My passenger seat was overwhelmed with baggage: a diaper tote bursting with baby gear, a nine-foot-long cloth Moby Wrap, and a messenger bag spewing pens, manila folders, and business cards. My newborn son Jake was asleep in the backseat.
My job didn’t provide paid maternity leave, so I took off as much time as my husband and I felt we could afford. Toward the middle of my pregnancy, we sat down with a calculator, crunching numbers. As I wrote down our income and expenses, I thought about how ridiculous it seemed to be doing this—how the United States is the only first-world country that doesn’t have a national law mandating paid time off for new parents.
I wondered: Why is it that virtually every other country in the world respects the huge change that parenthood brings, offering weeks (or months) of paid leave, but in America it’s expected that new parents keep working like nothing’s happened?
I saved up all of the vacation time I’d accrued at my job and was able to tack on a few more unpaid weeks, creating a whopping seven-week siesta for me and my newborn.
In theory, I was fortunate. My boss presented me with an ideal situation for returning to work. I could bring my baby with me. I felt lucky that he was offering me an arrangement that felt progressive, at least in America.
As I walked toward my office, holding a bag in each hand and a baby wrapped onto my front, I forced a smile, thinking maybe I could trick myself into feeling like a competent professional woman, plus an awesome mom. But instead I obsessed about everything I was nervous about. For starters, my boss was male. How would I breastfeed discreetly in front of him? And how would I do both jobs, mothering and managing a nonprofit, effectively at the same time?
In my office, I emptied the contents of my diaper bag into some drawers, turned on my computer, and took a quick glance at my To Do list. My boss wandered in casually, pulled up a chair and asked if I wanted to discuss work stuff. “Let’s do this,” I said, too cheerily.
But before our conversation really even began, I felt Jake rooting for my nipple, and I mentally freaked out about checking the first big stressor off my list: Nursing Baby in Front of Male Boss. Yet I feigned confidence. Nodding and answering his questions, I popped Jake out of the wrap, stood up, and moved him from arm to arm as I unwound the wrap from my body. The fabric got caught around my neck, and I stumbled as I stepped on the cloth, choking myself, but smiling in a “No biggie, this happens all the time” kind of way.
With a deep breath, I placed the nursing cover over my shoulder, opened the flap on my nursing shirt, unhooked the latch on my nursing bra, and placed Jake under the cover. He rooted around, unable to find my nipple in the midst of all that fabric, and frankly, I didn’t really know where it was, either. I nodded at my boss (no hands available to put up my finger), said, “Just a minute,” and looked under the cover at Jake, who was becoming pinch-faced with impatience. I moved his head to my nipple, while my boss sat silently, looking around the room, trying to give me “space.”
And then the worst happened. Just as I’d re-entered the conversation with my boss and I could feel myself beginning to talk intelligently about an upcoming fundraising event we needed to plan, Jake began to kick his legs, and then he flipped his arm into the air, a dramatic movement that whipped the nursing cover off, exposing my son’s head, and my nipple, to my boss.
“Oh, no!” I said. Mortified, I stood up and turned around. But this quick movement forced Jake to detach from my breast, so he began to wail. He spit milk all over my nursing shirt and skirt, some dripping onto the floor, and he cried an octave higher than I’d ever heard. He flailed wildly, and I quickly covered my breast and held him close and swung him side to side, and scanned the room for his pacifier. My cheeks turned the deep red of shame.
My boss stood up. “I’ll just give you some time,” he said.
And then I added, “This should just take a minute.”
On the way out of my office, my boss turned to me. “Just relax,” he said, smiling. “You’ll get it.” I knew he meant to be encouraging, but in that moment, I wanted to strangle him with the wrap that had become tangled on the office floor.
Alone in my office, my anger intensified. This was proof of how unhealthy it was to go back to work so soon postpartum. How an office/nursery isn’t an adequate compromise for the widespread lack of paid parental leave in America, and why this country needs to get on board with the rest of the world.
I would have to adapt to my current reality. And I would do that, over time, pioneering my own path in this imperfect world. But not before spiraling to an even lower point. Financially, I couldn’t just quit my job, and my office/nursery got harder as Jake grew bigger. So I enrolled him in daycare. But I hated dropping him off, not because I didn’t value the time away from him, but because now my job didn’t feel satisfying enough to warrant either the burdensome cost of child care, or being away from my child. My sense of well-being plummeted. My midwife and I had serious talks about postpartum depression. I started taking medication.
Eventually, I took a scary leap. My husband and I sat down with our calculator, just like we had when I was pregnant, and we began to take things away — little things that really added up. No more cable, we decided to eat out only one night each week and we trimmed our clothing budget. We were also close to paying off a car loan, so we did that and kept the older car instead of upgrading. We simplified our lives, trimming our expenses, and coming up with a new plan that would allow me, at least for a while, to work part time as a writer, something I’d only ever done “on the side,” but was very fulfilling and would encourage me to use my voice to address issues I felt were important. Plus, I would have time each day to spend relaxed moments enjoying my son.
This new arrangement, which is still in place several years later, is not what I imagined my life to be during middle age. I rarely wear business attire or foundation, and it is not how I originally defined “having it all.” I missed the nonprofit world, and maybe more specifically, a social office setting. But I feel contented as both a writer and a mom. Maybe it all goes back to what my boss said, during the horror of my “breastfeeding incident.” You’ll get it. Perhaps this is exactly what that meant.
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