Should Childless Women Get To Take Maternity Leave?

Photographed By Winnie Au.
The idea was conceived one night in late January, at a dinner party with my three best friends. We were in our early 30s, and I was the only single girl in the group — they had all gotten married the summer before. One minute, we were gossiping about work; the next, they all announced they were pregnant.

I poured myself a hefty glass of wine and tried to act happy. It was as clear as their glasses of water: They were all moving on. Again. And I felt stuck. How could I even imagine having a baby if I didn’t know what I was doing with myself? My life was kind of a mess.

I had great career success working as an editor for a popular teen magazine, but the relentless pace was beginning to get to me. I was still trying to get over my bad breakup with my boyfriend of six years. And back home, my dad was battling a chronic illness that required daily care. A litany of concerns was constantly running through my head, but I tried to push it aside by throwing myself into a rigorous marathon-training schedule. (Intense to-do lists and schedules have always been my instinctual response to stressful situations.) I thought if I could figure out a plan, I could fix my problems.

Riding home from dinner that night, I admitted to my friend that I was jealous of her impending maternity leave. I needed some time off to pause and regroup before starting the rest of my life. “You know what you need,” she joked. “You need a me-ternity leave.” We laughed over the idea of faking a pregnancy. But still, a kernel of an idea was born, and I couldn’t let it go.

By the time I got home, I had come up with the broad strokes of my novel about a single, burned-out magazine editor who fakes a pregnancy to get a little time off. But it took me another year and a half to actually take a me-ternity leave. I dedicated Sunday nights to writing my book, and I drastically changed my lifestyle in order to increase the amount I was saving each month — from $500 to $1,000, with a goal of saving eight months of living expenses before I could quit my job.

Everything came together perfectly. Then, a week before I had planned to leave work, my dad died.

I was flooded with grief and so many other emotions. I didn’t know how to let my feelings coexist with this newfound freedom, so I created some rigid systems to stay on track, complete with daily, weekly, and monthly markers. I went on the Paleo diet, setting up a recurring order of the same 21 items on FreshDirect so I didn’t have to think about what to eat each week. I resumed marathon training. I held on to rigidity for comfort in the face of so much uncertainty, but it didn’t help my creativity. I was trying to establish myself as a freelancer, but my pitches weren’t landing. Most days, I would come home from long runs to just stare at the wall, angry and aimless. Finally, I had a realization: I had given myself the gift of this pause, yet I wasn’t giving myself the space to really relax and reflect. I tore up my to-do list and went to China.

With that trip, I finally was able to truly invest in my me-ternity leave. I quit the Paleo diet. I started running for fun. I made great progress on my book. When I returned home, I started working with a life coach and rethinking the way I date. It was during this time that I finally came to terms with my relationship with my dad and how it influenced all my relationships with men. But life was still off-balance. Money was getting tight. I had plenty of work, but checks never came in on time. My feet hurt. And I was battling a pesky fruit-fly problem in my kitchen. I realized it was up to me to solve this issue. I had two options: Learn how to fully commit to the path I’d chosen for myself, for better and for worse, or go down with the flies. I got out the Pine Sol and got down to business.

I began by breaking down everything into simple steps rather than overly strict to-dos. I cleaned my apartment, found fresh focus, and resolved to be up-front with everyone, including myself. I finally had a creative, emotional, and financial breakthrough: more progress on the book, a lucrative consulting gig that would ease the financial tension, and suddenly, a man in my life who was drawn to my enthusiasm and my new telling-it-like-it-is M.O. I finally started to feel like I knew who I was and where I was going. And I was ready to face many of the questions I’d been putting off, especially the biggie: Can you commit to one path and close off others, even if it might mean living with it forever?

About a year and a half from the date I quit, I found a full-time job I was excited about. The timing of it felt right, and I could now trust that it was, thanks to this pause — my me-ternity leave. When I first imagined this leave, I thought of it as a chance to regroup, catch my breath, and figure out what I really wanted. I thought it would be fun. The reality was much more stressful — maybe even a bit like a real maternity leave.

I may have been jealous of my friends before, but now I felt like the lucky one. I had learned how to stay true to myself before taking on the major commitments of marriage and motherhood. I found myself on an intense journey that left me completely and unexpectedly changed, but in many ways still myself. Maybe just more me than before.

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