When it comes to talking about maternity leave, the conversation usually centers around whether there is enough of it, and whether it should be paid. Often we make comparisons between the U.S. and European countries, where mothers are legislatively guaranteed one year of paid maternity leave. So when we hear about a mother who has gone back to work within days or weeks of giving birth, it can be difficult to see a reason to celebrate.
I took part in a conversation with a group of mothers who work outside the home about Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor, who was back on the sidelines two days after giving birth. Many of the women in that group felt like the news story sent the wrong message. A few expressed that, because it was the coach’s second child, maybe her birth experience didn’t require a long recovery. Her decision to return to the bench so quickly could have been driven by her feeling that her presence was necessary. No one was judging her, but few felt compelled to applaud her.
Does another woman’s maternity leave really affect the rest of us?
For those who feel that a woman returning to work so quickly after giving birth sends the wrong message, there are valid concerns. Women, especially mothers, still find themselves having to prove their worth in the workplace. When we advocate for family-friendly maternity leave policies, how helpful is it to the cause when a woman is clocking in before her baby has even lost his umbilical stump? The fear that management will see examples like that, and factor them into what they consider an acceptable amount of leave to take, is real. Yes, those of us whose employers are subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act are protected, but there aren’t any laws against the subconscious biases that form ideas of what a “good” employee acts like.
On the other hand, if a woman feels that she is ready to return to work early, who are we to say she shouldn’t? If her partner is able to stay home with the baby, or she has other suitable child care arrangements, why is it so important that she be home just because she is the one who gave birth? More workplaces are incorporating pumping rooms to accommodate breastfeeding employees, and if a mother can set up a schedule that works for her and her family, the workplace does not necessarily have to be antithetical to complete postpartum recovery. And what about women who have to return to work early because of their economic situation? By decrying this practice, are we unwittingly judging them, too?
What does it mean to support working mothers?
Yes, as with most family decisions, the ultimate metric is going to be what is best for the family. That is a given. Where do we draw the line, though, when it comes to the responsibilities we have to other mothers? Supporting mothers who work outside the home, of course, means advocating for parental leave that is actually conducive to family bonding and postpartum healing. We just have to recognize that, while short maternity leaves should not be the standard, they are a fact of life. Whether returning to the bench or the boardroom, in two days or six months, working mothers can all use some grace.