Tag Archives: maternity leave

The (Semi-dreaded) Return to Work and My Postpartum Body

My son is 4.5 months, and I’ve started back at work for a few days a week. We’ll be full-throttle a week from now, when he’ll start daycare. Going back has been harder than I thought. I knew it would tug at my heart strings, but how are you expected to be okay with putting your little being — this tiny life you created and have been nourishing and snuggling — in someone else’s care??

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a workaholic. I’m not condoning (or gloating about, for that matter) that behavior — it can have tough ramifications for your personal relationships, your health, and other things — but I am saying that I love working. I’m about to head into my seventeenth (SEVENTEENTH!?) year of teaching, and I’m looking forward to the start of the fall semester. That being said, after seeing my son pretty much 24/7 since he was born, I’m now only going to see him for an hour-ish after work, overnight when he nurses, an hour-ish in the morning, and on the weekends. That’s a tough transition.

I’m all for working mommyhood — women are amazing for all of the things that they juggle, whether they have kids, they work, or however they spend their time. I’m also for rethinking the way our country approaches the transition back to work after having a baby. As I’ve mentioned before, most countries have paid maternity leave, and some countries offer it for a year or more. Going through the experience for the first time, I now see why. I’m still getting up several times a night to nurse, and feel a bit zombie-like around the clock. I’ll be putting my all into my work, but I can’t help think I’d ultimately be a better worker if I had more time to transition. And as I said in my last post, my situation is unusual — many working mommies have to go back after 6 weeks. I have had a lot more time at home with my new baby than most (mostly, because I didn’t teach this summer).

Before I went through pregnancy, I (naively) thought I knew everything there was to know. I’d read plenty. I’d had tons of friends who’d gone through it. I am an aware, inquisitive feminist with an unwavering curiosity who asks lots of questions. But experience really is education — you can’t understand it fully until you go through it. Which brings me to another thing I’ve been struggling with: my body.

It’s always been a bit of a challenge to stay in shape and at a healthy, ‘normal’ weight. I know that’s the case for the majority of us. We live in a judgmental society in which ‘feminine,’ ‘beautiful’, ‘body,’ ‘weight,’ ‘slim,’ ‘curvy,’ ‘fat,’ and others are highly charged words. So when your body transforms to carry another human being inside it — this incredible, biological process that still puts me in a state of beyond words — and you’ve spent what seems like a lifetime trying to look past what others say about how you look, it can feel like a curve ball. Add to that going to see a doctor at 4 months pregnant who says your weight gain is ‘alarming.’ Even though you’ve heard about plenty of people who’ve gained what you gained and then some, it feels like psychological ping pong.

My answer to rapid weight gain was to go to the gym 6 days a week from that moment forward, up until the day before I delivered. It was terrible most days. I was pregnant throughout the winter, and the sun wouldn’t be out until after I got back from the gym. I tried my best to be reasonable, healthy, and smart about what I ate, but after the ‘alarming’ incident, I found myself counting calories, confounded by the numbers on the scale going up and up and up at a faster pace than what I’d read they should. I wish that I’d spent that time being less worried, that that doctor’s words didn’t upset me, and that I had, well, a slightly thicker skin.

Some women bounce right back to their post-pregnancy bodies, some take at least nine months or more to return, and others never bounce back. Someone said to me that ‘things are just, I don’t know, rearranged‘ after giving birth. I’m starting to see that’s true. And to add another layer of challenge: thyroid issues run rampant in my family. My TSH numbers are a little out of range toward hypothryroidism — something that makes weight loss even more challenging. Oh, and you’re definitely not supposed to diet while breastfeeding, so ‘watching what I eat’ aside from making sure I get enough protein, healthy grains, fruits, and vegetables isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

So what does all of this have to do with going back to work? Aside from a stark reminder of how women who give birth and work are supposed to just figure it out (the ratcheting up costs, the body changes, the sore nipples if they’re breastfeeding, childcare, and the list goes on): WHAT AM I GOING TO WEAR!? I have been stuck at 15 pounds above my pre-pregnancy weight for weeks now. I’ve accepted that it’s going to take a little longer than I’d hoped to fit into my work clothes. And so I’ve gone out and bought a few staple pieces for work — a few sizes larger than my ‘normal.’ (Oh, I guess we should add money for post-pregnancy clothes to the list of things employers or the government should provide postpartum.) The process has been charged with so many feelings. Especially because what I do for a living requires standing in front of people for big chunks of the day. What I wear provides a layer of confidence. Usually. This will be an interesting experiment to that end.

To come back around to my point: having a baby comes with lots of changes that I expected but didn’t fully understand. And this: new parents need more time to adjust. I hope whatever happens in the next few years politically includes a serious reconsideration of how we treat working moms. Have I mentioned that more time is needed??

IMG_3539In the meantime, I gratefully spent time over the summer with another new-mommy colleague and her now 8-month-old son, going to mommy-and-me yoga. I’m not much of a yogi capital Y, but it was great practice at just connecting with my breath and treating my body as the amazing thing that it is. And just last week I started stealing trips to the gym in the early morning hours or evenings in between trips to the office, nursing, and all the other things we do every day. It might take me 9 months or more to return to my pre-pregnancy body, or maybe I’ll never get back there completely, but wow — I made a kid! And he’s incredible. He just learned to roll over and is wowing me and Daddy with new skills every day. I can’t wait to see what’s in store these next few years and beyond.

The Politics of Being Pregnant

28 weeks and countingI’ve weathered a growing (no pun intended) stream of unsolicited advice, comments, and thoughts on the shape of my pregnant body in the past few weeks, as I’ve begun to show in earnest. While I welcome any bit of conversation about pregnancy from people I know (whether it be family members, friends, colleagues, or students), I am increasingly shocked at how often strangers feel the need (and the right) to comment on my shape, offer predictions, and ask probing questions about name, gender, and philosophy that my partner and I are still figuring out. Of course everyone’s different, and perhaps I unknowingly welcome it, but the comments about what I look like have started to get under my skin.

As someone who was tall for my age as a child and teenager, I have plenty of practice with unsolicited comments about my shape, height, and amount of space I take up in the room. That being said, pregnancy is a very stressful, sometimes unpredictable, often exciting time that is quite personal. And I’m growing weary of juggling the daily challenge of just being pregnant (and everything that goes along with that) and the mounting commentary about my belly, largely from people I don’t know. At the gym this morning, this dialogue with a woman I’ve never spoken to before illustrates just what I mean:

“When are you due?”
(I remove my headphones.)
“End of March. We’re very excited.”
(I smile and put my headphones back on.)
“It must be a girl.”
(I remove my headphones again.)
“No, it’s a boy.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look like you’re carrying a boy. Your body is just so, well, round.”
(I replace my headphones and don’t know (or care) if she’s still talking, and busy myself with another round of reps.)

Other things I’ve heard in passing:

“You’re carrying so high.”
“You’re carrying so low.”
“You don’t look pregnant.”
“You’re huge.”
“Are you sure it isn’t twins?”

And so on…

So what is appropriate to say when someone is pregnant? I’m not sure there’s a rule book. But what I do know is that going through the process for the first time has opened my eyes about it in ways I hadn’t expected. Thanks to the lengthy history of deeply rooted sexism in our society, women are already judged for their appearance in numerous ways. And despite the fact that we are — literally — built to bear children, pregnancy and the resulting physical effects on women’s bodies appear to produce an irresistible topic for conversation that, based on my experience, is sometimes more about the person asking questions than it is about the person answering them.

Again — friends, colleagues, etc. — don’t feel like you can’t ask me questions or engage me in conversation or comment on what I look like. I have no problem with this. It’s the individuals I don’t know who feel the need to insert their opinions front and center that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around.

And all of this takes me to how women navigate our so-called maternity leave system in this country. Well, it turns out that most places of work don’t have maternity leave — SUNY included. It wasn’t something I even thought to question when I accepted the position at a public university. I naively assumed it was part of our contract. After all, we have a union! But after taking up work around Family Leave policy with colleagues on campus, I was surprised to find out that not only do we have to borrow time from our accumulated sick leave, there isn’t a hard and fast policy that helps women know what they’re facing when they choose to get pregnant. (Not to mention that pregnancy isn’t an illness; therefore, using sick days doesn’t make logical sense.)

Since I haven’t gone through the process quite yet (I’m only 30 weeks and expect to work up until my water breaks to preserve the sick days I do have), I can’t speak to what will happen. However, I can say that I have felt incredibly supported by my Chair, Dean, colleagues, and representatives from Compliance and Academic Affairs. While their hands are tied by the official language in the contract and Trustee Handbook, they’re all working with me to figure out a plan that will, as one administrator put it, keep me “whole and healthy.”

In preparation for a Teach-In on Family Leave on our campus last November, I did research on what maternity leave looks like locally and globally. I was shocked to find out that the U.S. is one of only 8 countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave:
maternity leave NY Times

I also discovered that there’s been a bill stalled in Congress for over a year that calls for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Despite the fact that many countries offer more than 12 weeks, it would certainly be a start.

I could go on, but have said enough for one post. I encourage people to raise awareness about the abysmal state of maternity leave in our country; to talk to colleagues and family members about what has historically been an individually-fought-for, mostly-hidden negotiation in many workplaces; to consider the effect of words when offering them to pregnant women, especially those you don’t know; and to honor pregnancy as something that is exciting and incredible — as opposed to a burdensome hindrance.

I absolutely can’t wait to meet this little boy I’m carrying around with me for roughly 10 more weeks. And while I know it will completely change my life — and my body — in ways that I can’t yet understand, the experience has already shifted my paradigm when it comes to further understanding how destructive and unfair issues of sexism and gender discrimination still are in our society, and how they determine the policies by which we are bound in our workplaces. Till next time…