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Its no secret that the United States maternity leave laws are some of the worst in the world. New mothers barely have time to get settled into their new lives as sleep-deprived and exhausted parents before they are shuffled back into the working world. Oftentimes their partners get very little to no time away from work to help the recovery process, leaving the vulnerable state of a new moms physical and emotional well-being at stake. It is a stressful time in which many parents feel goes by way too fast.
During those six to eight weeks that women are generally given by employers for maternity leave in the US, most parents are struggling to stay afloat. Sleep is rare and spit-up is aplenty. You are eating standing up while bouncing a baby, hoping that a shower is in your future. Your entire routine has been shaken up, and nothing is about you anymore. Its about this tiny little person you are holding, who is possibly screaming in your ear that he/she wants to eat for the twelfth time that day. Any new parent on maternity leave will tell you its stressful, exhausting, overwhelming, and scary. No one thinks that maternity leave is a vacation from work. Well, no one except this woman.
Meghann Foye is a corporate employee in her mid-thirties who believes the privilege of maternity leave should be opened up to everyone – even those who dont have children. Her theory is that when new mothers come back from maternity leave, they have a new sense of purpose and drive in their lives. She attributes this to the fact that these new parents just took a six to eight week vacation in which they were able to reflect on their deepest goals and desires and, in turn, changed their career paths.
If Meghann actually sat down and talked with those parents coming off of maternity leave, they would tell her it was anything but a vacation. They barely had time to shower or eat, much less sit and meditate about their greater purpose in life. The only thought about work that those new mothers were thinking was probably about how they wish time would slow down, and how eight weeks (if theyre lucky) is not nearly enough time. Maternity leave is not granted to parents so they can sit and relax and finally drink that margarita they have been craving for the past nine months. It is anything but a vacation, and heres why:
The Real Maternity Leave
You are Exhausted
If there were a stronger word to explain how someone can be so tired that their body aches, and how they have to hold onto the walls and counters as they walk, it would be used to explain parents bringing a new baby home. If they already have one or more kids, you can multiply this exponentially. There is no sleeping in. You are possibly sharing your room, or even your bed. Youre getting up every few hours to a screeching child, so sleeping through the night is out the window, too. Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby sleeps, but there are things to do around the house and possibly other kids who arent napping. And besides, arent you supposed to use that time to meditate on your career path?
You are Starving
Unlike the all-inclusive resort that Meghann believes is maternity leave, there is no one at your home preparing gourmet meals and bringing them to your room. You are lucky if you are able to sit down to eat a meal while it is still warm, or even eat anything that needs to be cooked. If you are breastfeeding, you are hungry all the time, which makes eating seem even more of a chore. Ever try to hold a baby while stabbing your cold dinner with a fork and bouncing up and down? Its not very relaxing, and it sure makes it hard to write down all those notes about lifes grand design.
You are Inside
There are no long walks on the beach or hiking beautiful trails. There are no pool-side drinks and warm sand between your toes. You are inside, in day old (or three day old) pajamas. You havent breathed fresh air in days because it simply takes too much effort to get yourself dressed enough for the neighbors to see you. If youre really brave, youve done a couple laps around the neighborhood, but most new parents are bedded down in their bunkers just trying to figure out how to reach the remote without waking the baby sleeping on their chest.
It isnt Fun
Someones idea of the perfect vacation can mean many things: lounging on a beach, sitting poolside, hiking trails, skiing, mountain climbing, yoga retreat. All of those things have one thing in common – fun. Any new parent will tell you that the time during maternity leave is anything but fun. It’s exhausting, stressful, and yes, rewarding. But fun? No way. Unless you think crying babies, no sleep, barely eating, and dirty clothes that smell like poop and spit-up is fun.
You arent Clean
When youre on vacation, especially a kidless one like Ms. Foye would be taking, you can wake up and take a shower at your leisure. As a parent of a newborn, your schedule is now ruled by them. You may not take a shower until 10 P.M., or maybe not for a few days. You have spit up in your hair and on your clothes, and there is a faint poop smell coming from somewhere that you havent figured out yet. Your hair has been in the same messy bun for days, and youre pretty sure your blow dryer will stop working from lack of use. You have used baby wipes at night because washing your face seems like such a chore. Showers are used for deep thinking anyways, and no new parent has time for that.
You arent Drinking
Vacations are usually filled with good food and even better drinks. When you were pregnant you may have been dreaming of that glass of wine you could finally drink after the baby was born. But the reality is that alcohol is the last thing on your mind during maternity leave. You are too busy wiping rouge spit-up off the counter and floors to reach for that wine bottle. Besides, how will you open it one-handed? No one is there to take your drink order, and when youre home with a baby its usually frowned upon to start drinking at noon anyways.
It is Stressful
Vacations are meant to be relaxing – time away from your everyday life where you can feel removed from your normal responsibilities. During maternity leave, your responsibilities have increased dramatically. Now you are not only in charge of yourself and your house, you are now in charge of a new little, helpless life and possibly a few extra little lives if you have other kids. Your mind is constantly racing on how you can manage your daily routine. On top of that, you now have a mini drill sergeant at your house – someone who is always yelling at you just as you are trying to get your mind straight. Your constant sleep deprived, tired, and hungry state is a far cry from the lounging on a beach chair mentality that most vacations allow.
You arent Comfortable
Vacations are a time to recharge your mind and your body. However, if you are in the throes of maternity leave you are anything but comfortable. A mother who has just given birth, either vaginally or by c-section, is recovering. She is wounded and she is hurting. She aches, shes bleeding, and her body looks nothing like it did before she started growing this life. Even adoptive parents will feel self-conscious about themselves – they are tired, aching, and unrested, just like a birth parent. No matter what, a new mother isnt comfortable and there are no massages and pedicures to help make her feel better.
You Feel Guilty
Maternity leave is six to eight weeks away from your job, which in terms of vacation is a long time. Responsibility now lies on your employer to find someone to temporarily cover your workload while you are at home. And most new parents feel guilty about their time away from the office, especially given the general consensus in the US that extended maternity leave is somewhat unnecessary. In addition, many new parents have a creeping timeline in the back of their head about how long until they have to return to work. The ultimate parent guilt is leaving your child with another caregiver after maternity leave, causing many new parents to stew in this feeling throughout their time away from the office. Nothing ruins vacation like feeling guilty about it.
The only thing maternity leave and vacation have in common is time spent away from the office. Maternity leave is not a time of reflection, meditation, or relaxation. No new parent comes back to the office feeling recharged and rejuvenated. Every single new parent comes back feeling guilty, exhausted, and worried about their children.
The mothers that Meghann Foye speak about – the ones who came back from maternity leave deciding to change their career paths – did indeed do such things, it wasnt because they took the time during maternity leave to ponder their lives. It wasnt because they had some great revelation about what they should be doing instead. Its because they now realize they have someone else in their life that depends on them. Maybe they want to be more present than they would be able to in their current position. Or maybe they want more financial freedom and stability since they now have more expenses. Either way, there were no grand epiphanies happening between diaper changes. Just parents wanting to be there for their kids.
The good news is that many companies around the US are changing their practices on maternity leave as they begin to recognize the importance of allowing new parents, both mothers and fathers, time to be at home with their new child. Newer, millennial companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook are known for their generous (in US terms) maternity leave policies for both mothers and fathers, offering over double the legally required time of maternity leave for both birth and adoptive parents. But even large financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America offer lengthy maternity leave, 16 weeks and 12 weeks of paid maternity leave respectively, in addition to childcare stipends for sick days. Most, if not all, of these companies are breastfeeding friendly, offering lactation rooms and time to pump for nursing mothers.
Hopefully maternity leave practices among employers will continue to improve, and those that agree with Meghann Foye will be shut down. The last thing new parents in the US need is someone coming to take their precious time away from them so they can have a little extra vacation time.
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