She Was Fired On Maternity Leave
She heard it in his voice; he was rambling. There was a prolonged silence. She asked if she was getting fired.
Picture it. Less than three months before, she gives birth to a quite large, almost 10-pound human who splits her in two. Everything she knows about her life changes. Not just the bulging, black-and-blue varicose veins that crawled across her calves, but her daily life — as she knows it — vanishes.
At first, she was flooded with love and affection. She was showered with gifts, support, and visits from family and friends. Then, all at once, she was left alone with a little pill bug of a being that shrieked when he was hungry and did little else but piss, poop, eat, and sometimes, sleep.
Before the baby, she went to the gym, pumping music so loudly into headphones she could run an extra mile and lift an extra set. She drank coffee all day until it was an acceptable time for wine, wrote at her leisure, walked the dog, and watched housewife reality TV that made her feel better about her life. She read books and articles on trains into the city where she taught academic writing to college students who were required to take her course, even though they hated to write.
She enjoyed financial independence and occasionally splurged on a gel manicure, a luxury her mother could never afford while raising five children. She drove too fast, and after work, attended readings with writer friends. She felt, and was, free.
She drove too fast, and after work, attended readings with writer friends. She felt, and was, free.
She chose her career path with careful consideration. The job was part-time and work-from-home at a small, literary magazine outfit. No one seemed to understand what it was unless you were a writer yourself or worked at another small, literary magazine outfit. It was nonprofit, the boss wanted her to run the operation, and he raised the salary in the first week she had the job. She felt the work they were doing was important, showcasing new talent from various writers from varied backgrounds. She was both valued and respected. Her boss often expressed he was thankful for her dedication. The last young man in her position had screwed over the small, literary magazine outfit and she had already exceeded his expectations.
Almost a year in to the job, she told the small, literary magazine outfit that she was expecting a baby. Her boss offered his congratulations and shortly after asked about her commitment to the role, as bosses are wont to ask young women. She promised she was “all in.” As the father of three, the boss understood the demands of raising a family. A former employee had burned him and she justified that he just wanted to make sure she was still as dedicated as she was when she first signed on.
A few months later, he offered her maternity leave pay. He called it an incentive to come back. She felt guilty for accepting it, knowing she would have returned with the maternity leave pay or without. Bringing a child into the world created enough fear over how much her life would change after a baby; it was almost 2016 and her generation was proving again that women could have the best of both worlds. She couldn’t fathom who she’d be without her career.
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Then came her little pill bug, just a week shy of Christmas. Routine dictated her days. She spent most of them hooked up to a machine, desperate to pump the milk that was supposed to feed the baby, that pulled her once small, perky breasts into conical plastic funnels and made her nipples crack and bleed. She bought herbal supplements to increase her supply that were more expensive than a filet mignon at a nice restaurant and made her smell like Mrs. Butterworth’s maple syrup.
She bounced naked from the waist up on a medicine ball under warming lamps at a lactation consultant’s office to try to get the baby to latch while one woman dripped formula onto her nipple and the other funneled a tube of milk into the baby’s mouth to encourage him to suck. She decided, for both her sanity and the baby’s, that it was time to admit she couldn’t produce the breast milk to feed him and conceded to powdered formula. Out there, her generation was fighting for “breast is best” and “free the nipple” and she watched the action, cheering from the sidelines.
The pill bug was impatient, and he liked his bottles ice cold from the refrigerator. She got some disapproving looks from visitors over this, as if chilled milk was the equivalent of child abuse. The pill bug didn’t care. He seemed to scream, don’t you dare make me wait. Her husband said the baby reminded him of her with his impatience. She never got around to returning the bottle warmer from that baby shower. She barely got around to showering those first months, period.
The pill bug seemed to scream, don’t you dare make me wait.
Maternity leave pay barely covered her monthly student loan payments, but she depended on it. After days and nights of changing diapers (which she didn’t mind) and bouts of high-pitched screams (which she did), she looked forward to the distraction and immersion back into the adult world of literary work. She told her boss she was really looking forward to working again at the small, literary magazine outfit.
She was in a baby toy surplus store hunting down a “rain canopy” without plastic poison in the materials when a call from the boss came in. She let it go to voicemail as she pushed the stroller with one hand and held the cumbersome item—one she’d never use, but mother’s guilt made her purchase — in the other. Back in the SUV, her buckled in front, and the baby in back, she listened to her boss’s message. He droned on about how the small, literary magazine outfit wasn’t making any money — not news — and may close up shop at the end of the year, also not news.
She’d heard it many times before, and knew the small, literary magazine outfit was underfunded when she began in the role, and what print literary magazine wasn’t nowadays? She called him back and said she’d be there with them until the end and drove home to start the diaper changing routine over again.
Maternity leave came and went. There were just three days left of the three months mutually agreed upon that she took for the baby. She was about to send an email staking her claim and readying herself to take the job over from the part-time, post-grad fill in. His role was temporary, a placeholder; an “in-between” to help run the magazine in her absence. Three months before, when she spoke with the post-grad on the phone, he seemed cool and casual, happy to help but entirely calm — the opposite of her type A personality. She immediately labeled him as “non-threatening,” handing over passwords to all accounts, giving him helpful tips to aid in the transition, and introducing him to all the company’s contacts.
When her boss called, she eagerly answered. She missed having designated hours for work since the baby’s birth. He mentioned “big bills” and “struggling” and “not sure when we can have you back to work.” She caught the conversation in clips not because the connection was poor, but because the spot on her brain that processed information was now static. The boss was uncomfortable. She heard it in his voice; he was rambling. There was a prolonged silence. She asked if she was getting fired.
She heard it in his voice; he was rambling. There was a prolonged silence. She asked if she was getting fired.
“No,” he said. “Of course not. There’s just no money.” He said he couldn’t afford to pay her. “Maternity pay was a mistake in hindsight.” He said they overextended. She said she understood, without having understood. She just wanted off the phone. She looked down at the baby who looked back up at her with wet, longing eyes and she immediately wished they could trade places — for him to take care of her for an hour or two while she sat in the vibrating, rocking chair. In a final act of panic and desperation, in an attempt to assuage her own discomfort, she asked the boss if she could still volunteer and help with the upcoming reading event. “Sure,” he said. “If that’s something you want.”
She tried to see her unemployment status as an opportunity. More time for the baby, more time for her husband, and more time for essays she’d always been meaning to write. She joined a moms’ exercise class, jogging with the stroller and practicing ballet moves in the mall before it opened with other mothers. If she didn’t have a job, she’d have her body back. She hoped that feeling physically strong would quell how lost she felt without a job title. She managed to write a little, but lacked work prospects that would compensate her well enough to pay a babysitter.
Her student loans overdrew the now-empty bank account she kept separate for her own expenses. She charged groceries and bills, amassing a credit debt. She chipped away at the bills and leaned on her husband financially, which though she was very lucky to do, still left her feeling dependent and trapped. And left her husband stressed. The financial burden was on his shoulders and he carried the anxiety home with him after long days at the office. They were forced to dip into the savings account they set up for their first home, one they both swore they’d never touch, just to pay monthly expenses.
Her student loans overdrew the now-empty bank account she kept separate for her own expenses. She charged groceries and bills, amassing a credit debt.
The pill bug wasn’t so much a pill bug anymore. He didn’t like to curl up or snuggle as newborns are wont to do, but he did smile whenever he saw her, as if to say you’re my person. He needed her, and that felt both invigorating and suffocating at once. The way his face lit up when she entered a room suspended her insides in a free fall and nothing — nothing — in the world could make her feel as high. And when he slept, she marveled over his perfect, pudgy toes and fingers, the creases in his thighs and dimples in his knees, and she fought the urge each time when consumed by love to scoop him up into her arms and sniff his head for baby smell. He once lived inside her and that’s how it felt when he wasn’t near — that she was missing a vital part of her herself, like leaving your right arm at home when you need it out in the world.
The husband needed her too. He’d been patient after she split in two, in awe of her delivering their son, and maybe a little cautious. In the beginning, he helped her change icicle feminine pads and fetched her water and made her food. When she was too tired to wake up again in the night, he hopped out of bed without needing to be asked. He told her she was more beautiful than she was before the baby and he made her feel it. He waited for his wife to navigate her new role patiently. He said he always knew she’d make a great mother. He almost made her believe it.
On Twitter a few weeks later, she saw the post-grad tweeting from the company account about submissions for the fall issue of the magazine. But weren’t they closing up shop? She hunted down the company email and the post-grad was still signing correspondence with her title. His emails no longer stated that he was merely “filling in” for her. In fact, on further inspection the spring issue of the magazine listed his name alone under said title. Her heart beat in her fingertips and she felt as clammy and dizzy as she had after delivering her son. It was now confirmed; she was fired.
The post-grad was an excellent graphic designer. The magazine had hired him for freelance design work for email campaigns in the past and he typeset a few past issues. As much as it pained her to admit it, he was probably a great fit in her former role, but that didn’t stop the floodgate of emotion, a mix of postpartum hormones and severe disappointment.
She felt punished for being female, for wanting a family. She did the only thing she felt she could in that situation: She composed an email to the boss politely asking for an explanation.
The boss responded the next day. He said the post-grad was being paid as a “consultant,” less than she was, and it made more sense for him to continue on because he planned the reading event and spring issue. He assumed after their call that she would want to move on. He wrote that he didn’t “feel great about the situation,” but he also believed she’d “be happier in a more stable situation.”
She read the email multiple times on multiple days, but never mustered the words for a response. She had no idea what to say or what to do. Her friends suggested she hire a lawyer, but that wasn’t an option when she was still overdrawing her bank account each month. She didn’t have money for coffee and she certainly couldn’t afford to be billed by the hour. She was still afraid it was her fault somehow.
She no longer had a job that would provide a mental break from her infant and financial independence from her husband, but it may have stung less if she wasn’t feeling so vulnerable as it was. She pined for the 11 hours of freedom her husband got each workday from infant cries, half-digested spit-up, fussing, explosive diapers that require an immediate load of laundry, and endless battles to get a baby to nap. At least one day a week, she watched her husband leave for work at six thirty in the morning and wished it were she instead. And her husband wished to be able to provide financial security for their family, and also, he probably wished for more sex. Most of this wasn’t her boss’s fault, but it became easy to blame him for it all.
Three weeks later, the small, literary magazine outfit’s newsletter arrives in her inbox. It was sent by the male post-grad to a contact list she helped build when she still worked there. The email solicited writers to submit their work for the fall issue and enthusiastically announced that they would pay all of their contributors due to generous donations.
As she reads the email, she hears the baby screaming in the other room. He’s thrown another nap strike that day, which has her on her fourth cup of coffee by two in the afternoon and bathes her limbs in a jittery state. The only way the baby will stop crying is if she rests her cheek on his cheek so he can touch her face and smell her.
She’s become a professional poop disposal.
Upon entering the nursery, she nearly avoids the poop pile on the floor. The dog cowers in the corner, hiding and ashamed. She’s become a professional poop disposal. She flushes the dog excrement, cleans the floor, and starts to change the baby’s diaper. The newsletter not only hit her inbox, but those of her many writer friends as well.
While discarding the dirty diaper and reaching for a fresh one, the baby pees all over his clothes, all over her, and the changing table, soaking everything in warm urine. She fights the urge to sit down in the corner with the dog and the baby and cry it out. She could laugh, if she weren’t so exhausted. The husband wouldn’t be home for another four hours. Every day felt long when he was gone, but today feels infinitely so. The husband wanted another baby soon and though she would love to have children so close in age, she is realizing the sacrifice is mostly hers alone.
And alone is what she feels, 11 hours a day, without a break, trapped in an apartment with a small, adorable, needy human and a dog that takes revenge shits on her carpets.
She is realizing the sacrifice is mostly hers alone.
Days turned to weeks and she begins to feel like the woman before the baby, but stronger, and better. The hormones that had held her over the edge of a sharp cliff everyday recede almost overnight and the warmer spring weather allows them all to leave the apartment on long walks in the fresh air. She begins to read articles again while she feeds the baby; she sneaks an episode of bad reality TV while her son takes a nap.
She no longer craves to switch places with her husband. Their son starts babbling out “ma-ma” and she is reminded how incredibly rewarding motherhood could be and what a privilege it was to witness all of their son’s milestones firsthand. She gets on a schedule that allows her time to work out, and even grants some time for writing. She stops caring if other people wondered what she does all day or if they thought she was just a mom, because now, she knows, that’s one hell of a job.
Her own mother put her career on hold to stay home and raise five children. Now, she understands that unique love and sacrifice are partners in a tango, with each one fighting to take the lead. Raising a child can be as wonderful as most gush it is, but only a fool would argue that it doesn’t come at many costs; some of which lie out of her control.
For her, motherhood was not always rewarding, or fair, and she may not get to “have it all.” But she can teach her son to acknowledge that he was raised by a woman who loved and cared for him, but who also wanted to work at a small, literary magazine outfit, and wasn’t given the chance. She could see herself as a professional poop disposal or she could remember that she was doing her part to change the world, starting with raising one young man.