Maternity Leave As A Time For Self-Reflection
Using the time after childbirth to re-evaluate their careers, women are returning to the job with fresh perspective or finding confidence in their decision to stay home.
Pregnant with her third child and working at the Washington Post, Leslie Morgan Steiner told her boss that she wasn’t taking a maternity leave. After all, this wasn’t her first pregnancy, and she knew what she wanted.
Or so she thought.
The moment she looked at her newborn, she changed her mind. Steiner ended up taking four months of leave, the maximum allowed by her company – a decision that surprised her.
Women around the nation usually approach motherhood with clear ideas about whether they want to stay at home or continue working. Then, for many, those ideas change. For some women, it’s a sudden realization, and for others, it’s a gradual pulling toward a different choice.
It was one of the biggest findings that Steiner discovered in her book Mommy Wars, the best-selling anthology featuring 28 essays about modern motherhood.
What makes a career woman decide she wants to stay at home? Or, what makes a woman who thought she wanted to quit decide that staying at home isn’t for her?
“The thing that surprised me was that [the women] think they know. But once they have a baby, that really changes,” says Steiner.
Women, in the midst of this difficult decision, could actually be experiencing something important – the true opportunity to take a hard look at their values, their career paths and the challenges ahead, and make a solid decision after that reflection.
In these moments of asking, “Do I give up what I’ve worked for so far to stay at home?” and “Do I continue working and worry that I’m not there for my children enough?” women can make a decision rooted in purpose. This thoughtful examination usually factors in personal values, family needs, economic status and external factors, such as their workplace environment.
Kathryn Butler, now a stay-at-home mother who homeschools her children and runs a blog called Oceans Rise, didn’t picture herself saying goodbye to her medical career when she had children.
In fact, she and her husband agreed early in their marriage that when the time came to have children, he would stay at home. She was thrilled – it gave her the opportunity to fully embrace her career as a surgeon.
“I thought I had it all figured out,” she says.
All was going to plan after she had her first son. Her husband was splitting his time between commuting and working from their Boston home.
On the day Butler was supposed to return to work in 2013, a colleague encouraged her to take just one more day of leave. It was Marathon Monday, the colleague said, the day the city rallies around all of the runners in the Boston Marathon, and no major surgeries were scheduled.
It happened to be the year of the horrendous Boston Marathon bombing. For Butler, her first day back from maternity leave was spent thrown into surgery and trying to save as many individuals as she could. Being a working mom was an uphill battle from day one.
Butler spent the next several years working 70-hour work weeks while also being the best mother possible. When she was working, she loved her work. And when she was home, she loved being a mother.
“I really struggled between two callings,” she adds.
Butler never had an exact moment of clarity about choosing to be a stay-at-home mom. Instead, it was a series of events and many countless reflections that guided her toward that decision.
Butler says her heart broke as her second child burst into tears at 9 months when she saw her mom reach for her backpack – a sign that she was going to be away at work. Her oldest son began to exhibit sensory processing issues. The politics of work that once mildly frustrated her became intolerable.
Butler also deepened her own religious convictions and started asking herself, “How are you most serving God?” She came to the personal conclusion that while she was doing important work with her patients, another doctor could do the same work. She was replaceable at work. She wasn’t replaceable as a mother.
The decision to stay at home afforded new opportunities to Butler. She started her blog, where she, for the first time, explored the intersection between faith and medicine. She’s also working on a book about end-of-life care through the lens of Christianity, a project she says she never would have chased had she continued as a surgeon.
Happiness was a major factor that Erika Novak considered when deciding to go back to work after having her first baby at age 35.
Although she was 95 percent sure while she was pregnant that she’d return to work after leave, Novak still toyed with the idea of staying at home even though she was extremely passionate about her job and the mission of her company. With a generous maternity leave, Novak was able to stay at home for five months before returning to work.
She admits she sometimes has bad days and wonders if she made the right decision. But most days, she’s confident that she made the right choice.
“I wanted to be the healthiest version of myself,” she says.
Pamela Stone, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Hunter College & Graduate Center at The City University of New York, has extensively studied why some women opt to stay at home, especially ones with high-powered careers. She even wrote a book on the topic, called Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home where she questioned the common narrative around the choice to work or not.
“As I interviewed these women, they had the intentions to continue working,” she says, citing it was as high as 90 percent with only 10 percent planning to quit their careers after baby.
According to Stone, it wasn’t necessarily a re-examination of values that drove women to quit their jobs. Instead, women who decided to stay home did so because of work environments that presented barriers with a “mother penalty” or a “flexibility stigma,” even among businesses that had won awards for how well they treated working mothers. These women saw hope dwindle for their career growth and decided it wasn’t worth returning.
“Women have to be reflective in ways that men don’t,” Stone says. “Women are forced to have this self assessment about what they do.”
So, what is the expert advice for women struggling with this important decision, even after they’ve weighed all of the options?
“You have to do what makes you happy,” says Steiner.
With a dual background in journalism and public relations, Jennifer Lawhead has a penchant for storytelling. A lifelong writer and a marketer by trade, Jennifer excels in helping others find their voice, discover their unique and compelling stories, and share them with the world. Her work has been featured in a number of local and regional publications throughout Arizona.