A Not-Very-Relatable Post About Taking Zero Maternity Leave and Doing All the Things and Everything Working Out Just Fine
This post is not intended to be especially relatable. I’m saying that upfront.
I had a baby on November 28th, about a month ago. Here is an account of this, light on the biological details.
My c-section was originally scheduled for December 5th. I had spent weeks wondering — when you schedule for 11am, what time does the baby actually come out? 11:25, or more like 3pm? Is there any reason I shouldn’t dress nicely and wear all the makeup?
I never quite found out, because my water broke quite dramatically, in my home around 11pm on November 27th, and I had a c-section around 3am. The delay was caused by lots of medical tests, waiting for an operating room, and a debate among medical personnel about how long we had to wait because I had eaten a sandwich for dinner. You know, LIKE PEOPLE DO.
Thing is, there’s a lot of downtime in giving birth and being in the hospital afterwards, and there’s a lot of unpleasant shit you might want to distract yourself from. If you have a loving partner there providing emotional support or overcome with the momentousness of having a baby, great! That would be very normal and relatable!
But both before and after baby Phoebe’s birth, my own husband spent a lot of time elsewhere — in the hospital waiting room and at home — taking care of our two-year-old. And also my contractions were mild (I wasn’t in labor that long), and I’ve done this before, and I don’t like having people I know around when I am in medical situations. I don’t want anything lessening my control over a situation, and my husband is too nice. I have more ability to control a situation if he isn’t there to try to help everyone get along. Sometimes everyone getting along is incorrect; sometimes my own right to bodily autonomy is correct and everyone getting along would lessen that. So I had plenty of time to continue with many of my usual work and social media activities, and I found it quite refreshing to do so. Some people want to be completely remodeled by parenthood. I don’t, and haven’t been. I enjoy feeling like myself. I feel like myself when I make things happen.
To wit: November 27th/28th is entering the thick of the holiday retail season. I run an online retail store, which was doing quite a bit of business. Most of our packages are packed by one main employee, so I was on my phone sending messages to her, and to my virtual assistant in Australia. I also have a videographer who produces the Bullish Vlog for me and is working on my new startup. The two of these people who are not in Australia work in the same physical space, but at different times. I coordinated the shit out of that from my phone. There were also quite a lot of texts along the lines of “Where are the Don’t Be a Dick Keychains, they aren’t with the other keychains?” / “Oh, that’s because they’re with the Don’t Be a Dick lapel pins, we have a whole drawer of Don’t Be a Dick.”
So what I’m saying is I was doing business from my phone directly before having a c-section. Then I was ushered into an operating room, and my husband was ushered in at just the right moment (a friend had come for our two-year-old), and Phoebe was born, following which were 18 or 24 or 36 hours of a dreamlike time outside of day and night, during which the baby was taken away, brought back, slept, woke, was taken away, brought back, etc. There was a lot of downtime. I should’ve been sleepy but wasn’t, like when they tell you to sleep on an airplane and you’re like, really? I opened my computer and sent a lot of emails, most not mentioning that I had just had a baby. Like, just.
I want to be clear: I am not advocating some neoliberal nightmare in which we must monetize our most vulnerable and poignant moments. This is my own personal jam.
If you just had a baby and your boss is emailing you, that’s abuse. If you have a regular job and you have a baby, you should get some kind of normal maternity leave, and should set up an autoresponder before you go so you don’t even see any work emails. If your boss has forgotten to ask you the password to THE VAULT (cool job you’ve got there!) before your leave began, she’s going to need to find out if you’re okay, and then get everyone in the office to sign a card, and then have someone hand-deliver that card to you with some goddamn helium balloons and then — only then — may the receptionist dispatched on this task ask you, very apologetically, for the password to the vault.
But I work for myself, and quite frankly, typing stuff into a phone is not a sweatshop. No one was suggesting I should work an eight-hour shift as a barista or go show some clients a new home on the market. I like working. I like making tangible things happen by doing intangible things. I like transcending the limitations of the body. I don’t want to be a body. I don’t identify with my body that much, not because of some trauma but just because of too much Star Trek and probably Descartes and the Western canon in general. I support other people getting in touch with their bodies, but it’s just not for me. This isn’t an advice post. But maybe you’d like to know that people like me exist and we’re totally fine and so are our babies.
November 28th was Monday, and when I logged in to my email, everyone else was having Monday morning and Phoebe was sleeping and I really couldn’t get up anyway, so I had a surprisingly normal workday Monday, from my hospital bed. I demanded books and notebooks from my husband, who was at home with our two-year-old and would be coming in later, and asked people to send me pics of the return addresses on boxes arriving to the warehouse (all day!) from vendors, so I could set those products to go live in the shop.
A friend visited and commented that I seemed shockingly on top of things. Soon after, a doctor visited and said, “Your morphine is about to wear off.” I had not realized I was on morphine. It’s a hell of a drug. That’s why I was temporarily on top of things. I felt fantastic, until I didn’t.
The next 36 hours or so were pretty terrible. I had crushing pain not only in my abdomen but, somehow, in my shoulders — two horrific points in the hollows of my collarbone where it felt like I had been brutally punched. I would buzz for nurses and they would never come fast enough. By then I had a hospital roommate who had given birth the usual way, and it seemed clear from her accounts thereof (we kept a respectful distance like good New Yorkers, but she made some phone calls I could not help but overhear) that I had a worse time for a couple days after birth, but she had a worse time for the couple days before. YMMV. I have no regrets.
And then I demanded to go home, where I was more comfortably able to run my business from my phone in my own bed.
People sometimes ask, “Are you taking maternity leave?” or, because this is America, “Did you take maternity leave?” (Someone now explain to the Canadians and Europeans that it is quite likely that an American who gave birth on November 28th would have used up all her maternity leave, if any, by New Years.)
I told one such questioner that I don’t think I took more than two hours completely off, to actually have surgery. I’m not trying to set the bar in some kind of new place. People still die in childbirth. It’s serious shit. And don’t get me wrong, during the time that I was running a business from an iPhone, I was unable to stand upright, or sit up in bed without the help of a motorized hospital bed, which reminded me a bit of those massage-giving pedicure chairs, but less fun. I wasn’t “fine.” I was sent home with opiates.
But I read enough sci-fi as a teenager — and enough catastrophic tales in Reader’s Digest’s “Drama in Real Life” series — that I’ve always imagined somehow ending up as a “brain in a jar,” the mind in the machine. Being physically immobilized while running a business from an iPhone is hopefully as close to that as I’ll ever come. And being physically immobilized while running a business from an iPhone is — for me — infinitely preferable to being physically immobilized and not running a business from an iPhone.
In The Four-Hour Workweek, published in 2007 before the financial crisis, author Tim Ferriss suggested that we all take mini-retirements throughout our careers, rather than one big retirement at the end. From today’s perspective, as jobs are lost to automation and Millennials never get the chance to enter the job market in the first place, this seems all too let-them-eat-cake. And yet women’s labor patterns have always had fits and starts — for instance, entering the labor market, taking five years off, then re-entering in a much-diminished position. Numerous surveys reveal that the most common preference of women with children (working full time, working part time, or not working) is working part time. However, part time jobs are usually not “career track,” not well-respected, and not well-paid. Full-time office workers, though, are sort of more than full time, routinely answering work emails at all hours, and working on vacation. To compensate, a few companies are now touting “unlimited vacation” policies; vacation is now all the time and also never.
Given these realities, it seems only natural that, for some knowledge workers, maternity leave might also be all the time and also never. I ordered $1,800 worth of merchandise from my phone five hours after a c-section; a month later, I am “at work” but also feeding the baby in my own bed at home on a Monday from 8:30am until 10. Two weeks ago I went to Manhattan to work with a client, so that was really “going to work” — an hour’s commute — but I only stayed for an hour and a half. What kind of job has hour-and-a-half shifts? I can’t complain. It all blurs. I want others to have Scandinavian-style parental leave policies, but I would not personally want to be a total exile from the world of work. One person’s much-needed family time is another’s exile.
I tell this story because recently I’ve read a series of articles that present new motherhood as a messy, weepy servitude where you no longer get to shower, everything falls apart, you no longer know yourself, and you become some totally different person who mourns the person you once were. I certainly do not dispute that it is exactly this for many women. These pieces clearly resonate. They have been posted on Facebook to dozens of comments along the lines of “So true! I feel this way exactly.”
But keep in mind: virtually all of the articles on the internet were written by freelance writers. (A few were written by staff writers, who are also ill-paid.) Brooklyn — my very neighborhood, in fact, the one with the fancy strollers — is home to a very, very large number of the writers from every online publication that covers items of feminist interest. Hell, I was reading Jessica Valenti’s memoir and she apparently lost her virginity on my block. I read somewhere that Brooklyn has the highest per capita population of professional writers of anywhere in the world. A very large percentage of them are also, say, white women in their thirties with masters degrees. A few have moved to Austin, where it’s cheaper, but they’re still the same basic demographic.
And let me tell you: BROOKLYN IS EXPENSIVE AND BEING A FREELANCE WRITER IS A TERRIBLE WAY TO MAKE MONEY. If your profession pays poorly and also by the article, and your production dips when you have a child, it is very likely that other things will go badly, including not being able to afford childcare and — for those with male partners — slipping into traditional gender roles. When things are stable and one person makes, say, three times as much money as the other, it’s much easier to treat those two careers as being equally important. It’s what decent, modern people do. You should respect your partner’s career.
But throw a child into the mix and one fucking emergency and all the sudden you need the higher-paying job to survive (of course it may have always been that way), and things can easily turn to shit. Like, “Why don’t you do all the nighttime baby care yourself because I have to go to work in the morning to keep our bills paid and you can stay home and sleep when the baby sleeps.” And then there you are like, THAT IS A CROCK, and HOLY SHIT I WANT TO GO TO WORK IN A CLEAN SHIRT and get coffee in a disposable cup and ride the train just like everyone else.
I’ve had juuuust enough of a taste of this to know what depths of despair I would sink into if I couldn’t produce financially. I have a weird business model. I write articles. Then people who like the articles sometimes come to The Bullish Conference or maybe just a webinar or join The Bullish Society or buy some hilarious socks.
So I’m good. I’m saying that many articles about what it’s like to have a baby and also try to work are written by people who never had sustainable business models to begin with. (Everyone has a business model. 9-to-5 employees have a business model — trading time for money. Even artists have business models, some much better than others.) This matters in regards to whether this class of articles should be considered representative of the experience of some larger category of American women, or just to freelance writers.
Relatedly — since this seems to be a common theme in so many articles — I have never not taken a shower for childcare reasons. I do sometimes shower with the door open for child-monitoring reasons, but it’s okay for a child safely ensconced in a crib to cry for a few minutes. Honestly, the thing we all worry about is that they stop breathing and die for basically no reason, in which case you wouldn’t hear anything, so crying is actually a very helpful sign that your child is alive and you will likely be able to satisfy their needs as soon as you have cleansed yourself. Hooray for everyone.
In the book Bringing Up Bébé, about the child-rearing practices of the French, it is mentioned that French people practice “the pause” — when a baby cries, the parent pauses to see if the baby is just fussing or if they really need something. Don’t jump up right away. Enjoy your wine. Wait and listen. When I first read about “the pause,” I was imagining something like 45 or 60 seconds. Later in the book it was mentioned that “the pause” was fifteen minutes. Do you know how long fifteen minutes is when a baby is crying? And yet, the French are fine. They are not involved in a contest to see which mothers (and it’s always mothers) can most fully self-immolate.
I share this story not because I’m recommending anything (other than maybe, if possible, making career choices that support the future lifestyle you want to have, which seems like pretty mainstream advice), but because, again — virtually all of the articles on this topic (and on all topics!) are written by freelance writers.
You never read an article from a CPA in Arkansas who’s like, “I’m a CPA, so I make many times the cost of day care in Arkansas and I like my job, so basically everything is fine.”
That’s not my story, although I’d happily read that article.
My story certainly depends on many kinds of privilege, on waiting until my late thirties to have children, and on technology developing to the point that one can perform value-generating tasks from a phone. But many of those forms of privilege — perhaps most — are shared by the writers of these articles.
I just want people to know that there’s a wider spectrum of experience out there than you might know from the internet, or your own family members. And a lot is outside our control, but you can stack the deck in your favor by getting good at managing a lot of things, only coupling with other people who share your standards of industry and cleanliness (and, obviously, gender equality), and maybe not doing the thing you love, exactly, as a career, at least not the way everyone else is doing it, but maybe doing the thing that lets you live the life you love, or making up your own thing and making it work, urgently but also for a long time first, and valuing your own pleasure and comfort and gentlemanly living and dignity in a way that makes you want your own life. And shit could still go wrong, and certainly will at some point, but not everything is outside your control. Not everything. Not always.
Jennifer Dziura is the founder of GetBullish, an organization that provides career and ladybiz resources from a feminist perspective and offers a web shop, an annual conference, and now The Bullish Society, a membership community for feminist career badasses.