With Mother’s Day just around the corner, the internet is awash with articles arguing about what new motherhood and maternity leave are really like. Author Meghann Foye made a huge splash last week with an interview in the New York Post arguing that women should take “meternity” leave, which she defines as “a sabbatical-like break that allows women . . . to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.” Although the main purpose of the interview is to promote Foye’s first novel, Meternity, the piece has started a raging debate about maternity leave, with writer after writer—parents and non-parents alike—lining up to explain, with varying ratios of humor to righteous indignation, all of the ways in which maternity leave is different from a sabbatical.
These authors are right, of course. As a new mom of a three-month-old baby, I can personally attest that the physical and emotional aftermath of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, along with the nonstop demands of caring for a totally helpless newborn, are nothing like the restorative spa vacation/yoga retreat that Foye seems to have in mind. There’s a lot less Eat, Pray, Love-style meditation on one’s personal path to self-actualization and a lot more waking up at 1 AM (and 3 AM . . . and 5 AM) to a baby whose cries rip you apart inside and whose health and happiness have suddenly become more important to you than your own.
But I haven’t yet seen anyone comment on several other aspects of Foye’s piece, which seem both more interesting and more important than whether she is accurately representing the realities of life with a newborn. Put aside all the intentionally controversial framing and the provocative tie-in to the politically charged issue of paid maternity leave, and you’ll find a point that’s actually pretty universally accepted, and therefore rather bland: it’s important to find a balance between your career and your personal life. Yet Foye’s take on the ever-popular quest for “work-life balance” is telling in a way that I don’t think she intends.
Should Women Put Themselves First?
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According to Foye, women need paid “meternity” leave so that they can take a break from work and focus on themselves, which is necessary in order to live a truly fulfilling life. But in my experience, the transformative power of motherhood is precisely that it forces you to focus on someone other than yourself.
Foye describes watching enviously as friends had children and then reentered the workplace with new confidence:
as I watched my friends take their real maternity leaves, I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves. One friend made the decision to leave her corporate career to create her own business; another decided to switch industries. From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of them shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.
The effects she observes in mothers don’t come about because they’re off focusing on finding themselves but because they’re focusing on loving and serving someone else. Foye seems to sense this, observing somewhat nonsensically that “Women are bad at putting ourselves first. But when you have a child, you learn how to self-advocate to put the needs of your family first.” I’m not quite sure how Foye manages to interpret mothers’ dedication to putting the needs of their families first as equivalent to “self-advocat[ing],” but I’ll leave that question for another time.
The question of what “putting ourselves first” means in the context of maternity leave is a more interesting one. To be sure, postpartum self-care is essential, since the transition to motherhood can be physically traumatic and emotionally draining. I can personally attest that the rollercoaster of exhilaration and exhaustion of new motherhood is much easier to ride when you have a support network that allows you to take occasional breaks from baby care. Having my mom hold the baby so that I could take a nap after a sleepless night and having my husband watch her while I went to the store alone after a day in which my daughter refused to let me set her down helped preserve both my physical health and my emotional stability. Eventually, I’ve even been lucky enough to be able to go do frivolous things like getting a haircut or a pedicure. These things not only made me feel more human—they also enabled me to be a better mother to my child.
But the personal growth that results from motherhood isn’t a result of this self-care, as important as it may be. No, what transforms women into mothers isn’t self-care—it’s self-sacrifice.
A Beautiful Paradox
On the surface, this seems utterly strange. How can focusing so intensely on the needs of someone else have such a transformative effect? How can spending so much time serving another person have the end result of making me more fully me?
It’s certainly at odds with the cultural messaging Foye describes. Early motherhood is filled with disgusting things—like poopy diapers, with all their various, endlessly meaningful variations in color and consistency. It’s filled with difficult things—like overcoming unpredictable and painful obstacles to learn how to breastfeed your child. And it’s filled with mundane, boring things—like pre-sleep routines that involve singing the same song over and over again or going “shh, shh, shh” for twenty minutes straight.
Yet these menial things are not the purpose of maternity leave, or of motherhood. No, the purpose of the vocation of motherhood is to love your child. And love demands action—action that has the potential to draw you out of yourself, teaching you to overcome your own weaknesses and character flaws for the sake of this new little person that you love with a fierceness you could never have imagined.
In the end, that’s what the concept of “meternity leave” is missing. All the self-reflection in the world is meaningless if it doesn’t increase your capacity to love. The paradoxical, beautiful truth of motherhood is that, by teaching you to love another person so deeply that you will sacrifice your needs for hers, your child slowly strips away your selfishness, leaving only the strongest, truest, and most enduring parts of you behind.
Are Women Really Incapable of Defying Cultural Scripts?
This reality is deeply at odds with many of our culture’s mostly deeply held values. To find happiness, we are told, we must pursue our dreams, climbing to the top of our professions, maintaining perfectly trim figures, and enjoying effortless relationships (with or without the bond of marriage). But this trajectory leaves many—both male and female—wanting something more.
In her viral interview, after defining her desired “sabbatical-like break,” Foye reflects:
For women who follow a “traditional” path, this pause often naturally comes in your late 20s or early 30s, when a wedding, pregnancy and babies means that your personal life takes center stage. But for those who end up on the “other” path, that socially mandated time and space for self-reflection may never come.
When I graduated from college in the early 2000s, I enjoyed the same unspoken expectation shared among my fellow Gen-Xers: If you poured your heart and soul into your career, you would eventually get to a director level and have the flexibility, paycheck and assistants beneath you to begin to create a work-life balance. Then the 2008 recession hit, and people were lucky to have jobs at all. Assistants and perks disappeared across industries, and I felt like the cultural expectation was that we should now be tethered to our desks and our smartphones.
Among a certain socioeconomic class, what Foye describes here is accurate. For the kinds of people who are groomed for white-collar jobs that provide paid maternity leave and personal assistants, there is a great deal of pressure to put in long hours advancing one’s career, chasing ever higher levels of professional prestige and financial prosperity.
Foye is pointing to a real and enduring problem in our society. In 1952, Josef Pieper published Leisure, the Basis of Culture, warning of the dangers of modern man’s obsession with work and his inability to enjoy true leisure, silence, and contemplation. Clearly, the need to cultivate detachment from the hectic minutiae of work is not a new problem, and modern technologies have only made it more difficult to resist the temptation to be constantly plugged in to what is most urgent rather than what is most important. Few would contest that “space for self-reflection” is a positive good, and that leisure is an important counterpart to work if one hopes to achieve a fulfilling, fully human life.
The problem comes with Foye’s assumption that the only way women can achieve such well-rounded, balanced levels of human flourishing is if some all-powerful “cultural script” forces them to do so. She felt unsatisfied by her attempts to do as she was told—to pursue work above all else and to measure her worth as a human being by her professional achievements and financial success. The “meternity” leave she proposes is an attempt to fix that problem by instituting another cultural script that she likes better—a “mandated” time for personal exploration, complete with a paycheck.
Whatever happened to personal autonomy? Yes, human beings are meant to live in relation with one another, and the values held by other members of our communities do have an effect on what we believe and how we choose to act. Yet it is far from impossible for women to step off the conveyor belt of a career in which they are expected to devote unreasonable and unhealthy amounts of time to work, even without the “socially acceptable” crutch of marriage and family as an excuse to pursue flexible working arrangements.
This is a problem faced by a select segment of American women; a larger segment would be overjoyed to land a job that offered them paid maternity leave at all. For the women Foye is addressing, a better solution might be to take responsibility for our own lives. By refusing to let the expectations of others dictate what our goals are and how we should pursue them, women can reassess what will actually bring us happiness, rather than simply accepting that a prestigious career and a big paycheck will bring fulfillment.
Not Just Women, Men Too
The problem may be even worse for men. Although millennial men often want to share childcare responsibilities, paid paternity leave is even more rare than maternity leave in the United States, and far fewer men than women act as their children’s primary caregivers. For them, entering into marriage and family life is not a “crutch” that allows them more time away from the office. It is an impetus to work harder in order to provide for their growing families.
This is a noble impulse, but one that is difficult to reconcile with the need for rest, leisure, and time simply to be with one’s wife and children. Of course, the fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean that it is not worth doing. Like the sacrifices of motherhood, the hard work of providing for a family can be an opportunity for the kind of self-sacrifice that ultimately leads to deeper joy.
In a very visible way, becoming parents shocks us out of our normal state of being. It compels us to love others more deeply and to act upon that love more fully. As Foye’s interview attests, the witness of loving mothers and fathers can help remind our success-obsessed culture that our jobs should not constitute our identities and that people are more important than things. But you don’t have to be a parent to live that truth. You don’t even need a paid “meternity” leave—you just need to choose to love and serve the people you come into contact with every day.