Long-Term Planning: Maternity Leave

BLUF: Decide NOW if you’re going to be a selfish, careerist mother who never sees her children, OR a lame, doormat, stay-at-home mother who doesn’t contribute to society other than wiping butts.

It is never too early to start thinking about what will change in your life once baby gets here.  I started thinking about it about fifteen years before I got pregnant.  Most women do: we live in a society where we are often forced to make an unnecessary and unnatural choice between having a career and being the kind of parent we want to be.

Why unnecessary and unnatural?  Let’s tackle “natural” first: only in the last few hundred years has the idea of separating mothers from infants so that mom could go back to work reared its ugly head.  Think about our ancestors (no, not your Great-Aunt Verna, a lot farther back).  Those who hunted and gathered.  What did mom do after she recovered from birth?  She put baby on her back or hip and went about her business of hunting and gathering, alongside other women and children.  Even later, after we (and by we, I mean women) invented agriculture, women continued to bring baby to work, with baby tied to her back or in a cute little wicker basket at arms’ reach.   To repeat: it’s a very recent notion that having a baby at her side somehow impedes a woman’s ability to be a productive member of society.  And when you think about it, it’s also really dumb.

Why unnecessary?  Because even though we are no longer hunters and gatherers, we could still keep moms and babies together without hurting moms’ careers.  We could. If we wanted to.  Some companies do want to, and encourage new moms to bring their babies to work.  And, oh, there’s all those other countries out there that somehow find a way to allow parents (yes, dads too!) to get to know their progeny a bit before passing them off to another person.

                Baby at Work        

We could offer part-time and telecommuting options to all moms.  We could have childcare centers located in every office building, at the very least.  We could, as a society, recognize that it’s in everyone’s interest to allow mother/infant bonding take place for longer than like two weeks.  And hopefully, that day will come…. But in the meantime, we gotta deal with what we have.  Which, often, is, a workplace policy that boils down to: “Come back to work as soon as you can control the bleeding from your vagina, and just pretend like it’s totally OK for someone else to be caring for the person who now means more to you than life itself…”

The sad thing is we get the message that it’s normal for moms and newborns to be separated, to the point that we convince ourselves that sadness at separation is just part of the package, that we just need to toughen up and repeat cheerfully: “Baby will be FINE!!!”  Well, yes, baby will survive.  But let’s not kid ourselves: separation from mom is stressful for baby.  Babies know and recognize their mothers’ voices and smell at birth.  When they are physically separated from their mothers for even a few minutes, their heart-rates go up, their cortisol levels go up, and they start craving a Malboro Light or fantasizing about shopping sprees.  Basically, instead of the usual “Where the hell have I landed?“ attitude of normal newborns, they have a “Where the hell have I landed and why am I missing the one thing that makes me feel ok?” attitude.

So it’s good for baby to be with mom.  It’s also good for mom to be with baby.  Bonding, recovering from childbirth, resting, getting to know baby, all of these are really good things, and very rare in the course of one’s lifetime, unless you plan on breeding like a Catholic or something.

Ok, back to long-term planning: the question you would do well to think about NOW is: how long do I want to be able to care for my baby full-time?  What can I do to ensure that I have the most possible time after birth before having to be physically separated from baby?  What’s my workplace maternity leave policy?  What about vacation days?  Sick days?  Unpaid leave?  Going to part-time?  Will I need to remortgage the house?  Sell pictures of my nude pregnant body to freaks on the internet?  Basically, what are my options?

And here my advice would be to go all-out.  If money is the issue (and isn’t it always), don’t start the college savings plan.  Don’t take that cruise.  Don’t upgrade your house or your car.  Shit, move in with family if that’s what it takes.

Pre-mommyhood, I had a work colleague who had recently had a baby and returned to the office.  I found her crying in the bathroom and asked what was the matter, and she told me that she just missed her baby so much it felt like her heart was breaking to be away from her all day.  That she had had no idea what it would be like, before baby was born, that this was like the most extreme kind of infatuation, where all you can think about is the baby, all you want to do is be around him, touch  him, smell him, look at him, be with him.   Poor lady cried almost every day for weeks.  Eventually, she got used to it, I suppose, and that’s what society tells us we’re supposed to do –  harden our hearts rather than give in to the profound need to care for our newborns.  But it ain’t right.  It ain’t natural.  After all, if we didn’t have this instinctive desire to care for our babies, we wouldn’t have made it as a species, would we?  We are hard-wired to NEED to be around our babies for quite a while, and to go against that is to mess with our psyches as well as our babies’.

But here’s the rub: we aren’t meant to stay at home alone with our babies either.  Human adults need daily interaction with other adults, and we need to feel like we contribute in valuable ways to our community.  So staying at home alone with your baby for months and months and months (even with the occasional trip to the grocery store) is likely to lead to almost as much craziness and heartache as leaving baby in another’s care.  And I think that’s why we find plenty of moms who are relieved to be going back to work, even though they often feel guilty about leaving their babies and regret that they won’t care for them themselves.  For many women, it’s a really shitty choice: go to work and miss your baby, or stay at home with baby and go crazy from lack of stimulation (getting barfed and pooped on notwithstanding) and adult companionship.

So my advice is: have a plan that allows as much of both as possible.  Frankly though, for the first 3 months, you won’t need a whole lot of other adults around.  One adult, ideally in the form of a mate, plus all those visits by people who want to hold your baby and cough on them, etc., will most likely provide all the adult companionship you need.  After that, the ideal would be to return gradually to work while remaining physically close to baby as much as possible.

Key point: don’t underestimate how deeply you’ll fall in love with the little stinker, how long you’ll want to be his sole caregiver, and how backed up by science and research those mommy instincts are.

ETA: If you want to do something about the lack of paid maternity leave in the US, sign this petition and support MomsRising’s work!  http://action.momsrising.org/sign/THE_FAMILY_ACT/

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