Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Baby Ceiling

I don't generally make a habit of responding to articles about how a mother chooses to parent her children, mostly because it's none of my business. But last night I read an article by Mia Freedman regarding Marissa Mayer's decision to return to work two weeks after having her baby and I felt compelled to say something (you can read the full article here). 

I wasn't offended or even bothered by the idea that Ms Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, believed that she would be able to simply pop out a child and then carry on with her career as if nothing happened, honestly how can you expect anyone to fathom the enormity of those early months before they have lived it?  I admit, I did scoff a little at the concept though, purely for the fact that even with a straight forward delivery, your body will have some considerable adjustments to make in that first two weeks. 

Apart from the nether region destruction (or significant abdominal stitches in the case of c-section) and the newly installed water feature that now sits where your boobs once did, responding to any infant-like sound within a 3km radius, there is the sheer, bone melting sleep deprivation that no amount of pregnancy books can prepare you for. Hell, I got the groceries home-delivered for the first month of Skye's life because it took me all day just to get out of my pyjamas!

Jokes and over-sharing aside, what really bothered me about the article was the issue of women being expected to be all things to all people, always. The idea that a woman in such a high powered position still felt the pressure to not have her choice to be a mother impact on her career saddens and frustrates me. Whether it is fear that she will lose the respect and success she has worked so hard to achieve, or that she feels that her career is too important for her to step back from, or that she simply loves her job that much is not for me to say. What bothers me is the expectation that new mothers should return to work quickly and willingly, keeping the best interests of the employer as their first priority. 

If it sounds like I have some resentments on the matter based on my own experiences, you are right.

I recall seeing the Baby Ceiling appear once my previous employer was told I was pregnant with Skye. Just weeks before I could make my announcement, a colleague gave us her own big news. The information was not well received and I became very anxious about having to tell them about my own pregnancy. The timing was also unfortunate for me as a position I had hoped would become available the whole time I worked there finally opened up, but I, in good conscience, was unable to pursue it. At 8 weeks pregnant, I felt that taking on the role for such a short period would be a waste of everybody's time and I was also concerned about the increased level of stress that position would cause. Disappointed, I explained to my boss that I would not be applying for the vacant position as expected and my reasons, which were taken better than I had prepared myself for and I continued on in my existing role, which had only recently taken on more responsibility and made better use of my skill-set.

However the pay increase had not yet been negotiated.

As the months went by and my belly expanded, my bank balance was unaffected. Eventually I was informed that my salary would remain as it had been for the last 3 years because I was about to go on Maternity Leave anyway and it would be too costly for the company to give me the pay rise I had been entitled to for the last 12 months when I would not actually be working. I was annoyed, but accepted their decision as I felt that I had no grounds for argument. 

I did however kick myself for telling them about the pregnancy before I had finalised my new pay conditions.

As I started my Maternity Leave I had every intention of returning after the 12 months we had agreed on. I felt that I had managed to get myself into a position that I was happy in, that suited my training and talents, and was sure that I would be given the recognition I deserved when I returned. I was very certain that I was not the Stay-at-Home type and often joked that I had not spent all those years getting my Degree just to be a mummy. Just like Mia said in her article, I thought I would be bored!

But it was also not so subtly implied that this baby business was not to cause any long term disruption. 

Months later, learning to cope with my new role as a mummy to this screamy, squirmy wonder, I was still adamant that I would return to work, there were even days when I longed for it. Being back at work seemed somehow easier and it probably would have been except that I was not factoring in the most important consideration - Skye. My rose-tinted memory of going to paid work every day did not fit with the logistics of how that would be with a baby in the mix. 

Mum had always been at home with us and has always said to me that babies grow up so fast, you don't want to wish you had that time back. As much as I appreciated that mum was at home for us, and I love her so much for it, I didn't feel that the situation was the same for me. Even Clever Baker Friend telling me how much she loved that she had the choice to be at home with her girls and could never imagine voluntarily going to work didn't sway me. Secretly, I still wished that I could be back in my old life where I had structure and control. A life that I later realised I could never go back to, because babies don't function like that, even when they spend most of their time in someone else's care. Whatever my old life was, was well and truly gone. I just wasn't quite ready to let it go.

As Skye grew and the milestone's and achievements became more and more frequent, I started to relish all the time I got to spend with my beautiful girl. There was something empowering about being her strongest influence and being able to see the rewards for all the hours I had spent establishing routines, introducing foods, setting boundaries for her behaviour and nurturing her personality. Something I may not have felt had I returned to work earlier.

As Skye's 1st birthday neared, I received a phone call from my employer to discuss my return. It was only then that it really dawned on me how badly I wanted to continue to be at home with Skye. She was still too little to be in full time care, she was just a baby! The fact that I was still breast-feeding and she was yet to walk made her seem even more dependant on me and I couldn't bear the thought of having someone else be that person for her. 

I put forward suggestions for either part-time work or working from home (as was done in other offices within the company) but it was made abundantly clear that this was an all or nothing deal. Instead, I was given the option to continue with unpaid Maternity Leave for another 12 months, which I accepted, even though I knew in my heart I wouldn't be going back. Even then, I felt pressured to stay committed to my job and the company and I also wanted the safety net of knowing that I could go back to work if I changed my mind later on. 

The frustration for me was that my ability to perform that role hadn't suddenly ceased, but my ability to deliver it in the same way that I had previously definitely had. I still have the knowledge and skills to do that job well, but in order to do it on their terms, the costs would outweigh the benefits, not just financially but emotionally as well.

So how does my story relate to Ms Mayer's? In the same way it relates to any woman who has held a career and dared to have children. Despite the years of fighting for equality, there is still the assumption that at some point, a woman will want to go off and have a child, and as such, any hopes of a successful career will be limited or at least delayed by her decision.  

Ignoring the minor detail of a woman being unable to fall pregnant in the first place without some input from a man, whose career does not suffer as a result of his actions. 

But I digress.

There is no getting around the fact that if the human race is to continue, someone has to care for the next generation. Through cultural hard-wiring and unavoidable physiology, it largely falls on the woman to be the primary carer. The inconvenience of this is that the age in which we are most suited to having children, often coincides with the time our career's begin to really take off. 

Rather than supporting this vital part of the life cycle, it is treated as a side-act, an extra-curricular activity that is acceptable as long as it remains distinctly separate from your duties as an employee. If you choose to allow your side-act to become the main attraction you essentially waive your right to return to that career at the same level of success, because there is still an unrealistic time-frame for how long a mother really needs to be at home with her children. Of course I appreciate that this time-frame is different for every mother and many women do have a successful transition back to the workforce in a short space of time, but shouldn't the individual mother be the one in charge of that decision?

It all gets back to the idea of a woman being able to 'have it all' - the children, the career, the financial freedom, the status. Yes, women can most certainly have it all, because we are probably the only ones crazy enough to think we should. 

But is any of it really bringing us true happiness, or are we simply trying to be 

all things 

to all people, 


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