Most mothers either want or need to both mother their children and work for a wage. It always surprises me that some find that a controversial statement. It is pretty hard (though some try) to dispute the economic necessity of waged labor for mothers in the U.S. (where I live) today. I won’t go down the “but what if she doesn’t need the money” road – that way lies mommy wars.
In order to mother and earn a wage, mothers must have their children with or near them most of the time. There, I said it. No, I don’t mean that women who can’t have their children with them are not mothers or that they are bad mothers. I do mean that while they are away from their children, someone else is doing the mothering acts. And most mothers have very little choice in the matter.
I was pleased to see an article in The New York Times about workplaces in which mothers may bring their children every day. It makes me very happy to see workplaces in which children are welcome. I am excited by the work of Carla Moquin and the Parenting in the Workplace Institute. I am thrilled that The New York Times, which so often gives arms to the mommy wars, published an article in which children in the workplace is portrayed as positive and viable. What bothers me is the title of the article: Maternity-Leave Alternative: Bring the Baby to Work. What the title and some of the content suggests is that bringing children to work eliminates the need for maternity leave.
I owned my own solo law practice when I gave birth to my first son. Whatever maternity leave I was getting, I was creating for myself. I don’t consider the federal Family and Medical Leave Act a vast improvement over my situation, though if I had had FMLA time (twelve unpaid weeks), covering my court dates would have been someone elses problem. I hired a friend to cover my court appearances for thirty days from my due date, got the phone number of a nanny agency recommended by the local bar association, and set up a portable crib in my office. My plan was to go back to the office thirty days after giving birth bringing my son who would sleep peacefully in the portable crib and I would hire someone per diem to come to the office when I had to go to court. No problem. I had everything under control and had saved up so I could go without income for a month. I filed my last brief three days before I went into labor. During early labor, I took a conference call.
And then life happened.
Four days into my “maternity leave,” I was still recovering from thirty hours of back labor, a cesarean section, aspiration pneumonia, and a post-operative infection. My healthy son was in the NICU on antibiotics “just in case.” (No, I still don’t understand why.) I would have difficulty walking for months because, unbeknownst to me at the time, my broad ligament had been cut during the surgery. I was lucky – my son’s father had three weeks of paid vacation time he could spend at home with us (when we finally made it home). Even though my son had been given some formula in the NICU, I started pumping in the hospital and when we could finally be together he latched on without a problem. And he stayed latched on. When his dad tried giving him pumped breastmilk in preparation for my return to court, he would have none of it. Though he had taken a bottle in the NICU, he never would again. I arranged my schedule so I was never away from him longer than three hours. When I took him to my office, every time I lay him in the portable crib, he screamed non-stop. Soon he started to scream whenever I walked into my office. So I started working from home. I signed on with the nanny service which guaranteed that the nanny would show up at the appointed times (initially a few days a week) or the owner would come in her place. And then the nanny was late. And then she was just “FTA.” FTA is a court clerk designation for a party who doesn’t show up for trial – “failure to appear” which could get you a bench warrant for someone’s arrest. No such remedy with a nanny. When my nanny was FTA, I tried reaching the owner of the agency for that guarantee that she would personally come. She didn’t answer her pages. I was screwed.
Slowly but surely I cut my practice down to part-time from home. My mother-in-law stepped in as emergency childcare. Yes, I needed a workplace to which I could bring my son but first I needed maternity leave. I needed time for my body to heal. Even if I had had the birth I wanted, I still would have needed peaceful quiet time to be with my new child. He and I needed to nurse and sleep and rest and play and not worry about clients or judges or conference calls or bills. We needed to be mother and son and nothing else. Not necessarily forever. But for a while.
Should every mother have a workplace to which she can bring her child so that they can have access to each other throughout the day, breastfeed, snuggle, play? Absolutely. Children will be happier and healthier and mothers will be more productive. Older kids can spend some days at work with the other parent as well. But first mothers need paid maternity leave. I am not saying maternity leave is more important than children in the workplace – I am saying it is different. Bringing a baby to work is better than forcing a mother to leave an infant for long work days but it should not be used as an excuse to deny women paid maternity leave. A mother’s wage-earning work life is likely to be long. There are a lot of years left to bring kids to the office.
- Lauren @ HoboMama February 14th, 2009 at 1:51 am · Reply I really like this post, and I’m glad I found your blog through a comment trail. I eventually realized your name was familiar from Mothering magazine. Sweet!I was bored waiting in the back of Wal-Mart the other day, waiting for a site-to-store pickup for our home business, and I read the FMLA posting over the employment kiosk. I was struck by how many businesses the act doesn’t cover (such as mine, naturally), since there’s a minimum amount of employees and many small businesses won’t meet the threshold, and I was equally struck by how paltry it was. Twelve weeks unpaid, and then you’re guaranteed a comparable position if you come back at that point. Whoopee.Working from home, my husband and I had the luxury of taking as much time as we needed to get back into the swing of things, and as you said, it was longer than I’d anticipated. That said, working for ourselves also meant that we had no money coming in if we weren’t working, so we had to get back on track at some point, and it’s been, um, challenging to work and parent at the same time.I wish a lot of things for parents in this culture, and I don’t even know how to sum them up here. But you’ve spoken something for me. Thanks for posting this and writing about your very interesting experience.
- Jake February 15th, 2009 at 5:27 pm · Reply Welcome Lauren and thanks. The FMLA is important but, frankly, seriously lame. How many women can simply not afford to go twelve weeks without pay? And twelve weeks goes by very quickly. We need much much more.Glad you found me and send your friends.
- kate February 21st, 2009 at 7:20 am · Reply A friend of my mother’s took her baby (not a newborn, I think he was crawling) to work with her in the 70s. There was a teacher shortage, and the Principal knew she had a choice between having a teacher there with baby or no teacher at all. It worked out for them, but I doubt she would have done it later, with a very active toddler, or when she had more than one child.In Australia we have 12 months unpaid, and then you get the same job back. Unless of course you weren’t made a permanent employee in the first place. I was a casual employee, so childbirth made me unemployed. And pretty much unemployable.
- Krystyna August 5th, 2009 at 10:40 am · Reply I am a very lucky mother. At the time my son was born, I was working for two small business owners who worked out of their homes. All of the work was done over the internet and phone. After maternity leave, I returned to work with my son by my side. I could nurse him whenever I needed. Of course, as he got older, it was increasingly difficult. When he was nearly four months old, we moved, and I became a stay-at-home-mom. I am very grateful that I was able to take care of my son at work. I wish more mothers could do the same.