Some time ago a writer I follow on instagram posted about doing some work – even though, as she said herself, her baby was only a few weeks old and she felt it a tad early to be dipping a toe back into work stuff. She said she felt passionately about new mothers who work for themselves and don’t get a chance to take a proper break after giving birth. She mainatined that as a freelancer she needed to keep up her income stream and profile in a fast-moving industry which would easily forget about her and leave her career in the dust. Just the week before I had seen a headline attributed to an actress and businesswoman about how she didn’t have the ‘luxury of maternity leave’. This attitude bothers me for several reasons. First and foremost, how far have we come in 2020 if we still feel maternity leave is a luxury? The idea that as well as springing back into your pre-baby bod you must also be available for a Zoom call post-birth is ridiculous and is a narrative that needs to be stopped in it’s tracks.
There are a few elements at play.
I do not underestimate anybody’s requirement to keep up an income flow, particularly when their family is expanding. But optics are important and it can only be disheartening to most women who manage to take leave after giving birth to see people in the public eye with seemingly significantly more glamorous lives – as per their social media feeds – saying they cannot afford such a break. It has the potential to make every woman on maternity leave feel like a good-for-nothing sloth as they make the inevitable tearful comparisons while eating biscuits and flicking through Facebook. I mean, look at everything she’s achieving while I haven’t brushed my teeth in four days and can’t bring myself to change the baby out of the babygro with the dried-in puke on it.
There’s another layer. Beyond the optics.
How many of us really can’t just take a break? I mean, truly? Are we that invested in our career? Is life that fast now? Women have always had to fight for recognition in the work place, but do we honestly belive that some time out with a new born baby will undermine or obliterate our reputation, just like that? Are we that eager to show we are qualified and capable and worthy that we scupper our own physical and family’s wellbeing to be seen to be back in the saddle asap?
A writer I really admire made an apparent mess of taking time off with not one but both her newborns. The honesty with which she documented her experience the first time around made for great reading, where she raced back to work after six weeks only to later lament the fact she hadn’t taken a proper break. Crucially she pointed to the fact that she had been fearful of fallout in terms of work relationships. However, in retrospect, she realised that was an underestimation of her talent and well-earned reputation. She swore she wished she could have done better. But hearing that second time around she almost had a nervous breakdown to finish a book while juggling her newborn son just left me thinking she could have done better.
Women in the public eye, because of their visibility, put down an important marker. And this marker impacts how women think and feel they should act. That is not to say that I expect every woman in the public eye to live their lives under the burdensome title of ‘role model’. However, maybe we could swap this very broken record for a new one? The record – which I know would go platinum – of owning your decisions?
Rather than saying you can’t afford to risk work relationships, say you love your job and would go crazy at the thought of not writing professionally for a few months. Rather than saying you can’t afford the luxury of maternity leave, go a step further and say that your identity as a person is such that you couldn’t imagine taking a break from your business and you absolutely love the kids spending time with their Dad / minder etc. Stay at home parents are killed from being told they are ‘lucky’ – well Dermot, make a few different life choices and you too can get ‘lucky’. But if you’re working away because you like to go on holiday or you need to cover the rent or you just enjoy your job, then just own it.
If everyone started to own their decisions, what would our world start to look like? Maybe we could throw off the monkey that is ‘guilt’. After all, what’s to feel guilty about if we’re making the best decisions for ourselves and our families? It would kill off the idea that anyone really wants to ‘have it all’ because we’re consciously choosing to focus on the bits we actually want. How brilliant would it be if we just came out and said; ‘My job is my identity and I love it’ or ‘I hate being at home and my partner is better with the kids’… How liberating would it be? How empowering. That’s the kind of narrative I want to hear and learn from – not the one that starts with ‘I just couldn’t afford to take any time off in between launching my business, birthing a baby and holidaying in Mauritius.’ YAWN.