Catch-22: The Maternity Leave Edition

I woke up feeling off. I couldn’t really explain it, but something felt weird.

My husband was out of town for the week, and I had somehow left work the night before without my cell phone. I couldn’t call my doctor, so I wondered if I should I just go to the hospital – just to be sure? I had been there the week before because I was experiencing some cramping. After some tests that came back fine, the nurses sent me home, exchanging that knowing smile that they must have for all first-time mothers-to-be who overreact.

After much hemming and hawing, my anxiety got the best of me. Although I knew it wasn’t anything, I drove to the hospital for the second week in a row and sheepishly told the nurses I was feeling a bit “odd.” I saw them exchange that same smile, but they did admit me and ran more tests. As I lay there for an hour waiting for my test results, my thoughts turned to all the things I needed to get done at work. Eventually, someone let me use a phone and I called my husband, who was at a conference two time zones away. I was in the middle of telling him that it was likely nothing when the nurses came back into the room. That knowing smile had changed to a full on grin: “Well,” one of them said, “looks like you’re having a baby today!”

What? I was in shock and couldn’t put my sentences together. I am not sure I have ever felt quite so alone. My husband was across the country, my best friend had just flown to Europe and my cell phone (my other best friend) was sitting on my desk a 30-minute drive away. Not to mention that I had my “work bag,” not my “it’s go time bag,” with me. It wasn’t time yet! It turns out that my amniotic fluid was leaking, so at just shy of 36 weeks, the doctor decided that it was best to induce.

Thankfully, my husband (and my phone, though not my friend) made it to the hospital after what must have been the longest 4 hour flight of his life, and at 11:22 p.m. we welcomed a beautiful 5 lb., 9 oz. baby girl.

This was the most wonderful, exciting day of my life, yet it threw a bit of a wrench in my plans. I was teaching an undergraduate course and a graduate seminar, and I had spent all of September telling the growing baby in my belly that she was to do as told and arrive when expected: November 5th. I had it all planned out. I understood, of course, that the date could vary a bit, and being the flexible person that I am, I decided that she would be born within a day or two of that date. Mothers will laugh, but I was just sure I was going to will this plan into being so: She would be born the week of the 5th, I had my courses covered for the next two weeks, and then it would be Thanksgiving Break. After Thanksgiving, I would return for a week to prepare my students for finals and then enjoy winter break and maybe some maternity leave. It was going to work out just fine.

…Ah, the best laid plans and all that.

I love to teach, and I take my responsibility to my students very seriously. Therefore, when my daughter arrived a month early and against my request (in the year and a half since her birth, I have discovered that this was not a fluke, as she is one independent and stubborn little girl), I decided that I needed to go back to the classroom after two weeks. Let me stress that this was my decision. I am fortunate to have a wonderful Dean and an understanding Chair, as well as amazing colleagues that would have taken care of my classes for the rest of the semester. But, it was important to me to be there for my students.

So, I went back to work part-time after two weeks. It wasn’t easy, though if I am entirely honest, it wasn’t all that difficult, either. It was nice to get a little bit of a break and even nicer to return home to my adorable baby. The stars seemed to align, and I was able to hire as a nanny a trusted former student who was taking a year off before Medical School. Many friends and colleagues were supportive of my decision to go back and some saw it as admirable. But I was shocked by the amount of negative judgement I received. It wasn’t always blatant, rather I would get raised eyebrows and back-handed comments, like “Oh, you’re missing out,” or “Oh, I couldn’t leave my child alone so early.” And oddly – or maybe not so oddly – it was women who seemed to be the most judgmental about this. The judgment was unfair and wrong, even more so because I live in the US, where many women and families don’t get the luxury of making this choice, as they must return to work almost immediately or lose out on income.

This experience is the perfect example of a “catch-22” – a no-win situation. I experienced negativity regarding my decision to return to work, even just part time, and yet I knew of friends who took maternity leave and faced assumptions about their dedication to their jobs. Having lived through this, I was interested when I read a recently published study conducted by Thelka Morgenroth and Madeline Heilman, “Should I Stay of Should I Go? Implications of Maternity Leave Choice on Perceptions of Working Mothers”, which supports this theory of the maternity leave catch-22 with statistical analysis. As they explain,

Whatever choice the working mother makes, she is vulnerable to the negative effects of gender stereotypes… The decision not to take maternity leave is apt to worsen this problem because it is a blatant demonstration of this gender norm violation. Refusing to stay home with one's child when maternity leave is offered is likely to leave little question that working mothers have their priorities wrong and to fuel the view of them as “bad parents” and undesirable partners.

On the other hand, staying home had negative consequences too. Morgenroth and Heilman write,

If a woman decides to take maternity leave, her motherhood status is likely to be further highlighted, reinforcing the belief that, for her, family takes precedence over work. In turn, the stereotype-based negativity directed at mothers in work settings is likely to be exacerbated, with perceptions of her competence and worthiness of rewards suffering as a consequence.

I generally love it when science confirms my observations, but this just made me sad. These gender norms are deeply engrained, and as the researchers found, apparent across nationalities. Norm change is difficult and it takes time, but we have to allow for a more flexible and fluid idea of motherhood and the working mother.

Click here for more about the study.

Did you experience judgement about your decision to go back to work or stay home? How did you deal with that?