Today was the first day of my 16 to 20 week maternity leave. I’ll write more later about the more administrative details; today I was having all sorts of feelings about going on maternity leave and legally not being able to work for the next few months.
Since I work in HR, I read A LOT about the different gender equality policies around the country and around the world. Which companies have the best male/female ratio, which country gives the most maternity leave, which countries give parental leave for the father, which countries have quotas for female board members . . .
I don’t think there’s really a “best” answer. I can say that while it’s very reassuring to know I won’t lose my job because we chose to have a baby, and we won’t go into debt because of hospital bills, it’s also frustrating that I can’t continue to work longer when I am perfectly capable of doing so. I’m not sure how imposing a long break for women is supposed to help them gain workplace equality.
Not that I am at all upset to have this break! And it’s something we knew would happen, so it was a deliberate choice (well, as much as timing these things can be deliberate) to have a baby very early in my career rather than wait until I was more established. But I still had a few big projects I’d been working on for a while that I had to pass on to other people, which was extremely hard to accept. It feels like there’ll be this big blank in my CV and I’ll always have less practical experience in the field than others my age. So I really want to use my “time off” to continue developing skills and knowledge (languages, computers, policy, etc.) that I can put to use once I go back. (Those of you who are moms are probably laughing yourselves silly at my naïveté thinking I can study German vocab while sleep-deprived and nursing a colicky newborn. Don’t break my utopian bubble just yet, pretty please!)
I’ll actually be going back as soon as possible, since my husband is going to work part-time for a year instead of me at the end of my maternity leave (this option is made possible thanks to Luxembourg’s parental leave policy). It means taking a step back in his career as well, which we discussed at length before deciding what to do. The way we see it, he’ll get a “break” and get to spend more time at home than he otherwise would with his crazy hours. The housework/baby burden will hopefully be slightly better balanced than what often happens, making us both more efficient at work. (Again, no breaking my bubble moms! Trying to go into this as positive as possible!)
In the long term, we realize it will probably mean less money and less promotions for both of us, but making our family a priority now, before we have to make bigger career choices, seemed to make sense to us. In 20 years, will he really care that it took him an extra year to get a promotion when he was able to be so involved with his son’s early life? And I’m sure in a few years I won’t give two figs about these “empty” months in my CV when it meant being able to take care of our new baby myself instead of leaving him with strangers when he’s just a few weeks old.
I do realize how incredibly lucky we are to even have these options available to us. But the one option that wasn’t available was for me to continue working as long as I could physically, which annoys me. It would have saved the government money, and would mean a higher salary potential over the course of my career as well, which is also good for the government, since it means more taxes. It would have saved my company money since they’d need a replacement for less time. Even the train company would make money from me keeping my commuter pass longer.
Coming back to this idea of equality, maternity policies aren’t even fair to all women, since not everyone has children. If a company doesn’t replace a woman on maternity leave, it means more work for others without increasing their pay. The same goes for men and parental leave. Everyone knows the time isn’t being spent lounging around on the beach, and that having children is just as much work as a full-time job, if not more. (Ok, probably definitely more work.) But that doesn’t mean those you leave behind at the office aren’t feeling a bit of resentment seeing you walk out the door, or that when you come back you won’t feel some as well for all the opportunities you missed. I feel like the only way to be really equal is for everyone to get an extended period off at some point during their career, so that the career advancement and workload issues apply to everyone. (This is an insanely impractical suggestion, I know, but hopefully the reasoning behind it makes at least a little bit of sense.)
Most of these confusing ramblings are the result of the guilt I feel for getting this time off when it seems like I did nothing to earn it other than do what humans have been doing forever, and when so many other women around the world don’t have my options. I am grateful, I am annoyed, I feel guilty, I feel relieved, I want this, I don’t want that, I want everything . . . Basically all the feelings I can expect once I’m a mother, right? So if maternity leave is supposed to help me prepare for motherhood, it seems like I’m off to a good start!