Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Struggle of Working Mothers Begins With Pregnancy

Enough of my self-involved whining ("Isn't that what blogging is, a little?" asked Rayne) about why artisanal mayonnaise is driving me out and what I'm going to miss about Brooklyn. Today I am hosting a guest post from my IRL friend Caitlin, whose first child is scheduled to arrive around Valentine's Day. 

I'm fascinated seeing how gender inequities (inherent and institutional) begin to dawn on pregnant women -- myself included -- as their bellies grow. I really loved Caitlin's essay because it encapsulates this burgeoning realization so beautifully. So without further ado... 

My mother recently reminded me how, when I was a child, I told her I wanted to become a veterinarian (given my love of animals) but I said I also needed to become a hairdresser. Becoming a hairdresser would allow me to work from home while taking care of the babies. My mother explained to me that I could just be a vet if I wanted, but I wondered: who then would take care of my future, imaginary children and how would this work? In my formative years, my mother stayed at home and cared for me and my sibling full-time. The conversation with my mother never resolved how “the working mother with children” scenario would play out.

As an adult (who did not become a vet or a hairdresser), I’m learning from watching my peers navigate the maddening maze of working motherhood. And being pregnant for the first time, I’m learning increasingly more from my own personal experience. 

The struggle of working mothers begins with pregnancy; the battle to keep your head above water and your career and health from unhinging starts as early as the first trimester. Men or the otherwise not pregnant partner do not experience this struggle in the same way and the snowball effect towards workplace and economic inequality ripens.

I’ve heard tales of women who thrive physically and mentally during pregnancy; they glow, feel their best and most energetic. Almost all of the women I know have not had this experience, including myself. My pregnancy began with daily, day-long nausea that lasted over three months. As trimesters marched on, intense fatigue settled in, exacerbated by poor sleep from frequent urination at night and a very active baby in utero. Fatigue, lack of sleep, and poor immunity during pregnancy gave way to my catching bad colds back-to-back. Being pregnant, it took longer to heal and the intense coughing caused some other concerns, leading to even more doctor appointments.

Concurrently, pregnant women like me need to buy new clothes, undergarments, and sometimes shoes that will fit their ever-changing bodies, and readjust their diets for pregnancy needs. These are just a few of the lifestyle changes that take time and effort in addition to the usual and timely baby and birth preparations: securing leave from work, finding a good obstetrician, taking childbirth classes, obtaining all the necessary baby items, preparing the home, finding a pediatrician, and securing day care or a nanny. Prospective mothers often play a central role in all of these activities during pregnancy due to a combination of biology and desire. And they do it all on less sleep and with less energy in the bank.

Given the need for extra time for some of these tasks; the need for more rest; becoming sick more frequently and intensely; and increasing numbers of doctor appointments, I have used my sick and vacation days to take time off of work. But I take days off with a heavy heart, knowing that I’m spending down time that would otherwise be spent for my “maternity leave.”

Of course, “maternity leave” does not actually exist in most workplaces in the U.S. I’ve accrued sick and some vacation days from working for several years within a bureaucracy, and I’ll use almost all of this accrued time to take paid leave for several weeks, despite the fact that I will neither be on vacation nor necessarily sick. I’ll then opt for unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It took several (sometimes very frustrating) conversations and time during work hours to figure out what my real options were for leave and I received differing, confusing information along the way.

In the end, I’ll cobble together a plan for which different parts need different approvals from different managers. I’m still not clear how my doctor should complete the FMLA paperwork indicating that the birth of and care for my newborn constitutes a “serious medical condition,” a key term in FMLA. Again, given the paucity of leave options for fathers and partners, most if not all of this is an experience singular to pregnant women.

Knowing that many women have zero, minimal or only unpaid leave options, I feel fortunate to be able to take what is considered in the U.S. a substantial leave of over four months with some pay. However, I’m wary of coming back to work having used my annual right to FMLA and much of my sick time when I don’t know what my, my family’s or future baby’s health will be. Even with all things going well, babies can become frequently sick during their first year of life and my husband and I will need enough sick days to account for this.

I’m also going without three months of salary before my husband and I take on the biggest line item expense we will have to date: day care. Throughout the pregnancy, I’ve researched day cares (I visited about a dozen during lunch time at work so as not to use vacation or sick time) and have been disheartened by the staff ratio of four babies to one adult, and costs between $1,600 and $2,200 a month. Because day care wait lists in our city can average 9-18 months for infants, we’re on nine wait lists, many of which require a fee ranging from $25 to $300.

Along with the cost and underwhelming quality of some of the day care programs, there lingers the uncertainty that my childhood-self wondered about -- who actually will take care of the baby if I work?

And yet I know that I’m fortunate to have a manager at work who supports my wish to take what is considered a longer leave than usual and is genuinely excited about my pregnancy; to have a husband who attends each doctor appointment and pulls more than his fair share of weight at home; to have a husband who is willing to explore his taking unpaid leave to care for the baby to the extent we can financially afford it given my unpaid leave; and to be in a situation where both my husband and I are employed. 

But all of us are constrained by the rules and policies limiting paid leave, the length of leave, adequate sick time, and access to affordable, available, high-quality day care.

I can’t help but feel that this burden falls on the pregnant woman, the mother. I understand that the joys of having a child and the miracle of birth will likely suspend for a moment this sense that women and children are being short-changed and the systems are built to encourage me back into the home full-time, or at least to limit my career options. My sixth sense as a child that combining professionalism and mothering in America wasn't quite right was on target. What I was taught to believe and the reality for women did not and still does not add up.

I hope for our future baby, the conversation will be remarkably different.

Do you agree the struggle of working mothers begins with pregnancy?

Photos courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /