Would you get pregnant to take a year off work?

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.

20 thoughts on “Would you get pregnant to take a year off work?

  1. I stayed home for almost a year after my second daughter was born. While I’m glad I did it, what a relief it was to go back to work. Scheduled lunch breaks, a reason to get dressed in the morning, time to zone out in front of the computer every once in a while. (Case in point: I am writing this at work and no one is crawling into my lap, running scotch tape across the desk or spilling water all over the key board. Serenity….) People who think they are making their life easier by getting pregnant are seriously deluded.

    1. @Kelly- I think the lack of ability to zone out a bit and be “off” for a few minutes is what makes the care of small children so hard. It gets better pretty early on — with both my sons, I realized at some point when they were about two that they could entertain themselves for a bit while I did something else. I started reading books again. And then, naturally, I’d go and have another kid just to start the process all over again. But yes, there is no stress like trying to keep an eye on multiple mobile but not trustworthy children in a public place.

  2. Amazing ! It is amazing how many folks think it is a vacation to be home with kids! I had a guy in the grocery store once tell me how he couldn’t believe how many women in our community with phds and money stay home… and while I agree with him… that it was suprising .. he also had this idea that they were like home with their feet up ! 12 hours alone with my two or even out with friends in planned activities is about the most tired I’ve ever been ! mondays are particularly challenging for me as working mom b/c there is so little transition time from second shift work to paid work that monday can feel so hard ! but it does usually imply a break from kids…and most working moms will admit how nice that is!

  3. I agree it’s probably stupid to get pregnant *just* to get the year off, but if you were planning to anyway and actually *want* kids IMO it’s definitely a break from a crappy job. Which isn’t to say it won’t be hard too, but by month 4 of my leave, we were rockin and having FUN. I was really, really bummed to go back to work at 20 weeks. I would have LOVED a year off.

    1. @ARC- I was pondering the other day that if I lived in Europe, the cultural norm would have been to spend much of the past 5 years off of work (since I had three kids so close together). While there are nice things about that, it’s hard to believe that even if my job was protected, my career wouldn’t suffer. I don’t think you can take that much time off and not see some deterioration of skills, contacts, etc. That may be worth it from a societal perspective (I don’t know) but it does explain why the private sector in Scandinavia (home of 1-year-plus maternity leaves) features few women executives. The public sector they do fine. But not in the private sector. Of course, I’ve taken almost no time off over the last 5 years, which may explain why I feel my brain isn’t working half the time.

      1. Canada has 1 year leaves, too, and is culturally similar to us, so I wonder if they have fewer female execs than we do.

        But I’d happily trade some career advancement for a year’s worth of leave.

      2. @Laura I’ve been reading this post and the interesting comments underneath.
        While I do not know what’s the norm in other countries, in France, it’s certainly not the norm for mothers to stop working for 5 years because they have 3 children, unless they earn exactly the same amount taking care of their kids as they would at work.
        It is the norm in Germany, even after your first child and leaves you extremely dependent on your husband: because school hours are made so children get out from 12.00 till 2.00 pm and mothers have to drive them from one outdoor activity to the other. Which is why you’re either a german mom or a german worker if you’re a woman. It’s quite difficult to do both, and it’s really hard for single mothers.
        Most women I know with 2 or 3 kids still work, and 1 took 2 year of leave, and figured out her carrier change during it.
        This depends heavily on social class, as well as national and familial culture. I don’t believe it’s a one fit for all, despite the pretension of the Sun. And women who think having babies is a break have very crappy jobs! As you explained, having a baby is the opposite of vacation, it’s the hardest work because you have to be attentive all the time, 24/7.
        As you added, stopping work for so long is an obstacle to having a carrier. It also keeps women’s salaries lower, because some spend part of the time with their family, instead of accumulating years of work. It impacts on their retirement, and in many other ways to the inequality at work.
        Not a simple question you’ve brought up.

  4. I’m hoping this is just the Daily Mail being the Daily Mail… I can’t believe people really, truly think staying home with little kids is easier than a job. But then, I’ve heard people say that here, so maybe they do. I found maternity leave to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done- particularly the first time around, when I was still learning what it meant for me to be a mom.
    Personally, a full year off would not have been right for me. I think everyone has a different optimal amount of time off, and that gets glossed over as we (rightly) work to get American women some decent maternity leave.

  5. It’s unfortunate that many people out there haven’t (yet) found fulfilling careers. We met many ex-lawyers turned SAHP in that situation when we were living in a progressive city… and suspect many of them would have been happier with a different job rather than leaving the labor force entirely. But it’s hard to leave a high-paying job when one has huge student loan debt without something they consider to be a higher calling.

    I really like the way academia allows sabbaticals from time to time (even if they’re unpaid). It’s nice to take a year to do something completely different and have the luxury of going back to work at the same place after a year of new experiences.

    1. @N&M – I think this is a frequent occurrence — people haven’t found the right job, and so “full-time” parenting is naturally more appealing (a corollary to what Sheryl Sandberg talks about of people leaning back too early, which makes work less interesting — and hence narrows the choices). What bugs me is when people take a personal discovery (“for me, SAH parenting is a better choice than paid work) to a societal pronouncement.

      1. It’s also important to consider the limits- travel, location, family- that children place or parents may feel they place. If you don’t like your job when you have children, it doesn’t seem likely you’ll find something you really like after that.

        Most people don’t like their jobs. That has always been true.

      2. Not even a better choice than paid work… just a better choice than 80 hour weeks in a sexist high powered law institution with a 2 hour commute. But it’s hard to separate “this job sucks” from “being a lawyer sucks” or even “working sucks.” That’s the availability heuristic or representativeness heuristic or something.

        Such folks inspired this totally judgmental and deliberately controversial post: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/some-people-should-not-be-sahp-a-deliberately-controverisal-post/

  6. Children under age 2 are definitely a lot of work! After age 2, it’s still work but they are able to entertain themselves a bit and hopefully sleep through the night (Not always true of course…)

    I don’t envy women who stay home except those who are still home once their kids are 5 and older!

    I hate that the Daily Mail makes a scandal out of this. It’s something that U.S. readers will see and think aha, we shouldn’t have decent maternity leave because a few women will abuse it, when the truth is, i think those women didn’t like their job and it’s hard to go back after a break anyway, so the children are the perfect excuse to leave the workforce.

    1. @Oil&Garlic – exactly. some women prefer not to be in the workforce, and that’s fine, but we shouldn’t mistake what works best for one person as what works best for everybody. Sometimes there’s no societal lesson to be taken from one person’s choice.

  7. My first child was born in the US, while kids #2 and 3 were born in Canada, which is also home of the one year mat leave. When I came back to work after 10 months with baby #2, people thought I was crazy for coming back “early.” But, I will admit that for #3, knowing it was probably my last child, I went for it with gusto. I even tacked on an extra month of vacation (we ever accrue vacation time while on mat leave!) to take a full 13 months. I had a full-time nanny for the whole time, and I’m not going to lie – It was a breeze once I got past the first 3 months!

    For me, I enjoy my job and make good money, so staying home full-time was never really an option. But, if you hate your job and have enough income from, say, your husband’s salary, to stay home with help, then I can see why that might be appealing. I mean, why not?

  8. I have to disagree with you about the comment you made about teaching being easier than staying home with kids (at least that’s how I took it). I teach middle school in an urban setting. So many of the kids are so disrespectful and ill behaved, there is no comparison with motherhood and teaching in most schools today. I stay home during the summer (1.5 months of vacation) and there is NO WAY raising kids is necessarily harder than work. I want to cry after every 2nd period because the kids are so disrespectful. Every time I catch my son in my arms as he runs down the hall in the summer after being home with him all day, I want to pick him up, smile as I look into his eyes and kiss him forever. Believe me if I could stay home with the kids, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

    1. @Elle – thanks for your comment! I know that teaching can be very stressful. But my point was so is motherhood — particularly if you have a brood of little ones. Just take the issue of sick days. If you have a job and you’re sick, most likely you take a sick day. If you’re home with little kids and you’re sick…you’re just more tired while doing the exact same job.

  9. BTW, I only had 5 weeks of maternity leave because I had a baby in late August. I didn’t have enough money to stay out any longer, so I returned to work the last week of September. It’s the American way for middle to lower class women in America. Is it the best? Probably not. I am happy for any woman or man that can take time off to be with their kids.

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