Anna Davies caused some waves in the Mom Blog- and Twitter-spheres with her article “I Want all the Perks of Maternity Leave Without Having Any Kids.” In that article, she conflates “maternity leave” with “MEternity leave”.
As a working mom who has taken three maternity leaves, I found a number of cringeworthy points in the article:
- The assumption that maternity leave is like a sabbatical
- The idea that maternity leave is a “socially mandated time and space for self-reflection”
- The conflation of parenthood and carving out “me time”
Back to those bullet points in a minute – but first I want to focus on a point that is hidden in the article, but is actually salient. Anna describes being left behind at work in the following way:
…after 10 years of working in a job where I was always on deadline, I couldn’t help but feel envious when parents on staff left the office at 6 p.m. to tend to their children, while it was assumed co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack.
Such is the nature of work in the US – for parents and non-parents alike. Americans have less vacation time than in most other nations, and they also use their vacation time far less than in previous generations of Americans (going back forty years!!!) The latter statistic especially suggests the rise of a working culture that we have long surmised anecdotally: now that we have smartphones, there’s an expectation of being connected to work at pretty much all times.
There is very much a working culture that promotes overwork to the point of burnout, to the point where peoples’ lives seem only made for work and nothing else. No wonder Anna’s envious of the people at her workplace who seem to be able to leave early, skipping out the door to pick up their kids at day care and then do the forty-five minute commute home (to the tune of screaming kids), before trying desperately to find something healthy and cheap to fix for tired, hungry kids and parents, all before wrestling their darlings into an hour-long bath-book-bed time, collapsing into bed themselves for a hoped-for six hours of sleep, only to wake to a feverish kid or a kid who has a nightmare at 2 am.
The anger and envy (and any implied blame) shouldn’t be placed on maternity leave – it should be placed squarely on a working culture that fails to support the humanity of its workers. The situation Anna describes is a far, far cry from a Catholic understanding of work as dignified and ennobling:
Work is a good thing…-a good thing for … humanity-because through work [one] not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but [one] also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.” (Laborem Excercens 9)
Moreover work is part of what helps connect us to family, society, and humanity as a whole: we contribute our lives for the good of others. Work becomes a means of discipleship. Yet care has to be take with establishing that work in good ways.
As the Church solemnly reaffirmed in the recent Council, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person.” All people have the right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable them and their families “to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level” and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age. (Octagesima Adveniens 14)
Moreover, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI suggests:
I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity… (63)
Much work today does not enable the dignity of people – for many around the world, this is because existing jobs do not offer just wages. In Anna’s case, I think the trouble is probably less with wages and more with decent working conditions that do not safeguard her integrity and the integrity of others in her place of work. Working conditions that yield overwork, burnout, and loss of enjoyment of people and the world aren’t working conditions that enable the dignity of herself or of other people.
But this is also why going after maternity leave by inventing a (falsely) analogous “meternity leave” does no one any favors. It dichotomizes workers and promotes not seeing other peoples’ humanity. For example, if Anna spent some time reflecting on the humanity of her fellow workers, speaking with co-workers on maternity leave and learning about their hurting, healing, post-partum bodies, and the genuine human needs of their infants, she might not be so flippant about leave. She might especially realize the truth that maternity leave is not a sabbatical, nor a socially-mandated time of reflection. (As I joked recently on Facebook, if I had had any me time or time for reflection while on maternity leave – that is, if I hadn’t been so darned tired and in pain – I might have gone running right back to work!!!)
Not being flippant about leave time is especially important in a country like the US that has horrific maternity leave policies on the whole, policies that are dehumanizing for mothers, fathers, and children all. Anna, in fact, was lucky to be working at a company that apparently offered three months of paid leave (?), a certain rarity in the American corporate world.
Paying attention to all peoples’ humanity means workers ought not to be dichotomizing themselves into “parents” and “non-parents” but should be coming together and applauding good working conditions – like a (rather paltry, actually) three-month maternity leave – while advocating for better conditions where necessary – including advocating for people to take the time they need to separate from work and be themselves. That might mean advocating no-email or smartphone policies after the working day is done. It might mean going back to advocating for 8-hour days. It might mean advocating for more opportunities for actual sabbaticals (and let’s call them what they are).
All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labor or trade unions. (Laborem Excercens 20)
“Meternity leave” is dissociating, even dehumanizing if all it does is help a person “self-reflect”. Advocating for all peoples’ leave time – including those who are not parents – at least opens a door for human relationships and humanized work.