As I prepare to go on parental leave, I’ve been forced to contend with countless well-intended people telling me how to “do it right” (or tsk tsking me as though I’m already “doing it wrong”). I’m a lot better at keeping my Bad Attitude Bear self at bay these days, but I’m still stunned by the barrage of conflicting and condescending advice that my bulging tummy elicits. Even after decades of forging my own path and managing to make things work, I apparently cannot be entrusted to find a way to have a child and be a researcher. And yowsers does my “play it by ear” approach raise everyone’s hackles.
I am the first to admit that I have zero clue of how I will feel after I deliver my child. I don’t know how my body will react to childbirth. I don’t know how I will feel about spending all day with a newborn. I don’t know how easy or hard things like nursing or sleep will be. The one thing that I know for certain is that there is tremendous variation among parents and children and that nothing is predictable. Yet, this doesn’t stop people from projecting onto me how I should feel afterwards. As a researcher, I very much appreciate their diverse experiences, pleasures, and challenges and so I try not to bristle at the universalizing that unfolds from that.
Part of what makes hearing everyone’s commentary hard to stomach is that I feel super fortunate to have a level of flexibility that few people I know have. At Microsoft, I have phenomenal benefits that allow me to take many weeks – actually months – of leave. My boss at Microsoft Research is one of the most supportive people that I know. And I’ve worked hard to close out group projects and otherwise eliminate dependencies so that I could take leave without impacting others. I’ve planned for uncertainty and I feel like I have tremendous flexibility. So I feel safe and comfortable waiting to see how things unfold.
But my refusal to commit to exactly how I will do maternity leave doesn’t stop folks from being opinionated. I may be back on email within a week or two. I may not be. I may be back to working on research puzzles that tickle my brain in short order. I may not be. I happen to love my research and nothing gives me greater joy that having thought provoking conversations and thinking through ideas. But if I suggest that I may engage in any act that someone else calls “work,” I’m condemned for being a workaholic who will be a bad mother. Given my profession, I usually get some crass comment comparing me to Marissa Mayer. Or I get an eyeroll or a condescending chortle followed by a series of remarks about how childbirth will change my priorities, my values, and every aspect of my life. In other words, what I hear over and over again is that my identity as researcher will be wholly incompatible with my identity as mother and I should be prepared to give up the former because the latter is clearly better.
What’s with this incessant judgmentalness? Why does it make people feel better to project their values and anxieties onto others? And what happened to a feminism that was about “choice” rather than about “doing it right”?
I hate that the logic of assessment and evaluation has pervaded our society so extensively than people feel the need to proselytize a rubric for things like childrearing and maternity leave. There’s no single right path, no perfect decision. When we set mothers up for someone’s fantasy of an ideal, everyone loses, including the child.
I wish more new mothers out there had even a fraction of the choices that I have. I wish more companies would work with their employees to help them create a flexible schedule because so much is unknown. I wish more bosses would be so supportive and willing to juggle things to find a way to make things work regardless of what happens. In other words, I wish that we had a remotely sane work culture. I’m lucky enough to be a part of one but that’s so rare.
At the same time, I also wish that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to make choices wouldn’t have to face such oppressive condescension and critique from those who feel as though, because our system is fundamentally flawed and unjust, anyone with freedom and flexibility should be choosing to completely walk away from work in order to be a “good” mother. I hate that it’s all black-or-white, work or don’t work, mother or employee. This sets everyone up to fail and be miserable in the process. Few people live such a polarized binary life.
Rather than going to extremes around all things parenting, I really wish that we could truly enable people to have choices. Not faux choices where they’re pressured by bosses or colleagues to continue working even though they technically have leave. Nor the kind of situation where they’re pressured by friends or family or society to behave in a prescribed way. But true choice where they can work out what’s right for them and their families and balance what matters. I realize that we’re a long way from this pipe dream, but I can’t help but think that we collectively undermine choice whenever we condemn those who have choice for making choices that differ from our own.
More selfishly, I wish people would just be supportive of me playing things by ear because who knows what the upcoming weeks and months have to offer. I, for one, am looking forward to finding out.
Image from Flickr by Joe Green
Originally posted to LinkedIn. More comments reside there.