While mainstream media often try to pit feminism against motherhood (our stance: that’s bullshit), there’s no doubt that conflict exists for working mothers. Guest blogger Guinevere A. Murphy, Ph.D. reveals how returning to her high-level career in science after giving birth to a child made her question, then value, feminism.
The beeping machines and the loud voices in the crowded delivery room fell silent in the instant I saw the tiny, crying baby. My baby. A long minute later, they placed the wet, pink, perfect little human in my arms. A warmth and light effused my being, and without even a slight hint of cliché, I thought wonderingly, “This is the best moment of my life,” with an absolute certainty and fervor beyond anything I’d ever experienced.
Everything changed in that moment. I had to separate my life into pre-Evie and post-Evie epochs, like B.C. and A.D. The overwhelming love I felt for my baby gave me a clarity and sense of purpose I hadn’t realized was missing before.
I came to realize after Evie’s birth that my devotion to my career in science had become in large part an act, one that I put on, among other factors, because of my whole-hearted belief in what is popularly attributed to a feminist ideal of the high-achieving career woman, but I’ve since come to realize originates more from an out-of-control, greed-dominated corporate culture. Marissa Mayer famously went back to work after just a “few weeks,” and worked from home while still healing from delivery. Her decision to do this largely contributes to the idea of motherhood as merely a minor bump in the road of one’s career trajectory.
I went back to the office at six weeks. It’s not hyperbole to say that my every instinct cried out against walking out the door most mornings, and nights I mourned if I was home even five minutes late, for the precious hour we had together before bedtime. My experience illustrates why feminism is still needed in the U.S., one of four countries in the world without mandated paid maternity leave. This angle wasn’t lost on me at the time, but above all, I felt a furious, overwhelming sense of betrayal, by the feminist movement.
Let’s take a step back. I got to choose the timing of my pregnancy, and I had access to excellent prenatal and postnatal care, all things I owe to feminism and the luck of living in the first world. But post-Evie, I began to refer bitterly to the “Big Lie” of feminism, having it all, thinking I could ease into motherhood, with no trade-offs. The Big Lie had led me to willingly put myself into an untenable but inescapable work situation; I was sole breadwinner, and we couldn’t get by on savings alone, especially given the enormous cost of private healthcare coverage since my husband wasn’t eligible for benefits through his part-time teaching position at a state university.
Pre-Evie, I believed the system was set up to support working and childrearing, at least for highly educated workers. Six weeks seemed a leisurely, lengthy “time off.” Post-Evie, reality intruded: maternity leave is an unforgettable, exhausting time for learning the ropes of the most important, challenging, and transformative role most women ever face. In fact, Human Rights Watch issued a report last year labeling current US policy as human rights violations: “little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers.” I once had an angry coworker throw away my breast pumping equipment; I had to pay to replace the parts and couldn’t pump for a day.
It’s been five years since my painful epiphany, and on a whim I recently subscribed to Ms. Magazine, the bastion of feminist thought since its 1971 inception. I’ve been struck by the irrelevance of much of the content to my current life. Family planning is undoubtedly the critical foundation for women’s self-determination, but the continuing controversy over abortion in the U.S. has hijacked much of the feminist dialogue. As of November 2012, a search performed on the Ms. website had more than 8,000 archived pieces on abortion, compared to a paltry 365 pieces on maternity leave, family leave or parental leave. That’s a 24-fold excess of abortion articles, when a woman was five times as likely to have a baby as have an abortion in 2008, the last year for which abortion data are available. Not to single out Ms. Magazine, in the same search, the more mainstream New York Times had a 20-fold excess of abortion pieces.
Only after returning to work did I learn that my group health coverage had ended less than two weeks after Evie’s birth, and my family was without health insurance for most of my six-week leave. No new parent should face losing health coverage for taking time off with a baby.
Understandably, people naturally focus on controversy, and someone has to defend reproductive rights. But we can’t allow the central issues of the feminist movement to be dictated by any extreme—right or left. Family policies profoundly affect the lives of the vast majority of men, women and children, and these issues need much more bandwidth to change attitudes. Societal acceptance of breastfeeding, flexible workplace policies, and mandated, paid parental leave, without exceptions for part-time workers and small businesses, must move to the top of the feminist agenda. — Guinevere A. Murphy, Ph.D