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Maternity Leave Is Not A Vacation

“Enjoy your vacation,” a coworker said as I told him that it was my last day of work before my scheduled C-section.

I stared at his words in the email for several minutes, wanting to reply telling him the reality of maternity leave and how far it actually was from a vacation. I typed and erased and retyped again, not knowing whether to attack his ignorance or joke about how not a vacation it was. He was a man, unmarried, no kids, so he didn’t know. How could he?

If this was my first child, I would have probably just laughed it off without much thought, thinking how much I couldn’t wait to be away from work. But it was with my second child, and I knew exactly how maternity leave would go. I would be in a sleepless stupor most of the time. I would be begging my newborn to go to sleep after the fifth time getting up with her at 4 am. My bum would ache from the marathon couch nursing sessions while watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy. My body would ache- this time from a major surgery vs a vaginal delivery with my firstborn.

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Nothing about this spelled out vacation to me. Instead of the first time mom anxieties, I worried about my son and how he would react to the baby. I didn’t have the luxury of watching marathon reruns on Netflix, I also had a toddler I had to care for. When I wasn’t nursing or changing diapers, I was making sure that he wasn’t feeling neglected or left out. There was no time for me to nap when the baby napped because it was rare that I would get both the baby and the toddler to nap at the same time.

The word vacation to me has always mustered up the vision of peace and quiet; an escape from real life and endless relaxation. None of these words describe maternity leave. There couldn’t be anything more real-life than cracked, sore nipples and endless feedings and diaper blowouts. Nothing is more real than trying to keep a newborn alive on 3 hours of sleep over the course of 2 days.

The weeks fly by and suddenly you are a week away from your return to work. “There is so much to do,” you think to yourself, “where did the time go?” There is that cliche saying about how quickly time passes as soon as you have kids, but it’s so very true. I work a strenuous job working anywhere between 45-60 hours a week, always looking ahead to the next few days. The months go by so quickly, when you’re always working and thinking ahead.

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With maternity leave and motherhood in general, I was replacing that 45-60 hour, 5 days a week schedule, with one of a different calibre. Motherhood is a 24 hour, 7 days a week job, which is an entirely different kind of hard, that no amount of training can prepare you for. I had had unrealistic expectations about how hard it would be. I thought maternity leave would feel a little like a vacation with my first, but nothing prepared me for maternity leave with two children, and a case of postpartum anxiety, that left so much doubt. Trust me when I say that postpartum mental health issues do not equate to any form of vacation, it’s more like a prison cell, trapped in your own mind.

I am incredibly lucky to have been able to take maternity leave at all- not just for financial reasons but due to this country’s (lack of) leave policies. I joined my company when I was already five months pregnant. I had previously left the company I was working for, then got laid off by the new company, only to be hired back when already halfway through my pregnancy. I took the job, knowing full well that I wouldn’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

FMLA requires companies with 50+ employees must HOLD their job or a job equal to their current job for a maximum of 12 weeks. When I say hold, it is literally just a placeholder, there is no compensation, there is no back pay when you return. Employers are not required to offer you any form of compensation for the time that you are on leave. There is also the requirement that you work at your current job for a minimum of 12 calendar months before you can take advantage of that leave.

The man who re-hired me assured me that I would be taken care of, so I didn’t worry too much until it was time to put in a claim for the leave, which was recommended to be done before the baby was born to ease the chaos afterwards. It was then that I found out that my state, Massachusetts, was one of the few states in this country that had their own mandated maternity leave laws.

With the Massachusetts FMLA, my job would be held for 8 weeks. So at least I had that. But paying for the unpaid time was another huge stressor that not only stressed me out prior to the birth of my son but through the first few weeks of my leave as well. Just what an exhausted new mother wants to do- explain yourself over and over to someone over the phone and juggle a newborn, begging to be officially approved for your time off and be given a date of return.

Not many middle-class people can even afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid time for their maternity leave. Then add in the use of vacation time, and there again is the subtle misunderstanding of maternity leave as a vacation. Coming back to work, coworkers may be annoyed that they had to cover for you in your absence or maybe you find that your role in the company has changed.

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Maternity leave is not a vacation, but a necessity for all new mothers. The rate of postpartum depression is only rising. Maternal suicide is the number one cause of death for a new mother. Mothers are not caring for themselves. They are not bonding with their babies. This country’s parental leave laws are atrocious and need to be fixed. Mothers are doing an extremely important job, not only carrying the next generation in their wombs but also caring for them to ensure their survival.

How can we not equate a job that is performed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as being worthless when we are not compensated for this very necessary period in a mother’s and baby’s life? How can we send women back to work at 6 weeks, still bleeding from delivery, without batting an eyelash? It’s time we give better thoughts into the current state of this country’s policies and make a change to support new mothers better. Maternity leave couldn’t be further from a vacation, it’s reacclimating to the world with a new purpose, a new job title, and we mamas should be paid for it.

Maternity leave is exhausting. But it is also magical. You are able to bond with your babies without the chaos of a full-time job; with the perfect excuse NOT to do housework. It may be the only time in your adult life, pre-retirement, that you have a good reason to take an extended leave, not only to bond with your baby, but also to take care of yourself. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. It may not be a vacation, but you are healing too, and need a bit of recovery time too.

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