Thoughts on maternity leave from my sister Cait, while I’m busy perfecting my own nursing-whilst-typing technique.
Almost as soon as my baby was born, colleagues and friends began to ask when I’d return from maternity leave. How long will you take? they asked. When will you come back?
I’ve asked the same question of others, too, in all manner of settings and relationships. Living in a society where maternity leave—let alone paid maternity leave or paternity leave—is not a given, it’s a question that hovers around every pregnancy, every birth, every postpartum experience. It animates intimate conversations with close friends. It crops up in chats with professional colleagues negotiating workplace policies and politics. It takes up residence in idle dinner-party chatter.
Without a comprehensive federal maternity leave plan or even a shared national culture around family leave, we probe one another for insights and experiences. We’re all looking for clues.
In my case, I didn’t really take a maternity leave. I run my own small business, and while I delegated quite a few daily responsibilities, worked a ton from home, and turned down a few big projects in Oliver’s first year, I worked pretty much full-time on both sides of the threshold to motherhood. If there were an emblematic photograph of me in the first months, it’d probably be me nursing Oliver with one arm and typing with the other. The lines between my mothering life and my professional one converged and blurred the instant Oliver was born. And in the early weeks, I didn’t do much to keep them separate, conference calls be damned.
Even so, there came a time, around the 10-week mark, when my husband and I got a bit more organized. I began to replace calls with in-person meetings. I went back to working from my office, a few more hours each week. Erin came by two afternoons a week to bounce Oliver while I caught up on emails. I lined up bigger projects again, and planned business trips. My husband and I hired some outside childcare.
By the 8-month mark, we’d crafted a four-way babysitting plan that involved both my husband and me, my mom, and a genius babysitter, and together, the four of us sliced and diced the standard nine-to-five so that my husband and I could share in some of Oliver’s daytime care while each maintaining a 40-hour workweek. The murky waters of the nursing-whilst-typing period gave way to the clearer waters of scheduling and hand-offs. Oliver sometimes still visits my office and tests all the coffee cups, but mostly, my work life and my parenting life are separate. You could say I came back.
You could say that.
The truth is, though? You never really come back. Maternity leave or not. Two weeks or twelve weeks. Paid or unpaid. Telecommuting or part-timing or opting out of professional life entirely. The truth is that the early weeks and months after a baby arrives pull you into a world that you never quite step out of again, no matter the professional choices you make or the hours you work or the infinite number of ways you might rejigger your schedule to make room for everything: babies and jobs and family and friends and housework and fun. Becoming a parent is like stepping into Narnia: you’re changed once you’ve walked through that wardrobe, even if you can eventually find your way back out.
How long will you take? they ask. I ask it, too. But now I know it’s a silly question. You’ll take forever, like all of us.