I’ve talked a bit about this subject on the blog before, but today I wanted to have an honest conversation with you guys about something that has become very personal to me in recent months – the idea of ‘maternity leave’, and defining what it means in 2018.
Before I go into what I went through myself, I did a little digging on the history of maternity leave. You might be shocked by the results. First off, less than 50 years ago, there was no such thing as maternity leave. And until the 1940’s, women working in the civil service in the UK, had to retire when they married. And even as more women entered the workforce, provisions for maternity leave (which protected them from being fired when they became pregnant) weren’t introduced until the 70’s in many European countries. What’s worse, laws demanding a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid leave weren’t introduced in the US until as late as 1993. 1993?! The point is – the act of balancing work and family life has been a large issue for working women over the last half century or so.
After having Honor, it really hit home that the notion of maternity leave isn’t the same for everyone – in fact for many, it doesn’t exist at all. With my own story, it’s a bit of a toss up. On the one hand I am extremely lucky – Mackenzie and I mostly get to plan and arrange our own schedule, work from home a lot and therefore see a lot of Honor. But on the flipside, I was back shooting and writing just days after the birth, and I returned to filming an 11 hour day on my feet, when she was just 6 weeks old. It was my first time back on the red carpet – the Oscars – no pressure there then! There was a lot more prep and pressure than usual, trying to do research while my brain was still fuzzy and on very little sleep, finding a dress to flatter a newly post-partum middle, pumping enough for Honor in the bathroom just minutes before going out onto the carpet, and praying that the boob pads inside my gown didn’t leak or fall out (which they nearly did!) during filming. And on top of that, I felt so guilty leaving her so soon.
I had a similar experience leaving for a 48 work trip to Italy when she was 3 months. Even though my mother-in-law came to LA to help me and it was such a short trip, I felt incredibly guilty again, and had to deal with crazy new experiences – like pumping regularly in the loo of an airplane and trying to sterilize 12 pieces of pumping equipment every 3 hours around the clock, in a 15th century hotel room in Verona! Sounds more romantic than it was, trust me! This all made me realize that most of my friends in LA are self employed or freelance, and therefore have no traditional ‘maternity leave’ either. So while we have more flexibility in our schedules, it’s often even harder to balance and juggle everything because work never stops. We are not the only ones – between 2008 – 2011, 80% of people entering self-employment were female, according to official figures. Not only are you bewildered and exhausted as all new parents are, you feel extra guilty wondering if it’s too early to go back. Unlike having traditional paid leave, as a freelancer when you don’t work – you don’t get paid. But even for women who work at traditional companies, not all states are required to provide paid leave – so mothers are often faced with the decision of how much time to take off, balanced with their financial restrictions. Overall, it’s a lot of mixed emotions and hard decisions to make.
It’s important that women know their local laws surrounding maternity leave, and even their individual company policies and benefits, so that they are able to properly communicate with their employers and know what to expect. In the US there is a federal law mandating 12 weeks of unpaid leave, though not all companies provide paid leave at all. In other countries, women are entitled to much longer paid leave, ranging from 14 weeks to a year in some places like Denmark, Finland and Sweden. In England, you get 6 months paid leave and the option to extend to another 6 months unpaid, where they keep your job open.
While ‘maternity leave’ may not mean the same thing for everyone, balancing going back to work with family life is always a juggle no matter where you work or what you do. There are practical things every mother can do to ease the transition back to work a little. Wear breast pads if you’re breastfeeding to keep from leaking and speak to your boss about having a private place to pump (many big companies like Amazon and Facebook even have special lactation rooms for female employees, while places like airports are shockingly bad). You may also need to communicate to them ahead of time that you will be needing certain breaks to pump throughout the day (the law requires that they allow these breaks to you, but many women – and even employers – may not be aware of these rights!). It’s also worth checking to see if your employer has childcare available – large firms here in LA such as NBC Universal – have nurseries for employees’ babies. See if you can negotiate a shorter week and do not be shy, embarrassed or feel guilty about making it known you will be leaving on time. There are so many company cultures in which employees feel that they can’t leave until the boss does, or feel competitive around ‘staying late’. This is nearly impossible as a mum and is not acceptable to be pressured into!
Frequent traveler? With a doctor’s letter you can freeze your airmiles during pregnancy and some of your maternity leave, and you can even get a household account so that your baby can be added once they are ready to come along.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Expect to have the odd meltdown – it truly it impossible to do it all (if you need a good laugh about the idea of women ‘having it all’ – literally, having all the responsibilities in the word – read this New Yorker article). Emotions (not to mention hormones) run high and it’s easy to feel at times like you’re always letting someone down. Ask for help (Granny??!), call your best friend to unload – even better if she’s a mum who has been through it), accept the fact you might have to spend a few weekends catching up on sleep instead of having fun, and keep a bottle of wine open in the fridge at ALL TIMES. Use apps like Peanut or The Bump to get support from other mums, ask questions, and share advice. Share your thoughts and experiences with me below!