Keeping Up With The Herd: Choosing to Forgo Maternity Leave

When I worked at Microsoft back in the nineties, there was a vice president in charge of my division, whom I’ll call “J.” Even though she never cracked a smile or ate lunch with us non-management types, I was in awe of J. We were both in our thirties, but while she had quickly ascended to within elbow-rubbing distance of Bill Gates, I toiled away in a windowless office producing low-bandwidth web pages that could be downloaded in fewer than 30 seconds through dial-up connections.

Then J got pregnant.

As she strolled the hallways on her way to some presumably important meeting wearing absurdly expensive suits, I watched her growing belly with growing interest. I wanted to be a working mother just like J someday, but since I was still a newlywed, I was in no great rush.

During a meeting on a Thursday morning J’s water broke and she was rapidly whisked off to the hospital.

Five days later she was back at her desk.

“She’s like a freakin’ wildebeest,” I may have uttered a bit too loudly, because my office mate turned around and asked me why I’d just referred to our boss’s boss as an ungulate.

Wildebeests, I explained after tossing a handful of Skittles into my mouth, are migratory. They’re constantly on the move in search of food and water. Nothing stops them; not even giving birth. Mere minutes after calving, wildebeest cows must keep up with the rest of the herd, or risk getting picked off by a lion or hyena.

“So, you know; it’s like she dropped her calf and just kept going.”

“Ah. I get it. That’s funny,” she remarked before going back to her keyboard.

Sure it was funny, but I didn’t get why J chose to hire a nanny instead of staying at home with her newborn. Granted, the US has about the worst policy on the planet when it comes to maternity leave: in fact, the US, as well as Papua New Guinea — that other hotbed of democracy — are the only countries that aren’t legally obliged to offer paid time off for new mothers. But this was Microsoft, not Walmart. I knew J could take a leave and not be penalized.

When I ran into J pumping her milk in the women’s bathroom, I felt sorry for her. I’m never going to be like J, I said to myself as I peed, the hum of the breast pump mingling with the whoosh of flushing toilets. Unless my financial situation was dire, I would never put work above my baby.

Five years later I ate my words. Gobbled them up and swallowed. I was six months pregnant when my agent sold my first book to a hotshot editor in New York City. Not taking any chances, I waited until the contract was signed before divulging my impending motherhood.

“That’s lovely news, Lisa,” the editor cooed into the phone on a rainy November afternoon. “When are you due?”

“February.”

“Okay; no problem. I’ll be sure to get the edits to you before the baby comes.”

I thanked her for being so gracious and generous, then hung up, patted my belly, and waited for her emails to start rolling in.

Loy was born February 23. On March 1, just as I’d begun to float in the waters of maternal bliss, I received my manuscript, shot-through with red marker. The attached note said: “As you can see there is a substantial amount of work to do before the book goes to print. I hope to have the rewrite back as soon as possible.”

Since my husband worked full-time, I was forced to make a choice: I could ask the publisher if they wouldn’t mind delaying the release of the book so I could bond with my baby. Or, I could hire a nanny, and GO BACK TO WORK.

I went back to work.

Every morning after I breastfed Loy, I handed her over to Melissa, a sweet-smelling twenty-year-old whose father was the pastor of the Baptist Church down the street. Then I’d edit until Loy’s cries made my breasts leak, whereupon I’d hit SAVE and wander upstairs to sit in my rocker and nurse her. Fifteen minutes later, I’d put my sleeping infant in another woman’s arms and head back to my office.

For eight hours a day, five days a week, I didn’t read to my baby or cuddle her. I didn’t change her diapers or sing her songs. Instead, I worked.

I didn’t need to work because of money. I chose to forgo maternity leave and let someone else watch my baby because, well, because I wanted to be a writer; not a stay-at-home mother.

I’d become a wildebeest.

Just like J, the woman I judged so harshly all those years ago. It shouldn’t have mattered that she reappeared so soon after having a baby because she was afraid of losing her place in Microsoft’s power queue, or because she missed wearing stylish clothing, or simply because she loved her job. To be sure: a lot of new mothers don’t have a choice: nearly one-quarter of American women are forced to return to work — some as soon as two weeks after giving birth — almost always for financial reasons.

Instead of hurling insults behind J’s back, I should have celebrated the fact that she had a choice. I should have high-fived her when I passed her in the hall, congratulating her for having both the means and the tenacity to travel down the trail of her choosing.

I should have told her how lucky she was that she got to do what she wanted to do.