The USA of Working Motherhood
It’s my first day at work since my son was born 11 weeks ago. I work in my upstairs bedroom while my husband takes care of my preschooler and baby downstairs. I hear Winston wail while Teddy, my preschooler, sings happily and stomps around. My husband on leave handles it wonderfully. But on the other hand, I am not.
My heart is tugging and my reaction to my son’s screams is instinctive. I have to get down there. The feeling is crippling – a weight and a compression in my chest. I barely hear a word from the meeting. As soon as it’s over, I’ll run downstairs. I have to physically hold and feed my son. I pick him up and he grins at me. He melts into me as I kiss his chubby cheeks. We are together and I am complete. For 30 minutes. Only until my next department meeting starts.
I’ve decided to return from maternity leave a week early. The pandemic forced districts to start school online and there was no point starting my high school language class with a sub. Summer, though beautifully filled with baby cuddles and early morning walks with dew on the branches, was a terrifying, emotional, and exhausting countdown: How many days do I have to decide whether to return to school? Should I apply for a leave of absence? If I don’t, I’ll bring the virus back to my unvaccinated son.
At the end of the day, the core of my inner chaos was this: I am not ready to leave my son.
How could I leave this child in someone else’s care? How could I possibly get back to my job? Do I even have enough milk to keep him alive?
You could suggest that I put him on formula. Someone else might thoughtfully suggest that day care workers know how to care for babies. Another teacher could share how she came back as soon as possible after the birth, eight weeks, so that she wouldn’t lose more salary while she stayed at home with her child. Each mother suggests a different way to deal with this decision.
But how can I decide when to leave my child alone with a stranger for nine hours at a time? How can I get through a four-hour lesson without a pumping break? How will i survive? How will he survive?
The process of returning to work after childbirth – or, if we’re lucky, maternity leave – varies across the US. Many companies offer mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave that is covered by the FMLA. Other companies offer different numbers of weeks of paid vacation. My district offers a minimum of 12 weeks of unpaid vacation that is not covered by FMLA and is only paid when you use your accrued PTO. Most teachers try to plan pregnancy so that the baby will be born in May; “A built-in maternity leave,” an administrator once told me. As if you can plan for the month. While this comment was completely insensitive and unrealistic, the administrator reflects the system in which he uses his authority; a system that sees maternity leave as a nuisance and maternity as a distraction.
Amazingly, both of my babies were born in May. Many teachers wait years to have children so that they can take at least four weeks of paid leave. Four weeks to look after a child. After that, partner mothers better hope that our spouse earns enough money to keep us afloat: food on the table, electricity on, dressed. My district also offers a leave of absence of up to one year so that we have guaranteed our job when we return. People gasp when I tell them this. One year unpaid at home with your baby. That is wonderful! How lucky are you to work in a teacher-mothers-supported district!
And yes, I am lucky. The alternative, which is the only option for many women, is much worse: 12 weeks unpaid and then forced to return to work. If the mother is not ready to work or the baby is not ready to be separated, what a shame. They may quit because their job is not guaranteed when they are ready to return.
And so I force myself to feel happy. I do this for a couple of hours until I remember having to leave my boy in the arms of a well-meaning caretaker as I navigate my way back to work. I remember sobbing on lunch break with my first son, Teddy, even after two months of unpaid vacation. I still remember the rush to my car as soon as the doorbell rang at the end of the day. The sign on the door reminds the students that I am pumping. The thousands of children who passed and the hundreds who knocked. And finally, the staff who didn’t read the sign and used their key to enter while I was exposed and pumped milk for my absent young son. Then I realized that while I may be better off than another mother, the process is not normal or okay for either of us. I am unlucky to be a mother in the United States of America.
I can hear the gasp as I write this. Certain acquaintances might no longer follow me or stop talking to me if I talked badly about our country. But it’s time to face the hard truths. The US is one of the few developed countries that does not require paid maternity leave. In addition, the average mother only takes about 10 weeks of maternity leave. Ten weeks to give birth to a baby, take care of it, and then take care of our own bodies. While many working mothers have to ingest more for physical or emotional reasons, the financial burden is too high. In fact, we suffer from the consequences of returning to work too early.
So what’s wrong with our country? As citizens, we recognize the benefits of bringing up children as a family unit. According to a 2018 CATO survey, the American people overall support mandatory paid maternity leave, with “74 percent in favor of a federal paid policy for young mothers.” But according to the same poll, over half of these Americans would not vote for policies that increase their taxpayers’ money to fund such policies.
Apparently a well-adjusted family is worth little compared to the money in our pockets. But it’s also true that longer maternity leave results in lower child mortality rates, higher test scores, and fewer depressive symptoms for mothers. In addition, the long-term consequences of not helping fresh mothers in the workplace hurt our economy far more. One of the best ways to be economically successful is to have women equally represented in the workforce. But as a country, the US is failing women in the workplace. By April 2021, three million mothers with school-age children had been forced out of work.
Mothers are being abandoned by our abysmally broken system. In a family-obsessed country, it’s getting harder and harder to raise one here. Our tears for our babies when we return to work don’t come out of nowhere; they burst out of a place within us that needs us to be connected with our children. To be physically with our children. My sister, a lawyer, cried on the way to work in the morning and pumped and cried on the way home in the evening. She did this every day until the pandemic started, and she was actually relieved to stay home with her boy for a reason. I hear the echo from her in the online mother groups that I am a part of. Your stories reflect my story, my experience.
In 2020, after returning to my personal high school, I was transferred to an online school. While there were many factors that went into this regulatory decision, the main cause of the transfer was that I applied for a leave of absence during the pandemic to protect my infant’s weakened immune system. I had to adjust to a brand new school, staff, and dispersed schedule; I also taught middle school for the first time! Working online for the year was a relief, even when I had to teach sixth, eighth, and twelfth grades at the same time, and look after my two children most of the workdays.
My baby Winston will be 15 months before I enter a personal classroom. As much as I hate to say it, I am grateful to the pandemic for making this possible for me as a mother. It’s crazy that I even need that appreciation. And yet I am deeply grateful. Yes, I was scared of the pandemic and heartbroken by its impact on the world and the people around me. But I could be around my baby a lot longer than I would have under normal circumstances. I was able to take care of him, cuddle him, and connect with him in ways that would otherwise never have been possible.
I held on to my son during his first snot sickness as he cried for me. I sang him “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and read Goodnight Moon on repetition before nap. One afternoon between meetings, he climbed on his four-year-old brother and gave him a sloppy kiss. I couldn’t stop smiling. That experience also made me realize how much I missed with Teddy; those tears during the noon pumping sessions were tears of mourning. Each pearl holds a breathtaking moment that I would never get back.
The pandemic somehow compensated me. While many working mothers have been completely ripped off by the state of the world, I can see mothers at home reading this article and seeing themselves in my story. The pit of your stomach tightens with a feeling of deep injustice and longing. Their bodies are tired and drained and their minds are drained from the seemingly endless moving parts of their family and work life. We know that all families deserve adequate parental leave, but we also know that this much-needed change is slow. Employers must be required to grant paid maternity leave. Our mothers, our employees, and our babies cry out for it.
Tara Tovar is a mother of two boys, a high school art teacher, and an avid writer of stories that matter. She paints, writes music and reads in her free time. Follow Tara on LinkedIn and Instagram.