As you’ve probably heard, a woman named Meghann Foye shook things up last week with her new book called Meternity, in which she advocates for maternity leave for all women (children are irrelevant) through the story of a fictional character who fakes a pregnancy to get time off from work. In an interview Thursday with the New York Post, Foye called maternity leave a “sabbatical-like break” and “socially mandated time and space for self-reflection” that is not available to women who don’t have kids during the typical childbearing years. As a new mom who has been on maternity leave in the past year, I feel I can do no less than to stand with the chorus of women who have taken to the Internet over the past few days to say, on no uncertain terms: Foye, you may mean well, but you have no idea what you’re talking about. One night with my daughter as a 3-week-old would remove any confusion you might have about what maternity leave really is, and how it’s impossible to compare it to the “meternity” you’ve invented.
Although Foye’s argument has been heavily criticized for its belittling of the pain, tears, struggle, and zero “me-time” involved in maternity leave, I find her words damaging to women on an even deeper level. Specifically, Foye’s argument reinforces several false notions that women (and men!) have fought tirelessly for.
01. Belittling Real Maternity Leave Makes it Harder for Women in the Workplace.
Foye’s biggest mistake of all is that her comparison of maternity leave to “me-ternity” is precisely the mentality that is makes harder for women in the ongoing fight to value motherhood as a social good.
The United States is frequently cited as one of the countries with the least maternity-friendly policies in the world. American women are in the midst of a difficult struggle to convince corporations that maternity leave is a serious need for women and that they should consider that in their benefits packages. Even though much progress has been made in serving working moms, only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid maternity leave.
Equating maternity leave to “time off” or “a break” or “me time” is exactly the kind of rhetoric that sets us backward if our goal is to reach greater respect for motherhood in the workplace. It is thinking like Foye’s that makes employers think maternity leave is an optional perk, not an absolute requirement.
02. There is No Me-Time in Maternity Leave.
In a nutshell, Foye seems to describe maternity leave as taking a step back from regular life to focus on self. She writes that maternity leave “should be about digging into your whole life and emerging from it more confident in who you are.”Foye is almost on to something—she clearly sees that women enjoy some serious perks from maternity leave. What she doesn’t understand is where the the perks are coming from. Foye writes that her friends come back from real maternity leave confident and ready to take on new challenges. “I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves...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.”
What Foye is witnessing here is true—there is nothing like motherhood to give you some perspective. But what Foye doesn’t realize is that me-time has nothing to do with it—in fact the opposite is the case.
When you become a mom, all of a sudden, your needs, your work and all of the things that were important before, fade away in the shadow of the all-absorbing mission to usher new life into the world. My first few months as a mom were far from a step back to self-reflect. I had no time to think about myself. Any moment that wasn't spent soothing screams, changing diapers, or nursing, I spent trying to catch up on the infinite hours of sleep I was missing.
I am obviously not alone in this. Normally I wouldn't think I had to go into the nitty gritty, but Foye reveals there is an ignorance of what life as a new mom is really like. Most women start their maternity leaves recovering from either from vaginal tears or C-section surgery, both of which make it difficult to even walk. Add to that the challenges of breastfeeding, which aside from the sheer mental and emotional strain of getting your baby to latch in the first place, can bring a host of other complications (don't Google it, trust me). Then throw on the fact that a new mom can barely rest her healing body for more than an hour and a half at a time—for weeks—due to baby's rigorous feeding schedule. It's known fact that anxiety and isolation climax for women at this point, marital satisfaction plummets, and postpartum depression can enter the picture. And keep in mind this is all considered normal—we're not even scratching the surface of what moms experience when they have special-needs babies.
This is what actual maternity leave is like. Women are often so starved for me-time that they can feel tempted to spend their few waking hours doing something to feel themselves again, but it's nearly impossible; their bodies are human and need to heal after all, so much so that doctors' recommendations have become cliché: "sleep while the baby sleeps." This is all to say, if moms come back to the office looking rejuvenated, it could be because they've just overcome mental and physical Olympics, or it could be because the office provides an environment where they finally feel competent and in control again, but it's not because they've been basking in me-time and reflection.
Utter self-abandonment is a powerful experience. I felt I was leaning in, stepping forward and working harder than I ever had in my life and in a completely exhausting way, it was exhilarating. Whatever perks that come out of this incomparable experience are entirely nestled in the existence of a new child changing your world and perspective. It’s impossible to imagine a childless vacation coming close to that.
03. The Demands of Parenting Often Aren't Optional.
Foye reveals that she sees “caring for children” as a lifestyle preference or a personal hobby. She writes, “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.”
“There’s something about saying 'I need to go pick up my child' as a reason to leave the office on time that has far more gravitas than, say, 'My best friend just got ghosted by her OkCupid date and needs a margarita'—but both sides are valid.”
I've been in her shoes—childless with coworkers who are parents, and yes, it can be tough. Feeling like there's a double standard put on your time is a common and valid complaint. But to reduce the time of those without children to being simply a space for margaritas and lamenting the latest digital dating disasters is no defense against the importance of being there for your children. I can empathize with Foye's need for personal time, but her chosen argument is trite.
The truth is, a parent's time spent on children is often less an optional use of time, more a necessary one. It's not really parents getting the time, to be clear; it's the children, who need special care in the early months, can't be left unattended after school, and so on. Parenting is a job—a job that never ends and a job that is as important, demanding, and intellectual as any you might find in the c-suite.
04. We Need to Re-examine A Work Culture That Doesn't Prioritize Community-Building.
What Foye taps into is a real resentment some single women experience, who feel they are expected by employers to work longer hours than their parenting peers, but struggle to get time to themselves—yes, even time enough to get out and meet a future spouse in order to even consider having a family. Foye's comment about an OkCupid date gone wrong seems to flippantly put a child on the level of a margarita, and that's obviously problematic. But what she does tap into is an awareness that in some high-output, long-hour work environments, single professionals can feel they get the short end of the stick compared to parents who already have their families in place. It's not an easy world out their for dating these days, as the entire Verily relationships section can attest.
This brings us to the biggest problem of Foye's meternity manifesto in my mind: By choosing to phrase her me-time off similarly to maternity leave, she has pit one group of women against another. In truth, we don't need to pit single women against moms in order to empower women; clearly all of our time is valuable. What Foye misses is how adding children to the mix doesn't give parent's more me-time but simply divides their time between more people—and small, needy people at that. I would hope that out of this we can be more understanding of each others' needs and challenges, not less so.
So, Foye, if you want to talk about how women should take more paid time off, I’m right with you. If you think we need to take measures to grow ourselves and avoid burnout—Amen, sister. But if you want to start piggybacking on women’s hard-earned and necessary-for-survival maternity leave benefits, I'd have to disagree. As someone who has seen it from both sides of childbirth, me-time and maternity leave couldn't be more different.
Image: Britt Rene