When you are an expecting working Mom, the talk of the office town revolves around two topics: the baby’s sex, and how long you plan to be away.
Tricky questions, really. Right on the borderline between happy-to-share and mind-your-own-business. Reactions and follow up questions are, more often than not, equally tasteless. And then it’s that weird moment when you need to break the news to Management…
I’ve seen Managers who were all in all excited, and others who got petrified to hear the news of a subordinate’s pregnancy. And, although the world acknowledges how beneficial paid maternity leaves are to families, businesses and the economy, not all people are on the same page about them. Personally, I am one of the lucky ones. I live in a corner of the world where maternity rights are protected by law, I work with an Employer that offers a generous maternity policy, and I have a Manager who supported me all the way. But not all working moms experience such generous conditions.
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international body whose mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, conducted a comparative study on parental leave systems among its 35 country-members. One thing was made clear: there are significant differentiations from country to country.
How much time off you get (if any!), how much you get paid while on that leave (if you do!), and whether the Father is taken into account in the scheme varies greatly. Browsing though the list of respective benefits, I felt that the innate socioeconomic identity of each country is well-reflected.
In Greece, for instance, Dads are treated by the State like a new family’s ornament. They get 5 paid days off when the baby is born, and then “boom” go back to work as if nothing actually happened. Guess who needs to stay behind to cuddle the munchkin? The Mother, who is provided with a generous 43-week paid maternity leave for that matter. To make the long stories short, as far as the Greek state is concerned, Fathers are treated as if they were the primary breadwinners and Moms are treated as if they were the primary family caretakers. Sad, but true.
I would be ungrateful not to admit, however, that forty-three weeks off work is a considerable amount of time in my Motherly hands. More than half the world is not entitled to a similar privilege. But, the way I am experiencing it it, it’s not just some luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s time I didn’t even know I really needed, until I got it. It’s an amount of time that initially sounds so long, and yet it somehow proves to be marginally enough. In my case here’s a list of all the stuff I invested my time on:
- Preparing my body and mind for labor: I had plenty of good food and rest, and attended a series of free labor-related seminars offered by the state
- Recovering from giving birth: Due to last-minute complications with my labor I was induced for a C-section, and recovery was a long and painful experience for me, both physically and mentally
- Learning all those things I didn’t know about raising a baby: How babies sleep, how they are fed, how they are cared for, how to play and interact with them to support their cognitive, emotional, and speech development, how to make sure they are getting the physical training they need for their fine and gross motor skills, how to introduce solids. The list is practically endless and ongoing. As my son grows, my knowledge grows along.
- Troubleshooting practicalities: Actually trying out all the new practices you are learning is hardly a walk in the park. It didn’t come naturally either. Complications come up all the time, and I needed to bring my focused mind and see things through. In our case, we are currently dealing with a persistent food allergy that decided to pop up out of the blue while introducing solids. Not to mention our terrible first flu season. My undivided attention during troubleshooting was more that required, and thankfully I had it.
- Pausing, Reflecting and Reinventing Myself: I seem to be a long way from where I was when I was pregnant and, to be honest, I feel that my pregnancy was -perhaps- the easiest phase to go through (although it didn’t look that way back then). Having this time off has provided me with enough clarity of mind to seek for opportunities to regroup, rejoice and feel grateful for how our new life is shaped by all it’s complications. Had I been consumed early on with the stress of balancing office and home priorities, I believe I would not have experienced it the same way. And, definitely, wouldn’t be able to explore or revisit creative aspects of myself like launching this blog. Having said that, I honestly can’t imagine how other women around the globe cope with less. There surely exist some pretty badass ladies out there, fighting through an inconsiderate world!
Asking an expecting mom how long she will be away from work, isn’t only tactless. It shows lack of empathy for all those factors outside of her reach, that will actually define how much time she will need. Factors of practical nature, that she can neither plan beforehand nor fully control. Like how long the postpartum healing and recovery will take (and I’m talking both body and mind here), how fast (or slow) the new baby will adjust to its life outside the womb and, subsequently, how quickly the family will reach some type of new normality.
Once the initial new normal is set, a bunch of new challenges await down the long and winding road. That’s when, in my humble opinion, the Maternity Leave really pays its dues: when you are physically there to do the necessary forward thinking and cherish those precious first times that will never get to happen again. The first time the baby soothes himself to sleep. His first apple savoring. His first words. His first few assisted steps. And you get to be there to guide him through. What a privilege and, at the same time, what a huge workload!
Some may think that being on a Maternity leave only allows you to take some time off to rest. Trust me when I say, I never had a busier schedule in my entire life. And the resting part is a joke. Body and mind practically never truly rest here.
A casual day during my Maternity leave ends with me physically drained and craving to see nothing but my pillow, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. And this is coming from a serial workaholic who has obtained two Master’s degrees while on a full-time job. Trust me, I know busy and exhausted. Maternity is a whole different animal.
It’s not just the fact that you are on call 24/7. It’s that your honest and absolute presence is crucial. The more present you are, the better the support your baby gets as it grows and conquers it’s new capabilities. Sure, you can get someone else to play with your kid and help him grow. But the best teachers he can get, the ultimate role-models and the ones he will look up to for life is the Parents. And being a role-model, an instructor, a tutor, a coach, a mentor, a cheerleader and an overall well-being provider is hard and complex. And you need to be there to make it happen. You need to pick up your emotional and mental luggage and go on a backpacking trip to grow-land. It’s exciting as much as exhausting. But that’s how people are made, no?
Moms need those Maternity leaves, people. Not only because they deserve some time off after the struggle of giving birth. But mainly because they’ve got some serious work of unparalleled importance to do during that time. Work that is best done by them. Work that grows both them and the universe. Only after we unanimously acknowledge that, does the world have a chance for global equality in Maternal schemes and benefits.