What It’s Really Like to Take Maternity Leave (When Your Coworkers Think It’s a Vacation)

I discovered that there’s no perfect time for a baby, and there’s no perfect way to prepare.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
137
I discovered that there’s no perfect time for a baby, and there’s no perfect way to prepare.

This year, I had a lot of firsts. First month-long extended business trip. First feature in a newspaper. First pitch for a serious investment.

Oh yeah, and first baby.

As a career-focused woman working in the male-dominated “start-up” technology world, a pregnancy is kind of an anomaly. Upon discovering that I was, indeed, actually having a baby, a concerned (and well-meaning) friend in the same industry asked me, “Did you really think this through?”

Yes, he really did ask that. And yes, I was so swept up in the work-hard-play-hard, pizza-and-beer-late-night culture, I didn’t even see it as rude. In fact, my brain was playing that exact question on loop. Did I really think this through?

Admittedly, it wasn’t great timing. When my husband and I were discussing when to have a baby, though, we realized that there was never really going to be an ideal, fall-out-of-the-sky perfect time to try. Sure, my less-than-ten-person company needed me now, but if we did actually start becoming successful, it’s not like I would stop being needed. The demands would only “scale” with the company; so why wait? I wasn’t becoming more fertile.

Furthermore, growing a family and a rich home life was always more important to me than an illustrious career. That said, I certainly wasn’t planning on giving up on my career ambitions.

While it only took us one month to get pregnant, it took nearly four months to have the courage to tell my company.

“I—I—congratulations,” my CEO told me when I told him the news. But with great trepidation, he added, “But how are we going to do this?”

As he previously worked on another progressive technology startup, I questioned what his former company’s maternity policy was—maybe we could get some ideas there. He laughed. “Well, that didn’t exactly happen. There were no pregnant women.” Of course.

Ultimately, I got four months—all unpaid. I intimately knew the finances of the company, so I understood, but it didn’t make me feel all that much better—though the generous amount of time (for American standards), was appreciated. We saved every penny.

I knew this unpaid leave would be a calculable financial burden on me, but what I couldn’t calculate was the extent my male work colleagues would treat my condition with the opposite of professional seriousness. Once, at an in-person meeting with an investor, I was asked, as a joke because I worked so much, if the father of my baby was my boss, who is male. That was weird.

As the months rolled by, my upcoming maternity leave felt like a foreboding dark raincloud. Sure—my all-male team was respectful and even sometimes sweet—but the pressure to perform was palpable. Since I was taking so much time “off,” I had this gnawing sensation that I had to prove my worth in my last remaining weeks—the most physically uncomfortable, might I add. Simultaneously, my company was trying to extract as many projects out of me as possible. With a looming deadline to perform, it was impossible to slow down. Let’s just say that I was still answering emails after my water broke.

Of course, I was absolutely thrilled to finally have my sweet little baby in my arms, but when I came to that hospital room—ready to push—I was also ready for a break. Oh, retrospect. How little did I know that was the last thing that comes with a baby!

Despite the lack of rest, that first week was simply magical. I’m not a crier—but I remember tears rolling down my face when I rocked my newborn to sleep. This is happiness, I thought.

I had imagined maternity leave would be full of lazy strolls, long trips to visit family, tons of reading, and time for me and baby to bond. Sometimes I even envisioned laying out by the pool, while my baby sat next to me in the shade.

In reality, I spent a good portion of it in my pajamas or topless, breastfeeding. Our “lazy stroll” was about five hundred feet to our local coffee shop—because caffeine. The only books I read could be categorized under “How to Keep Your Infant Alive.” Oh, and we never made it to a pool.

It wasn’t just “not easy.” It was the most taxing thing I have ever emotionally and physically experienced. Far more rough than actual work—but surprisingly far more stimulating. My brain felt like it was growing again. My worldview shifted—and my appreciation for all parents grew a hundredfold.

My maternity leave wasn't really the "leave" I'd expected in other ways too. 

Despite the fact that I wasn’t getting paid, not a week would go by without my colleagues clamoring for me either to answer questions, “jump” on meetings, “walk through” a strategy. While apologetic, sometimes from their tone, you’d think they were interrupting me from a luxurious vacation.

My feelings were mixed. One, I get it—this is a small company, and we’re trying to achieve big things. On the other hand was utter frustration at their complete tone-deafness to my new responsibilities—and to my sheer exhaustion. As most new mothers intuitively understand, “planning” with a newborn is a laughable task. For that one “quick call” I had to hire a babysitter. For that “walk through” of our processes, I had to rework my schedule so my husband could be home for the call, just in case the baby woke up. The idea that I suddenly wasn’t available at their beck-and-call couldn’t get through their minds.

While their requests were seemingly small, they were the birth pangs of a large obliviousness that would continue to grow in their attitude upon my return.

Due to the nature of my job, my husband (and, to clarify, the father of my child) and I decided that the convenience of hiring a nanny would be well worth the extra expense. On a weekly basis, it would save hours of logistics and travel time. Yet, since the nanny left at 5:30, I had to make it clear to my company that off hours were off hours.

Now months after coming back, I find myself constantly defending this time. After the baby goes to bed, I am right back at work on the computer—making me play another question on loop. Is this way of life sustainable?

Lately, I’ve often been reminded of a chat I had with my aunt—one of the few career-focused women in my family. The talk was years ago, before I even went off to college. While thinking about my future career, she had asked me to consider my future children. Think of a career that gives you balance and time with them.

While I respected her advice, I got caught up in the rat race. Women can do anything, right?

I know women who have had it harder than me. And I know women who don’t have a choice. I know that I can still fight for it. But I am so damn tired.

If you had asked me a year ago if having a baby would ever make me question my work, I would have said something along the lines of believing that my career would make me a better, more fulfilled parent. But that’s before I really looked into my little baby’s face and saw happiness.

Before I was a mother, this male-dominated workforce wasn’t too bad. I really didn’t experience the worst of the horror stories. But still, with a baby? It’s rough, man.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Chung Photography