A few years ago I interviewed a highly successful executive woman who is now in her 60s.
When we spoke about how she managed work and family when she’d had her kids a few decades earlier her eyes filled with tears. She said she was “lucky” to have six weeks of maternity leave, which was monumental in itself at that time, so she returned to work after six weeks.
Several decades later, the wound was still open. She was holding onto bone-deep regret that she had left her baby so early. And it still hurt her.
I was reminded of that woman this week when I read a Facebook post from Em Rusciano, who wrote about the ‘breath-taking and ball-tearing’ reality of going back to work earlier than you would like.
“Today I met a woman who was in a special kind of pain, a pain I know a lot of you have been in. After she introduced herself to me, I noticed that she was a bit shaky and I asked her if she was ok.
“It’s my first day away from my baby” she said in a small voice.
I felt sick, sympathy, empathy, and maternal all at once.
“OH CHIRST LADY! Do you need to cry because you totally can, I get it, unleash if you need to.” I said.
She thanked me and said that she’d already cried once and felt she probably wouldn’t stop if she did so again.
I get that.
That didn’t stop me wanting to embrace her, stroke her hair and sing Christina Aguilera’s haunting smash hit pop song “Beautiful” in a lullaby style remix until she drifted off into a peaceful slumber.
Her eyes were those of someone in physical pain bought on by emotional torture. Huge. Hollow and overwhelmed.
I remember that pain. I had to leave Odie 6 weeks after she was born to go back to work. C-section scar still fresh, boobs leaking and my heart close to exploding from anxiety, worry and guilt. I wasn’t ready to leave her, I wanted to be there to help her figure out the world.
We had no choice, we needed my income..
It was the same case for this lady.
It’s left me thinking..
There has to be a better way. Mothers shouldn’t be made to leave their kids before they’re ready. We make up 47% of the workforce for fucks sake. No I don’t have a solution, I need more time for that! I just, I felt a little bit cross after meeting this woman. It didn’t sit right with me, it shouldn’t sit right with anyone.
The upside? It’s 6pm now and I imagine that she’s just walked in the door and felt the warmth of the “Oh hey there’s that lady we love and who makes us feel pretty rad. HEY LADY” smile only a child who is yours and has missed you can give.
I hope it momentarily washed her guilt and worry away.
Motherhood huh? Breath-taking and ball-tearing all at once.”
Fifteen thousand people ‘liked’ Em’s post in just a few hours, which underscores how deeply it resonated.
Some new mothers and fathers have freedom of choice about how and when they return to work after a baby arrives.
But for many new parents there isn’t much “choice” at all.
I was one of the lucky ones when, at 27, I had my first child.
It was a joyous, terrifying and mind-blowing discovery. I’d had six surgeries for endometriosis between the ages of 19 and 24 and a long history with Crohn’s disease. I had expected my road to pregnancy to be very long but I was wrong. It was mercifully short.
Nonetheless, it was a daunting discovery because my husband and I had both just left stable jobs in Australia and were living in a student flat on the other side of the world.
I struggled to land interviews, let alone jobs. I grappled with if and how I would ever be gainfully employed again. I spent the six months before having our first child working as a temp receptionist in various companies.
It wasn’t ideal but entering parenthood in the unplanned manner I did wasn’t without its advantages. For starters, I escaped the harsh whiplash of leaping from work one day and being immersed in early motherhood the next. By the time our baby arrived I had adjusted to life without work.
The second advantage I had was that I escaped the gut-wrenching experience of returning to work with a new baby when I wasn’t ready. When our daughter was 1 year and 2 months we returned to Australia and I started back in the job I had left, working four days a week. At that point, I was ready to work again and she was happy to attend daycare.
Again, I know I was lucky. I had the choice. I went back when I was ready. But more and more women are speaking openly about going back to work at a time and in a circumstance that doesn’t suit them.
Aside from the legitimate need for income, one in two Australian women are discriminated against while pregnant or returning to work. We are lightyears from where we were thirty years ago when women were forced to resign after marrying, but we are still lightyears from a world in which work and family intertwine easily.
We know that many employers don’t adequately support parenthood and work. As a result, many men and women make decisions about the way they combine work and family based on fear of being sidelined or sacked or losing the career they’ve worked hard to forge.