Why I’m Not Upset about “Meternity Leave”

The social sphere is abuzz today with responses to Meghann Foye‘s first book, Meternity.  The novel focuses on a woman who fakes a pregnancy in order to take a “meternity leave,” an opportunity to decompress and reflect on her career and life.

Foye’s own life apparently inspired the book. Foye writies in the New York Post, “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.”

Naturally, mothers across the internet became enraged. “Maternity leave is not a vacation!” they shouted from their mobile devices. One user in my Facebook feed responded, “I honestly want her to take my kids for a day and then tell me how she feels. Horrible!” and another furiously explained, “Maternity leave is not a time for lunch and getting pedicures. It’s a 24/7 selfless time to care for a brand new human being making sure you keep them alive that is totally helpless.”

Now, I haven’t read the book (it just came out yesterday), and I am not surprised at the public reaction. Maternity leave is a difficult, stressful time for both mothers and fathers.

But I think we’re missing Foye’s point (or maybe not reading until the end of the article). While she begins the article with this enraging comment, “And yet, after 10 years of working in a job where I was always on deadline, I couldn’t help but feel envious when parents on staff left the office at 6 p.m. to tend to their children, while it was assumed co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack,”  here’s how she concludes:

Ultimately, what I learned from my own “meternity” leave is that any pressure I felt to stay late at the office wasn’t coming from the parents on staff. It was coming from myself. Coming back to a new position, I realized I didn’t need an “excuse” to leave on time. And that’s what I would love the take-away for my book to be: Work-life balance is tough for everyone, and it happens most when parents and nonparents support and don’t judge each other.

Foye isn’t arguing that she deserves maternity leave simply because mothers get it. She’s saying that our entire culture is getting work-life balance all wrong, and that everyone–parents and nonparents–deserve more time to support their mental health and pursue personal interests. 

I can relate to this. Before I had my son, I was the poster child for poor work-life balance. In my mid-twenties, I worked long days, and I never said no to clients, managers, or colleagues. I judged my professional value by the amount of hours I put in at the office. It wasn’t until my early 30s, after I had my first child, that I began to understand how I could really contribute. I focused on my strengths, found a job that used them, and refused (for the most part) to sacrifice my family or my personal life for my work. In just a few short years, my career has developed dramatically, and, for the first time, I feel like I have work-life balance down.

Did I learn all of this on maternity leave? Nope. Did I use maternity leave to rethink my career? You betcha. In fact, while I was on maternity leave with my first son, I made the decision to leave a deflating start-up and joined a new company. I also did some freelance work, started a column about working parenthood, and took my baby to visit my sister. Needless to say, accomplishing all of this was facilitated by the fact that my maternity leave was paid (many aren’t) and that I had a healthy, happy baby (many women don’t).

My point is this: Attacking a woman who is advocating for a healthier cultural conception of work-life balance (especially before you’ve read her book!) gets us nowhere. Of course maternity leave is not a vacation, and of course it would be financially unrealistic for businesses to offer 12 weeks of paid leave to every employee (Let’s start with paid maternity/paternity leave for all, shall we?). But it’s true that American culture still gets work-life balance all wrong. We’re all on the same side here — let’s stop the infighting and focus on the end goal.