Saturday, April 30, 2016

MEternity Leave

Seriously, are we really going to have to have this conversation?  I guess we really are. 

Meghann Foye has written a novel in which the main character fakes a pregnancy in order to get paid maternity leave. She calls it "MEternity" leave.

Foye says that she came up with the concept when she became envious of her co-workers who were parents who had this ready-made reason to leave work early: the kids. And, she said, the childfree folks were expected to pick up the slack. 

The fact is, before I had kids, I had similar thoughts and similar feelings. In a sense, I know where she's coming from. 

But the solution isn't coming up with this kind of offensive concept of "MEternity" leave, which implies, at least, that Foye thinks maternity leave is some sort of mommy vacation.

Maternity leave, lest there be any doubt, is a 24/7 job that you are thrown into after a major medical procedure, with only a vague notion of how to do it, and with the expectation that you perform at peak levels at all times with little or no sleep.  So maternity leave is the opposite of the relaxing, reflective break that Foye seems to imagine that it is.

And it's also not alway free, not alway a paid three months away from the office.  My maternity leave was only (partially) paid because I used every single hour of vacation and sick leave I had built up in order to draw a salary while I took it. And even then I took leave without pay in order to stay home for 11 weeks after the birth of my son.  So, sure, I got 12 weeks guaranteed, but that was unpaid unless I had the vacation/sick leave built up to turn it into paid leave.

AND THEN, I came back from maternity leave with no vacation and sick leave at all. You end up having to take a lot of time off with a new baby -- they get sick, they get YOU sick, you have to take them for regular well-child visits, etc. It literally took five years for me to build up enough vacation hours so that my family could take a one week vacation to Disneyland.

So yeah, parents are absent from work a lot more than nonparents, and we leave early, but it's not all light and roses and relaxation. Sometimes, most of the time, it's because, e.g., your kid is sick and has been sick for weeks and every drug they use to try to cure him works kinda, but not really, or he has an allergic reaction to them, and you find it is four months later and you are still dealing with this shit. (To give a fairly specific example....)

Parenthood is stressful.

And missing all the work is stressful because we don't like falling behind. And we don't like leaving stuff to our coworkers to cover. We care about you.  You are our friends. My two best co-worker buddies are both childfree. I don't like things falling on them because of my status as a parent. They have important things going on in their lives too.  We parents, if we are at all decent humans, feel guilty that sometimes our crappy assignments fall on our childfree peers because we are out with the kid. And we try very hard to make sure that doesn't happen. 

But, I get it, Meghann Foye. I really do. Because before I had a child...I had those thoughts too. I did.  But I was wrong. And so are you. 

The solution you seek is not MEternity leave. It is a universal paid sabbatical, one that even parents could take to explore other interests or just binge read every book we've wanted to read but haven't gotten around to for the last six years.

And the companion to that solution is a shift in attitude in both the worker and in management regarding expectations at the office. Management should not expect childfree employees to "pick up the slack" every time.  Childfree coworkers should not expect that of themselves.  People should be expected to have personal lives. 

What you want is a fundamental shift in attitude toward work. You want your personal life, not your job, to be the most important thing. And that requires a psychic shift on the part of the individual. That happened for me when I realized how miserable and resentful I was at my law firm job. I resolved to fix that.

And as regards management, if they won't shift their expectations, maybe a job change is in order. I did that too, left the law firm and went to a more flexible, less demanding job.

And finally, Foye wants all women to support each other, to understand each other, be they parents or child free.  But the means of her expression of her hopes for all women -- this MEternity leave concept -- has done exactly the opposite.

It has driven a resentful, and indeed, ignorant, wedge between the workers with children and without, one that need not be there. We can all try to understand each other better. This is as ridiculous and petty as The Mommy Wars. It's hard for all of us, Meghann, and, P.S., virtually every one of us with kids has been a childfree coworker of a parent in the past. We do understand your plight. Please try to understand us too.