I have been a working mother for almost thirteen years. I know the hardest parts of parenting may still be in front of me. I also know I have fought through some pretty difficult times already. My first real challenge as a working mother came six weeks into motherhood.
I am a school-based speech-language pathologist working on a typical teacher’s contract. When I became pregnant with my first daughter, I was two years out of graduate school and absolutely loving my career choice as a new special educator. It never once occurred to me that I would not return to work after having my new baby. It also never occurred to me that I would have to return so soon. About halfway through my pregnancy I made an appointment with the HR person in my district to apply for maternity leave on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and finalize the details of my maternity leave. I don’t remember much of that meeting but I do remember sitting in my car afterwards in tears.
The FMLA allows employees to take up to twelve weeks of leave from work to recover from a medical condition or to care for a family member recovering from a medical condition (with some exceptions). This leave is unpaid. My school district allowed me to apply my accrued sick days to some of this time off—six weeks if I delivered vaginally and eight weeks if I had a Cesarean Section since that is the amount of time I would be “sick”. If I chose to take more time I would not be compensated financially—even if I had the sick days available. As a new teacher I had very few sick days accrued. I couldn’t even cover the six weeks. We were a typical couple in our late-twenties so my husband and I were drowning in student loan payments, both at relatively lower salaries as we were both beginning our careers, and the cost of daycare was hanging over us like a massive black cloud. That afternoon I sat in my car and I cried because I knew, without even speaking to my husband, that I would be returning to work as soon as physically possible.
The tears I shed and the angst I felt that afternoon were nothing, however, compared to how I felt when I actually did return to work. I had just spent six exhausting, confusing, foggy weeks at home with a newborn who struggled to nurse effectively, slept only ninety minutes at a time, and cried all day long. I was brand new at motherhood and I truly had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if it was day or night and I barely remembered to eat. Now, I had to go to work. I had to leave my tiny little baby, who still didn’t sleep, with someone else and I had to somehow go to work.
Most of my memories from those first six months of parenting are blurry. I remember moments though. I remember being so tired while I drove to work one morning I almost fell asleep at the wheel. I remember sitting in a rest area off the highway feeding my screaming infant while I sobbed exhausted, overwhelmed tears. She still wasn’t on a schedule and the commute home from her daycare was just long enough that her screaming, coupled with my pure exhaustion, almost did me in. I knew I would need to pull over for our safety. I remember mishandling a difficult meeting at work because I couldn’t focus and control my emotions in that moment. I remember being called to speak with my administrator and spending several terrified minutes convinced I was about to be disciplined for being late too often, forgetting my responsibilities one too many times, or simply not doing my job well. I remember several nights lying awake staring at my beautiful daughter’s sleeping face feeling like I was failing her and failing at motherhood. I remember feeling so depressed on Sunday evenings after spending two glorious days with my sweet baby that I would seriously contemplate quitting my job—a job we needed financially, that I had worked so hard to get, and that I loved so much.
Almost thirteen years later I just feel anger. My first few months of motherhood were unnecessarily stressful because I live in one of just a few countries that does not mandate paid parental leave. I live in a country where women generally have more opportunities, more freedoms, and more rights than most. Women in the United States don’t, however, have the right to be both effective mothers and productive employees since only a fraction of employers offer fully paid maternity leave.
When I look at my oldest daughter now I usually don’t remember how difficult it was in the beginning. She’s smart, brave, and driven. She already has career aspirations and she’s also said she wants to be a mom. Here in Connecticut, the Connecticut Campaign for Paid Family Leave needs working mothers’ help. They need us to convince legislators and any opposition that we deserve to be both amazing parents and productive, successful employees. Check out their mission, their work, and their proposals here. Write to your legislators, attend an event, and educate your friends. Our daughters deserve to have a better life than we did. Helping this Campaign is one of many things I will do to help make my daughters’ dreams realities.