“You must be devastated to have to leave him.”
“Don’t you just count the minutes until you are back with him?”
“Are you sure developmentally it’s okay to be away from your child that long?”
I can assure you that these are not phrases anyone uttered to my husband when he returned to work a week after our son was born. They are, though, three of the many comments I heard when I decided to go back to work a month after giving birth.
I never thought my choices as a mother would be particularly controversial because I have had two quite different — and equally compelling — maternal influences. My own mother is a lawyer and has always been my role model. She worked hard and had her own pursuits, but was so involved in my life that one time she flew to see a play I was in a week after having back surgery. The other woman? My mother-in-law, who stopped working to raise my husband and his sister. I believe they are amazing mothers because they each got to make the choices that were best for them in raising their children. So that is the lens through which I viewed motherhood.
And I have loved becoming a mother. But I do not think it is a secret to say that before my son was born I was a fully formed adult with interests and hobbies and a career I worked hard to build. When you become pregnant, people tell you that "everything changes," but that shouldn’t negate everything that a woman was before she became a mother. It’s as if society believes that, suddenly, all of the things that made you interesting are now not as important as having this new tiny human. For me, it’s more the way writer Adrienne LaFrance describes it: Motherhood is like “discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live.” Something wonderful and new has happened, sure, but everything else you’ve built for years around you is still also intact.
Now here is the part that some people might not relate to (or that may send them screaming to the comments section): While being with a newborn is, for some women, totally and completely fulfilling and all-consuming, for others it is not. And when you have had a sleeping/crying/pooping/adorable newborn overwhelming your faculties for weeks on end, it is not a crazy thought to assume that you might relish the idea of not being consumed by mommyhood for a few hours to get back to the other job you love. I am not going to pretend that it did not feel glorious to shower, brush my hair, and speak to adults for a few hours.
While being with a newborn is, for some women, totally and completely fulfilling and all-consuming, for others it is not.
My son was content being left with a loving caregiver. At that age when he could barely register where his nose is, let alone which person is cuddling him, he did not miss me. He was fine. And I was fine — despite the shock everyone seemed to experience when they saw me out in public, I was actually able to be a mother and complete the other jobs that were in front of me.
But apparently it is not socially acceptable to get sick of maternity leave. Based on the constant commentary I received, you would think I was leaving him forever. Somehow I missed the memo where being pro-maternity leave meant you could no longer make your own choices. I was shocked by the people — mostly women — who felt it was appropriate to share their opinions on how I was less of a mother by making the choice that was best for me and would have no lasting influence on my child. I thought the mom judgment was a myth until it suddenly smacked me in the face. How is it that so many people can believe it is okay to be a working mother, but that somehow if you don’t stay home for this magical, specific (and totally arbitrary) three-month time period, it means you love your child less?
There are obviously major issues with maternity leave in this country. I am appalled that we do not have even the most basic laws for paid leave for the time women need for both their health and emotional well-being. I know that I am lucky to work for myself and can choose the appropriate time to work again. For so many women going back to work early is an impossible choice between losing employment versus spending time they want and need with their baby. I am obviously not opposed to generous maternity leave. Every woman recovers differently, feeds her child differently, and feels differently emotionally after her own individual pregnancy. The point is choice.
So before you make an offhanded comment to a new mom, try to hold it back. (Maybe hold back the comments about how someone’s body looks post-baby, too, but that is a whole other can of worms.) That woman who stayed home "only" a month — or alternately, the professional who decides to take off six months instead of three — has zero interest in your opinion, not to mention, she’s already dealing with enough at the moment. She doesn’t need to know that you are judging her. I bet you could even ask her about something other than her kid, and she might have a whole host of other interests she’s excited to talk about.