Sarah Smiley: Maternity leave is not a vacation

If you haven’t heard the term “me-ternity,” you likely got through last week without feeling discouraged about today’s entitlement culture.

If you haven’t heard the term “me-ternity,” you likely got through last week without feeling discouraged about today’s entitlement culture.

Here’s what you missed:

The world met Meghann Foye. Meghann had a career as an editor, but she was jealous of female colleagues who went on maternity leave when they had a child. Meghann thought those colleagues returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose and outlook on life. Or, sometimes, they didn’t return to work at all.

Meghann decided she should have a maternity leave, too. But Meghann doesn’t have children, so she pined for something she calls “me-ternity” leave.

In an article for the New York Post, Meghann described her idea of me-ternity this way: it’s “a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.”

I tried very hard to follow Meghann’s argument, despite (1) her poor judgment in using a word that spoofs “maternity” to describe something that is actually a sabbatical, vacation or, possibly, a career change; and (2) her inclusion of “to a lesser degree, men.” Why “to a lesser degree?”

In theory, it makes sense for people to periodically slow down and re-evaluate their careers. Indeed, people often do this through an institution-granted sabbatical or extended absences. Kudos to companies that are able to give their employees that option. Many industries and institutions cannot. In all my years as a military dependent, no one ever asked my dad or husband if they needed to “find themselves” before they deployed overseas. Trust me, I would have definitely played the me-ternity card with Uncle Sam (specifically when I had just had a baby and my husband was deploying soon after) if that had been an option.

So in a perfect world, yes, Meghann, people should make room for mid-career reflections and personal goals that do not relate to a profession. But no one should feel entitled to those opportunities in the same way that women can expect what basically amounts to sick leave while they recover from the birth of a child.

Perhaps we mothers, with our Facebook posts and cheery photos, have inadvertently given people the wrong idea about the postpartum period. No one, after all, posts about her healing episiotomy. Even so, women are indeed physically recovering in the days and weeks after they deliver a baby.

If a co-worker has a heart attack and leaves for bypass surgery, should everyone else be entitled to equal time off, too? They could call it their own me-attack.

Where my head exploded while reading about Meghann’s me-ternity, however, was when she tried to attribute some of the unintended consequences of maternity leave (clarity, perspective, a sense of purpose) to the time off that that new mothers receive.

Meghann tells the NY Post (goo.gl/Yjxt8R), “[A]s I watched my friends take their real maternity leaves, I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves … From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of them shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.”

Meghann, Meghann, Meghann. It wasn’t the shift in focus that gave those women the new lens. It was the presence of a human child. Maybe it’s politically incorrect to say, but no matter how much time off Meghann takes, until she has peered into the eyes of a child who is dependent upon her, she will not experience the same seismic shift in perspective that new mothers feel. That perspective cannot be bought or granted.

A few paragraphs down, Meghann reveals how truly shallow her understanding of motherhood is when she says, “[w]omen are bad at putting ourselves first. But when you have a child, you learn how to self-advocate to put the needs of your family first.”

Having a new baby is the exact opposite of putting yourself first. Motherhood in general heralds the end of ever doing anything just for you.

In the end, and after leaving her job, Meghann says she learned that what she really needed was to protect her personal endeavors with better home-work boundaries. She says she learned “to live on [her] own terms.” If that’s the case, then I’d say she’s ahead of most of us mothers still trying to get a shower in the morning, squeeze in a run, go to work, do laundry, have dinner ready and be at the baseball game by 7 p.m.

Indeed, Meghann, many of us mothers actually end up at work, sitting beside you, in an attempt to do something for ourselves.

Author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

 

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