baby

"This expert says a year off work to look after a baby is too long. Rubbish, I say."

The headline in The Times UK made me do a romantic comedy double take: Anne-Marie Slaughter: A year off work for a baby? ‘It’s too long’.

I’ve read a lot of Slaughter’s writing. She always seemed like a (supremely over-educated/ over-achieving) work-life realist in a sea of work-life extremes.

Slaughter was the woman who gave up her job in 2011 as a senior policy aide to Hillary Clinton (in her Secretary of State days) because she felt her demanding Washington job was incompatible with raising two teenage sons. Slaughter commuted every Monday morning on a 5.30am train from Trenton, New Jersey to Washington and would return to her family late Friday night. Her work days were long, busy and jammed.

The Harvard and Oxford educated international lawyer, political scientist, academic and top public servant then went on in 2012 to pen a now infamous article in The Atlantic titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, that in turn launched a book and international public speaking engagements.

Anne Marie Slaughter. (Image via TEDTalk. Photo: James Duncan Davidson.)
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"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation," Slaughter wrote in The Atlantic.

"But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

"I still strongly believe that women can 'have it all' (and that men can too). I believe that we can 'have it all at the same time.' But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured."

Slaughter also coined the idea of "lead parent" - a term to replace stay-at-home mum or dad. Slaughter says this role can be filled by either parent, it can change over the decades, is the person "on the front line" at home and is vital for the family to work. In her book Unfinished Business, she became an advocate for carers and talked of how important all "caring work" is.

Now Slaughter is in the news again. The extremely influential academic, thinker and public policy expert - and maybe more important than all of that, sensible and realistic thinker - says one year off work to look after a new baby for a woman is a big mistake.

"My ideal would be the woman takes six months and the man takes six, and they divide that however they want," Slaughter told Hilary Rose of The Times.

"Both parents need to bond with the child and both parents need to understand what it takes to be parents and to be workers. You can really fall behind in a year. It’s too long out of the workplace.”

Slaughter also argues that instead of looking at it as maternity leave, which puts the onus of childcare on the mother, we should be thinking about leave after having a baby as "paid care" leave that can be accessed by men and women and be used for caring for babies or elderly parents.

Let's be clear: Slaughter is still advocating for parents to care for the baby for a full year, just not necessarily the mother.

Yes, the US is only one of three countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, so maybe before there is argument over the semantics of maternity leave versus paid care leave, and whether or not fathers should be more involved in the baby stages, the US should just try to actually implement even the most rudimentary of maternity leave provisions.

But what about Slaughter saying one year is too long to be away from the workforce?

I think that's rubbish.

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Listen to whether Holly, Jessie and Mons think one year is too long to take for maternity leave.

The average woman today will work until she is about 70. That's approximately 47 years in the workforce. A couple of years out is not going to kill a career.

There are obviously pivotal years in any person's career, but otherwise a 47-year career can withstand detours.

All the women I know have leaned in and leaned out, pursuing their career dreams not in a linear fashion, but more like the path of a drunk frog; they still get where they want, or pragmatically close.

Life aspirations can change and more often than not do. What starts off as dreams of being a speech pathologist ends as a psychologist with a whistle stop in journalism.

I don't think taking three lots of maternity leave when my kids were babies has hindered my career. Working part-time for over a decade has had a bigger impact. Part-time means you are an outlier, not taking it seriously, often overlooked for promotions. But it has also kept me sane.

I've passed this decision in my life and I'm glad there weren't so many experts to tell me what to do, or to make me worry about what I might do.

The generation on my tail, millennials, are already stressed about the reality of combining work and motherhood. They understand all too well their ticking fertility time clocks. They've watched the women before them struggle with fertility or struggle with combining work and family. Fundamentally, from what I've witnessed, they get predominately negative messages from the media about becoming a mother - it's all hard work and loss. Loss of career, body, friends and sanity.

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I think one year is not too long at all to take off for a baby.

Telling them they can't step to the left for a year when they have a baby is one more Why have a bloody baby this looks too bloody hard story. Motherhood is not a sentence.

I also think there is something less talked about about and less defined than career paths and structural and cultural deficits in office work life policies.

In the middle of all of this is a woman who has become a mother. Her life has changed irrevocably. The gift of time to adjust, muddle around, look at yourself in a mirror and say, "Shit, I'm a mum now - how did that happen?", is something we should be more than prepared to give a new mum, without a dose of guilt for potentially ruining her career.

Most women I know need a year to care for their baby, or would kill for a year if they could afford it, or would like to go back part-time for a while. When they left their desk they were a woman; when they return they are a mum.

The world's axis has changed, pushed over by that tiny, gorgeous alien not asleep in the pram - and that kind of life re-calibration can't be put in a spreadsheet or a productivity study or HR report.

A number can't be attached.

But numbers can be attached to your career. That is what can deal with its axis shifting. So let it.

Take the year if you can. It will all be alright in the end.

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