Mothers worldwide broke the internet last week in anger over American writer Meghann Foye’s likening of maternity leave to a ‘career break’. The 39-year old is out promoting (or sabotaging) her new novel Meternity, about a frazzled editor who fakes a pregnancy in order to get maternity leave. In an article for the New York Post, Foye wrote that the idea for the story stemmed from her own experience being ‘envious’ of women who were able to take this “sabbatical-like break”, allowing them “to shift their focus onto the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs”. Of course, cyber rage erupted. Maternity leave is so far from a break — it’s an exhaustive mess of confusion, fear, leaking boobs and late-night television. It starts with hours of excruciating pain, followed by a year of sleep deprivation torture and continues with a lifetime of worry. In fact, many women I know can’t wait to return to work after having kids and escape maternity leave.
That said, Foye does have a point (please don’t troll me). Because maternity leave, or, more specifically, having a child and becoming a mother, is an amazing catalyst for growth, and there is definitely some ‘me’ in that. Within the sleep deprived, shower free, mastitis ridden ‘break’ that is maternity leave, women are forced to shift priorities and reflect on who they are and what they really want to be doing with their lives.
I’ve spoken with many new mothers and all have been changed by their experience. It might not have been the most pleasant time and it’s certainly not your traditional ‘me’ time. But that doesn’t mean there’s no personal value and growth that comes from maternity leave and becoming a mother.
Maternity leave brings a whole new perspective to your life. Suddenly you’re taken off centre stage and reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around you, what you want or even what you need. Worries about what colour coat to purchase or whether to get the chicken or the fish are marginalised in the face of a sleepless night at the hospital with your baby.
Yes, motherhood can be tough. The hormones, the exhaustion, the incessant smell of poo that pervades your house. Your social life and your wardrobe is depleted and not even holidays provide a break. It’s demanding and constant. But then you’re greeted with a morning smile or warm cuddle at three in the morning and you are forced to remember what is really important in life.
And you’re not given hours to mediate and reflect on your life choices, but there are moments, among the sleepless nights, dirty nappies and trips to Baby Bunting, when you do get to stop and contemplate life and your place in it. You become aware of yourself as a role-model and thus more aware of the values you want to live up to and display to your child.
Maternity leave is a time to develop and enhance your organisational skills. You become an expert in time management and multi-tasking; you learn teamwork, patience and leadership. In fact, you will learn and grow more through your time away from the office than you would at work over this period.
Maternity leave is far from a ‘break’, but Foye wasn’t wrong in her observation that it gives women “a whole new lens through which to see their lives”. Having a child challenges women in a way that nothing else does. And among the chaos and stress of maternity leave, there are some magical moments when you get to re-evaluate what is important to you, gain new perspective and consider who you really want to be. And it’s not surprising that Foye was ‘envious’ of that.