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The day I was laid off from the job I loved, I went to a clinic, drank a gallon of a sickly-sweet orange liquid and had my blood drawn. It was the routine test every expectant mother takes to rule out gestational diabetes, one that had been on my to-do list for weeks. I just hadn’t had time to take it. I was too busy cranking out stories at the magazine where I worked, a place where I’d found my purpose for the past four years. But on that hot June afternoon, I was suddenly sad, disoriented, and free to take the test. I’d been sent home in a cab that morning, before I knew that many of my colleagues had also been sent packing. I was among the kind-of-lucky ones: I got working notice, which meant I’d stay on until my maternity leave started two months later. Of course, I cried. But I would’ve stayed in the fetal position longer were it not for the actual fetus growing inside me.
For more than a decade, I’d identified as a journalist. An ambitious career person. But after peeing on a stick six months earlier, my identity began to shift: I was going to be a mother. The layoff probably would’ve hit me harder if I didn’t have this new role on the horizon. And yet, I felt conflicted. I’d always wanted a family but I’d also feared “the motherhood penalty” — a sociological term, backed by evidence, to describe the systematic disadvantages women face in pay, perceived competence, and vocational trajectory after giving birth. What would happen to this media career I had worked so hard to build, staying countless late nights chasing news, writing front-page features, and emotionally contending with the outdated (but still surprisingly sticky) industry mantra of “you’re only as good as your last story?”
I put my head down and continued to work hard until my mat leave started. It was all I knew to do. I thought about the women who said “good riddance” to work as they focused on the new beginning, their new being. I thought about how I wasn’t like them, and how maybe this impending transition would be easier if I was.
Three weeks after my son was born, I appeared on national television. The news anchor joked that I was like an American mom, going back to work right after giving birth. I smiled, and didn’t mention that I was sitting funny on the high-top chair because of the stitches still healing down below. Or that I’d stuffed two pads in each bra to soak up seeping milk. At the time, my newborn son was sleeping a lot during the day, and when I was invited to speak on the panel, I thought, why not? It was a great way to remain visible in my industry and hone new skills — concerns that were already weighing heavily on my mind. I also wanted to prove to myself that I had the brain bandwidth to say something coherent to an audience of adults. It turns out I did — and I enjoyed feeling like my old self. But that feeling faded fast when I was reunited with my baby who, after being strollered around by my sister, woke up screaming for my breasts. Part of me felt guilty for leaving him, even for an hour. It’s amazing how having a baby can at once make you feel invincible (I made a person, I can do anything!) and brought utterly down to earth (I made a person who needs me all the time!).
The hustle to remain visible continued throughout my mat leave. When someone asked me to freelance, I said yes. Yes, I would host that panel. Yes, I would write that column. I was afraid of disappearing, scared I would be unemployable if I didn’t keep working. I wondered if I would feel the same way if I had a job to return to.
There’s a reason we get maternity leave in Canada. It’s because our nation correctly sees raising an infant as a full-time job. Navigating the steep learning curve of a firstborn while juggling work gigs conjured clashing emotions. I love my son, and I love my career. I want to do what’s best for him; I want what’s best for my career. I have intense work FOMO, and intense guilt for feeling that way. If new parenthood teaches you anything, it’s that you can’t always get what you want — it is, after all, no longer just about you.
I’m reflecting on all of this now as my mat leave ends and we prepare to send our son to daycare. I’m lucky to have had close family and friends help while I took on the odd project, understanding that this was important to the person they loved before I became a mother. I’m grateful to the understanding interviewee I had on the phone while my baby complained loudly in his Jumperoo, to that TV producer who totally got it when I had to cut our chat short after my son released a poonami on my lap, to the folks in a government office who helped me laugh it off when he barfed all down my back during our conference call.
Should I have put down the smartphone more? Those afternoons I zipped away for a TV appearance — did they cost me valuable time with the baby I’ll never get back? Perhaps. But I’m trying to tamp down those unproductive feelings. For all the struggle, I feel like I did what was best for both of us by taking care of the me that I had built before baby came along. Yes, my ambition has changed in some ways. I have more boundaries. I only take on assignments that feel worth the time and effort and won’t take too much away from this precious window with my son. I only say yes to opportunities that will arm me with new skills and help me grow.
And as for what’s next, job-wise, I’m going to continue to freelance… for now. Maybe I’ll job hunt more vigorously once my son settles in to daycare. “You’re only as good as your last story” continues to ring in my ears. But throughout my leave, I reassured myself with the words of a top female military official whom I interviewed while pregnant — parenthood teaches you a lot of skills that are crucial for the workforce: Time management. Patience. Negotiation. I’m also now taking comfort in the words of another formidable woman, the author Toni Morrison. When she died earlier this summer, The New Yorker circulated things she said about being a creative working person. Two of them wrapped me up like a warm blanket: “Your real life is with us, your family.” And “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.” I’m still me, and I’m better than ever.