respect for the intense challenges you’re facing in those first few months.
If you need somebody to hold the baby for a while so you can take a shower or a nap, give me a call, okay?