I've learned to ask for what I want in life. At work, it can be intimidating, but I've gained the courage to ask for what I feel is fair: title changes, raises, and projects that spoke more to my interests. Of course, I had to work my ass off to prove I deserved these things, and I ultimately had to ask for them as they weren’t just handed to me. Sadly, that process applies to working moms. After my daughter’s birth, I realized there are things a woman should never have to ask for when on maternity leave. However, if you truly want to protect the time you have on leave with your newborn, you probably need to ask for them (because mandatory paid maternity and/or family leave isn't a thing in the United States yet).
When I first got my hands on a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In manifesto, I was stoked. Finally, a working mom was championing other working women, and calling out the need to keep us in the workforce, not just for a company’s benefit, but to shift the perception that women with careers aren’t just as ambitious, driven, and qualified as their male counterparts. However, a few pages in I realized this wasn’t a battlecry for work culture to change but a directive to women to do all the work of finding and seizing opportunities. I was more than disappointed. I was pissed. As a working mother, I already had a full plate. Now I had to singlehandedly change my company’s way of treating their employees who have just given birth? Please.
However, I have hope. Maybe, if more women start asking for what they need, we’ll start conditioning employers to expect that these are the things it will take to retain valuable employees. As a working mom, I don’t need in-house dry cleaning, or “massage Fridays.” I don’t need more reasons to stay in the office; I need the flexibility to time-shift my work schedule to create a better fit of all the aspects of my life. And when I’m maternity leave, it should be assumed that the employer will respect my time off to be with my newborn. I should haven’t have to ask for these things:
To Not Have To Work Ahead In Preparation Of Her Leave
I know I was tempted to do this and make an impression an an invaluable player, even when I was gone. However, doing extra work to make up for time spent away from the office on family leave, is an undue burden on an expectant mother. At the end of the day, it’s extra work, and unless I was getting paid for it, I shouldn’t do it. It’s a bad precedent to set, so I’m glad I didn’t take that on the first time I went on leave, otherwise it would have been expected of me the second time.
A Guarantee That She Has A Job To Come Back To
Under the the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), most employers are legally obligated to hold the position, or the equivalent, until you return from maternity leave. It protects those of us who have to take a leave of absence for life events from being punished for doing so.
Still, I had so many trepidations about leaving for three months. My company at the time did not offer generous time-off perks, and didn’t pay for more than five weeks of family leave, at a reduced rate, and that was because it was labeled as “disability” for welcoming a child. I was so nervous about having a baby to begin with. It was awful to worry that my job would change, or that they would hold my job until I could come back, but then fire me shortly after, if they thought they could manage without me.
To Not Be Emailed
I barely had a free hand to check email, but I made sure that my out-of-office replies indicated that I’d be on maternity leave for 12 weeks. While it helped to reduce the number of inbox messages, I was still surprised to see how many emails I was copied on, especially early on in my leave from people who knew I’d be unavailable for a while. What exactly did they think I’d do with 3-month-old emails?
To Not Get Sent Work Texts
I have never asked the question: “Can you not text me?” Nothing seems ruder. And yet, if you have ever been on a receiving end of a work text during your time off — whether you’re on leave, or just vegging out on the weekend — it can feel really intrusive. There is probably a nice way to get this point across, but nothing beats the blunt, rude request of asking co-workers to not message you if you truly don’t want people texting you to ask you work stuff when you’re mid-diaper change.
To Request Being Excused From Meetings
It should go without saying that a mom on maternity leave owes nothing to her employer, professionally speaking. The risk with that, I experienced, is the feeling that I would become unnecessary because I was no longer part of the day-to-day office routines. I started worrying that while I was on leave, my boss would realize everyone could get along without me.
So, though it didn’t happen more than a couple of times, I agreed to get on calls before my 12 week leave was up. Looking back, I regret doing this. It should be expected that parents on family leave are away from the office because their attention needs to be fully on their family at that time. Work, at least the work I do writing and producing TV commercials, could wait.
Documentation To Prove She’s On Maternity Leave
Nobody told me that maternity leave came with so much paperwork. From liaisoning from the insurance company to my employer, and then with a third party who handled family leave, these administrative tasks took up way too much of the time, energy, and focus that I was expecting to have for my newborn. I resent the way American work culture puts the onus on the woman who has just experienced a transformative life event, to “prove” that she indeed gave birth to or adopted a child and is entitled to leave, albeit without pay (in my case, any way), to secure her employment under FMLA. Aren’t we dealing with enough after giving birth?
With my first baby, the hospital had a group lactation class new moms could attend with their newborns. Let me repeat that phrase: group lactation class. Not individualized instruction, or private coaching. I was in a room with about six other moms, all of us in our breezy hospital gowns (which don’t facilitate breastfeeding, unless you wear them backwards and thus not only expose your boobs, but your lower half as well), fumbling with ourselves to get our kids to latch on properly. While somewhat helpful, I really didn’t want to be there. And being the Type A person I am, of course I immediately felt competitive with the other moms, as if I had to “win” this class and be the best breastfeeder to earn the lactation consultant’s approval.
It would have been nice not to ask for a more private meeting to ensure my baby was getting fed correctly. Apparently some hospitals do this; a friend of mine had a lactation consultant visit her three times a day for the three days she was in the hospital, to make sure she was in a groove with nursing. My “one and done” class did little to build my confidence around breastfeeding.
Mental Health Evaluations
My 6-week postpartum check-up with my obstetrician (OB) was basically to make sure all my organs were back in the right location, and that I was healing “nicely” from my non-traumatic vaginal birth. He jokingly asked when I was going to have another kid. But he asked me nothing about how I was feeling, how I was sleeping, how I was coping with the flux of emotions that come with the hormonal shifts after giving birth. Because he didn’t touch upon these subjects, I assumed it was because I was expected to just be fine. Nonplussed by my new life with a newborn, and having no reason to feel anxiety or fear or panic or euphoria or utter sadness at times.
While this may have been because he was not the best fit for me as a doctor, I have to wonder how many OBs are considering the mental health, and not just physical health, of their patients after childbirth. With many moms suffering from postpartum depression, mental health checks should be the norm in the wake of having a baby. It felt terrible that I didn’t know these new and strange feelings could actually be dealt with and eased, as opposed to just ignored, which is what I tried to do. In hindsight, I should have been more vocal about my postpartum, emotional issues, but I would have been more forthcoming if I had been prompted to talk about them first.
New motherhood can be isolating. My first baby was born right at the beginning of winter, so I didn’t get out with her much because of the cold weather. The lack of human contact, especially with grown-ups, where we could discuss topics outside children, really wore on me. So much so that I vowed my next child would be a summer baby. My son was born in July.
Seriously, just let me have it. If I’m going to spend this much time, day and night, on our couch breastfeeding our newborn, and unable to eat or shower or pee at will, the least my partner could do was hand over the viewing options to me for the next three months without me asking.