Crazy as it sounds to American mothers, over in the UK, women can take up to a year off work, partially paid, after having a baby.
Such generous benefits are designed to give moms and babies time to bond, but according to a new magazine survey (highlighted in the Daily Mail), they’re having a side effect: giving burnt-out women an escape route. Of 2000 British women surveyed, half said they were considering having a baby to get a year off of work.
This “shocking statistic,” as the Daily Mail puts it, should be taken in context. After all, British media seem contractually bound to overplay all stories. The Daily Mail found two women who claimed their jobs were stressful, and that may have played a part in their decision to start their families. One decided not to return to work, and one is weighing whether to return or not. So really, all we’ve learned is that some women decide to stay home with their kids.
But I was fascinated to read these new moms’ comments and how the Daily Mail spun them in light of the larger conversation, this Mother’s Day, over what constitutes work, and also how naive some people are about what living with small children entails. I think this stems, in part, from how we romanticize motherhood in a way that isn’t healthy for anyone.
For instance, take this quote from Sarah, who started a family in part because she wanted a break from her teaching job:
“Some days the children would be running round the classroom, or even up and down the corridors, refusing to listen to the lesson I’d carefully planned and I felt I had no back-up to deal with it… On one occasion, I ran into the management office in tears, saying “I can’t be in that classroom any more” because it had got so bad….From the time I arrived at school at 8am, it was non-stop teaching, prepping and supervising, with a 15-minute window to grab lunch….When the official school day ended at 3pm, inevitably there’d be meetings or children asking me for help with their course work, and I could never say no.”
As a mother of three children under the age of 5, I read this comment and thought “Oh, Sarah, talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.” You think running around the classroom is bad? My 4-year-old ran away from me at Disney World. My children frequently refuse to follow along with activities I’ve carefully planned and you know what will also make you cry? Being up from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. with a baby who wants to play, not go back to sleep. But there’s no management office to run to in that case. As for that sentence noting that “from the time I arrived at school at 8 a.m, it was non-stop teaching, prepping and supervising,” let’s just note that being home with small children is much the same, except the day starts before 8 a.m. And it probably goes past 3 p.m., too, with “children asking me for help.” You’ll have a harder time saying no to your own kids than your school charges.
Or then there’s this Daily Mail quote from Yuliana, who is on maternity leave from her job at Southbank University:
“I was working up to ten hours a day, and while it was rewarding, it was also exhausting and isolating.”
You know what is also exhausting and isolating? Being home with small children. But again, the shifts are longer than 10 hours. As Professor Christine Edwards of Kingston University Business School told the Daily Mail, “Taking maternity leave as a short-term way out of a stressed working environment is daft… What women should do is try to negotiate better working conditions with their line managers.”
I agree. We have a tendency to romanticize motherhood in our society as being somehow magical and maximally fulfilling and fun. While it can be all three at transcendent moments, it’s also a lot of work. Just as paid jobs can be amazing at times and are also difficult and stressful at other times. Life is hard work. “Life is difficult,” as M. Scott Peck started his bestselling self-help book The Road Less Traveled. Swapping one kind of work for another doesn’t change that. The idea that we shouldn’t have to work hard is part of the princess mindset that I complain about a lot. While I might enjoy the irony that the socially acceptable route out of work stress offered to modern women (staying home with small kids) is every bit as stressful as any job that doesn’t involve jumping out of airplanes and into terrorist bunkers, the fact that Sarah and Yuliana both admit in the article that they were naive doesn’t change that their mindset is probably widespread.
So here’s my take: If you want to take time off to raise children, do that with your eyes open to the reality that you won’t love every minute. Just as no one loves every minute of any other job. Children are their own little people, not some sort of ticket out of the grind. If you approach all your projects with that mindset — that nothing is an escape from anything else — you’ll make wiser decisions in general.