How can we be the moms society wants us to be without a proper infrastructure to support us?
It’s my first day of work since having my son 11 weeks ago. I work in my upstairs bedroom, while my husband is downstairs taking care of my preschooler and infant. I hear Winston wailing while Teddy, my preschooler, sings happily and stomps around. My furloughed husband is handling it beautifully. But I, on the other hand, am not.
My heart tugs and my response to my son’s cries is visceral. I need to go down there. The feeling is debilitating–a weight and clenching in my chest. I barely hear a word from the meeting. As soon as it ends, I race downstairs. I need to physically hold my son and feed him. I scoop him up and he offers me a smirk. He melts into me as I kiss his chubby cheeks. We are together and I am complete. For 30 minutes. Just until my next department meeting starts.
I made the decision to return a week early from maternity leave. The pandemic forced districts to begin school online and it didn’t make sense to have a sub begin my high school language arts classes. The summer, although beautifully filled with infant cuddles and early morning walks with dew on the branches, was a terrifying, emotional, and taxing countdown: How many days until I have to decide if I return to school? Should I apply for a work exemption? If I don’t, I’ll be bringing the virus back to my unvaccinated son.
Ultimately, at the heart of my inner chaos was this: I am not ready to leave my son.
How could I possibly leave this child to the care of someone else? How could I possibly return to my job? Do I even have enough milk banked to keep him alive?
One might suggest I put him on formula. Someone else might thoughtfully suggest that daycare professionals know how to take care of babies. Another teacher might share how she came back as soon as possible after giving birth, eight weeks, so that she wouldn’t lose more pay while staying at home with her infant. Each mom suggests a different way to cope with this decision.
But how can I decide when to leave my infant alone with a stranger for nine hours at a time? How can I possibly get through a four-hour stretch of teaching without a break for pumping? How will I survive? How will he survive?
The process of returning to work after birth–or, if we’re lucky, maternity leave–varies in the US. Many companies offer moms 12 weeks of unpaid leave covered by FMLA. Other companies offer a varying number of weeks of paid leave. My district offers at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave, not covered by FMLA, which is only paid if you use your accumulated PTO. Most teachers try to time a pregnancy so that the baby is born in May; “a built-in maternity leave,” an administrator once told me. As if one can plan to the month. While this comment was wholly insensitive and unrealistic, the administrator mirrors the system in which they use their authority; a system that views maternity leave as a nuisance and motherhood as a distraction.
Amazingly, both of my babies were born in May. Many female teachers wait years to have children so that they can bank at least four weeks of paid leave. Four weeks to be able to take care of a child. After that, partnered moms better hope our spouse makes enough money to keep us afloat: food on the table, power on, clothed. My district also offers up to one year leave of absence, meaning we’re guaranteed our job when we return. People gasp when I tell them this. One year unpaid at home with your baby. That is wonderful! How lucky you are to work in a district that supports teacher-mothers!
And yes, I am lucky. The alternative, which is the only option for many women, is much worse: 12 weeks unpaid, and then forced to return to the job. If the mom isn’t ready to work or the baby isn’t ready to be separated, too bad. They might quit because their job isn’t guaranteed when they’re ready to return.
And so, I force myself to feel lucky. I do this for a few hours until I remember I’ll have to leave my boy in the arms of a well-intentioned caretaker while I navigate the ins and out of returning to work. I remember how, with my first son Teddy, I sobbed during lunch breaks even after taking two months of unpaid leave. I still remember the rush to my car as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day. The sign on the door reminding students that I am pumping. The thousands of kids who walked by and the hundred or so that knocked. And finally, the staff members who didn’t read the sign and used their key to enter while I was exposed and pumping milk for my absent infant son. Then I realized that while I might have it better than another mother, in no way is the process normal or OK for any of us. I am unlucky to be a mother in the United States of America.
I can hear the gasps as I write this. Certain acquaintances might unfollow or stop talking to me if I spoke ill of our country. But it’s time to face the hard truths. The US is one of the few industrialized countries that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Additionally, the average mom only takes about 10 weeks of maternity leave. Ten weeks to birth a baby, care for it, and then care for our own bodies. Although many working mothers need to take more for physical or emotional reasons, the financial burden of doing so is too much. In effect, we suffer the consequences of returning to work too soon.
So, what is wrong with our country? As citizens, we acknowledge the benefits of raising children as a family unit. According to a 2018 CATO survey, the American people as a whole support mandated paid maternity leave, with “74 percent in favor of a federal paid policy for new mothers.” Yet, according to the same survey, over half of those Americans wouldn’t vote for a policy that would increase their tax dollars to fund such policy.
Apparently, a well-adjusted family is worth little compared to the money in our pockets. Yet it’s also true that longer maternity leave produces lower infant mortality rates, higher test scores and fewer depressive symptoms in mothers. Additionally, long-term consequences of not supporting new moms in the workforce does far more damage to our economy. One of the best ways to be economically successful is by having women represented equally in the workforce. But as a country, the US is failing women in the workplace. As of April 2021, three million mothers with school age children were forced out of the workforce.
Moms are failed by our abysmally broken system. In a country obsessed with family, it becomes more and more difficult to raise one here. Our tears for our babies when we return to work do not come from thin air; they erupt from a place in us that very much needs us to be connected with our children. To be physically with our children. My sister, a lawyer, cried on her way to work in the morning and then pumped and cried on her way home in the evening. She did this every day until the pandemic began and she was actually relieved for a reason to stay at home with her boy. I hear the echoes of her in the online mom groups I’m a part of. Their stories mirror my story, my experience.
In 2020, after returning to my in-person high school, I was transferred to an online school. Although there were many factors that went into this administrative decision, the main source of the transfer was because I filed for work exemption to work from home during the pandemic to protect my infant’s weakened immune system. I was required to adapt to a brand new school, staff and scattered schedule; I also taught middle school for the first time! Working online for the year was a relief even with the chaos of simultaneously teaching sixth grade, eighth grade and 12th grade and taking care of my two kids while working most days.
My baby Winston will be 15 months old before I step foot in an in-person classroom. As much as I hate to say it, I’m grateful for the pandemic for allowing this for me as a mother. It’s insane I even have the need for this appreciation. And yet, I am profoundly thankful. Yes, I was fearful of the pandemic and heartbroken by its impact on the world and people around me. But I was able to be near my baby for far longer than I would have under normal circumstances. I was able to nurse him, snuggle him and bond with him in a way that never would’ve been possible otherwise.
I held my son during his first snotty sickness when he cried for me. I sang him “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and read Goodnight Moon on repeat before nap time. One afternoon in between meetings, he climbed up on his 4-year-old brother and gave him a sloppy kiss. I couldn’t stop smiling. This experience also made me realize how much I missed out on with Teddy; those tears during lunch time pumping sessions, they were grief tears. Each pearl holding a stunning moment I would never get back.
The pandemic somehow gave me balance. While many working moms have been utterly screwed by the state of the world, I can see mothers at home reading this article and seeing themselves in my story. The pit of their stomach is clenching with a feeling of deep injustice and longing. Their bodies are tired and exhausted and their minds are frazzled from the seemingly endless moving pieces of their family and work lives. We know that all families deserve decent parental leave, but we also know that this exceedingly necessary change is slow. Employers must be mandated to provide paid maternity leave. Our mothers, our workforce, and our babies are crying out for it.
Tara Tovar is a mother of two young boys, a high school language arts teacher, and an avid writer of stories that matter. She paints, writes music, and reads in her spare time. Follow Tara on LinkedIn and Instagram.
How can we be the moms society wants us to be without a proper infrastructure to support us?
A teacher mom opens up about the grave injustices American mothers face due to a lack of federal maternity leave.