Few things incite my anger as quickly as the characterization of maternity leave as “vacation.”
In a recent interview with the New York Post about her new novel, Meternity, author Meghann Foye suggests that maternity leave allows mothers to take a step back from their lives and find their focus. She reports that she felt “envious” that mothers would leave the office to pick their kids up while she stayed behind to “pick up the slack.” Her sentiments led her to believe…
… in the value of a “meternity” leave — which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.
After reading this interview, I was infused with rage and resentment. I ranted about this interview to some colleagues (because I read it at work–where I actually have a few moments to read something on the Internet).
I am far from the only one. Here’s what Jenn Mann, author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat, posted about Meternity. And if that’s not enough, take a look at the Amazon reviews for the novel that started this whole mess.
Understandably, hoards of American mothers have rushed to the social media crime scene of Meternity to put in their own two cents about Foye’s misguided attempt at humor. Many of their comments focus on their frustration about the fact that Foye has completely misrepresented maternity leave. This is true. Foye presents “meternity leave” as a parallel path for women without children to take in order to focus on self-discovery.
But she misses the mark completely.
Her concept of “meternity” isn’t parallel to maternity leave–it’s the exact opposite.
Which is why mothers are so freakin’ pissed.
Contrary to what Foye assumes, when I was on maternity leave, I had never before thought so little about what I wanted in life. What I wanted–nay, needed!–in life was at the very, very bottom of the priority list.
Time for reflection? When?
Here’s 24 hours with a newborn. Midnight-1:00: nurse, change, soothe. 2:00-3:00: nurse, change, soothe. 4:00-5:00: nurse, change, soothe. Etc. And that’s when everything is going well. Throw in some bouts of baby gas, constipation, colic, the fact that you haven’t showered in three days or that you’ve got four visitors in your home… I think I may be preaching to the choir on this point.
The first time I was able to finally step back and reflect was when I returned to work and my daughter was in daycare. While Foye sees “meternity leave” as a way to reflect on her life, the reality is the privileged American mothers who actually have maternity leave need to end it in order to have the time and space to reflect.
And let’s not forget all the American mothers who don’t get maternity leave, be it paid or unpaid. Then, there’s the mothers who must return to work ASAP because they’ve run out of vacation days and sick leave (two unfortunate misnomers that feed the ignorance about maternity leave). And what about the mothers who stay home and are immersed in care-taking day in and day out? Are their lives full of reflection?
It’s no wonder that so many mothers are absolutely incensed that (once again) care-taking has been written off as a kind of leisure activity.
Meghann, let’s level with each other. It is especially hurtful to hear maternity leave compared to a vacation when it comes from another woman. I’m assuming you’ve experienced times when you’ve been the target of presumptive, uninformed judgments from men who don’t have a clue.
But let me be fair, Meghann. You have indeed made a spot-on observation about maternity leave:
From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of (new mothers) shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.
You are right, Meghann–but it’s not because new mothers simply have time off from work, which is how you envision “meternity leave.”
The reason that mothers emerge with a new focus is because they have been plunged into a nonstop, grueling training program that schooled them in quickly distinguishing what was important and what was simply window dressing. Through pain, blood, and tears, they learned how to put aside hunger, frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt in order to find the strength to keep mothering.
They learned how to get rid off all the noise and distractions in order to find a place to drop the anchor so they could hold on while the storm waged on.
That’s how mothers redirected their focus. That’s how they “found” themselves. Not by traveling and thinking and reading and ruminating. They did it through boots-on-the-ground training, every hour of every day for weeks. And then for months. They did it through self-denial, arguments with their spouses, and constant reassessments of how and when they could have social lives and personal time.
Becoming a mother is an ongoing lesson in humility, beginning from that obvious (yet still surprising!) realization that your baby cannot thank you for getting up four times at night. Your baby doesn’t thank you for suffering with a torn vagina just so he could emerge into this world. In fact, your baby can’t even really have a conversation with you for another two years.
So those early weeks of new motherhood are training for a lifetime of not being thanked or even acknowledged. And while we continue to feel annoyance and frustration about this, new motherhood does a remarkable job of tempering our emotional reactions.
But everyone has their limits.
So maybe you can understand why we get pissed when one of our own gender joins in the obliviousness of calling maternity leave a vacation. We get frustrated because what we do during our leave is often done in the dark, with no thanks or acknowledgement.
In fact, that is one of the reasons that I wrote my book, Becoming Mother. When I was pregnant, I noticed that there was a true dearth of books that actually took a pregnant woman into what it’s like to become a mother. There were plenty of books about the physical side, but nothing really that dealt with the emotional and mental upheaval, which is truly what makes maternity leave so necessary for coping with new motherhood.
When I was experiencing those first weeks of motherhood, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about this? This is insane! This is so unbelievably hard that I can’t believe no one talks about this.” And while there were plenty of books on first-time motherhood that took the shape of humorous confessions, no one was really being real with me.
So I wrote a book that would be real with new mothers.
I wrote it to cast light on the hidden side of maternity leave.
I did this so that others could sympathize and perhaps even advocate for new mothers. After all, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave–and that won’t change as long as this country holds onto the myth–even jokingly–that maternity leave is a vacation.
While everyone seems to be having their pound of flesh over the absurdity of Meternity, I’m looking for my compassion for Meghann.
Okay, she doesn’t have children yet. Okay, maybe the closest she has come to someone who has taken maternity leave is her view of the empty desk that she sees at work. But the gravest error that Meghann has made is choosing a subject that she doesn’t know much about. And then going so far as to write a novel about it. And then approaching that subject from an angle that provokes the ire of millions of mothers.
Put simply, her gravest error is a lack of humility.
But I’m venturing to guess that she might be learning that lesson now.
I could have written off this whole concept of “meternity” as very poor taste and a lack of social awareness. I could have just rolled my eyes, stewed at my desk while eating my lunch in fifteen minutes (so I could finish grading final exams–because I don’t have time to grade at home), but this is too important of a moment to let it go.
This is the moment when we need to say something. This is the moment when we say, “Knock it off with the vacation comparisons, already.”
It’s not funny.
It’s not even cute.
At best, it’s feeding a culture of misunderstanding.
At worst, it mocks what mothers of newborns actually experience.