“Meternity” Leave? And The Verdict Is….

Recently, author Meghann Foye released a book called “Meternity” – a story revolving around the work life of Liz Buckley, a young editor at a baby magazine. Many of Liz’s co-workers are mommies themselves – and Liz is feeling the pressure relating to some, let’s say “injustices” she feels exist in her office. Since the mommies have hard end times from the office or need to leave earlier when a child’s illness or a flaky babysitter forces them to, the extra workload winds up on Liz’s desk – and it’s starting to get on her nerves. Through a series of misunderstandings – some staff members believe Liz is pregnant – so she decides to just go with it in order to plan her “meternity” leave – paid time off for her to figure out what she wants out of life.

How do you think this book (as well as an interview the author gave with the NY Post) has gone over with some working mommies out there? Let’s just say the pitchforks have been sharpened and torches lit.

When I started hearing and reading about all the controversy surrounding this book, I naturally HAD to read it all myself. So I did. And I have things to say. About a few subjects this book helps bring attention to, not just the obvious. But we can start with that, since apparently that’s the reason the author is about to be burned at the stake.

Whether you are a mother or not, anyone with any kind of empathy – or common sense frankly – knows that a maternity leave is not “time off” during which a woman sits with her feet up enjoying a hot toddy and the view, while contemplating the mysteries of life. If the woman is sitting anywhere at all with her feet up, she probably has a rubber donut under her bottom and the only mystery of life being contemplated – is what exactly to do with the new one she just gave birth to.  Aside from that – there’s a whole new routine (and life) to get used to. Sometimes post-partum depression to contend with.   A complete lack of sleep. Baby weight that won’t go away. A wardrobe consisting of oversized t-shirts and stretch pants since that’s all that fits right now (and the t-shirt probably has been shot with pee, puke, or both – maybe simultaneously). This is clearly not a vacation or time for “me” – so, while the comparison being made here is insulting and irritating more than a few people – I can understand and agree. BUT, after actually reading the book, I think there are some other conversations that should be brought front and center here.

First, let’s talk about maternity leave in general. Frankly, it’s pretty shameful in this country.  On a past episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host addresses this issue (the episode is titled Paid Family Leave in case anyone wants to check it out).

Basically, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave. What?? First of all – am I the only person that actually needed to google Papua New Guinea to learn just a little about this country? Second of all – what?? The United States of America, a country with a population with approximately 31 million WORKING MOTHERS with children 18 and younger (that’s the estimate from the 2012 American Community Survey, US Census Bureau) has something in common with a nation whose TOTAL population is 7 million? Really? I think we can (and should) do a little better than this. And here’s something else to work you up. Our European counterparts not only provide paid maternity leave – but recently it’s been reported that some companies in the United Kingdom are providing some paid leave when pets are adopted (and it’s being dubbed “pawternity leave”). Now, I love and consider my furry friends a part of my family – but I think there is something incredibly wrong here when we can clearly see the value other cultures put on “family” and here in the United States, women are piecing together the time off they can take (like a 1,000 piece puzzle) in order to give birth. I’m sorry but I have to give us a big failing grade here. F.

Second, while we are on the subject of cultures – let’s talk a little about the work culture here at home. How many hours a week do you work? How much time is spent commuting? And how many hours are you actually spending with your families? Even when the work day ends, how many of us are checking and responding to emails all times of the night – and even in between listening to our kids tell us about their day? Sadly, I’d venture to guess that a lot of us are spending much more time “working” than we are actually “living” and enjoying that life we are working so hard to have. Now I know some of you may be agreeing but some of you may be thinking “well that’s life and what grown-ups do.” OK, but does it really have to be? The reason our main character in this book plots her “meternity” leave is because she feels completely stressed, overworked and needs an opportunity to think more about what she really wants out of life. She “lives to work” as opposed to “working to live” – and I bet many of us feel the same way. I know I have certainly felt that way at times and I can’t imagine I’m alone. If technology can allow – and companies almost expect – us to respond to those emails all night after being at the office all day, then why can’t we make technology work more for us? While we’ve definitely made headway with flexible work schedules, I think employers are still cautious about offering it more. It’s seen more as a privilege and not a policy. What is so scary about it? That companies have happier, more productive employees? That has been the result some companies see from such offerings. Could we try to work a day here and there from home, if the type of work we do allows us to work remotely? Maybe we can consider more job shares between employees. If companies don’t offer it – then I would challenge an employee to at least ask the question and get the conversation started. Life is short and if there is something out there that could help us have a better work-life balance then why are we so afraid to simply ask?

Lastly – and I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room here that no one really ever talks a lot about. Why are women in the workplace so divided? I feel like there are two gangs amongst the women at work – you have the working moms and the other working women that well, are NOT moms. Clearly when anyone has something in common with another they gravitate to each other, they share experiences and can be each other’s cheerleader. That’s just human nature in general. But yet, even though we are all working women and share all those experiences collectively – the “mom” or “non-mom” label has made women defensive and created a competitiveness about who works harder. I’ve seen and experienced it myself and frankly, it stinks. The “non-moms” feel bitter about the flexible work schedules the moms sometimes have – “yeah, she is ‘working from home’. Sure she is”. Well, “non-moms” – what makes us think the “moms” are not actually working from home? Are we actually picking up slack – or is that just an easy assumption? Are we jealous of the flexibility they have? If we would like a similar setup – have we actually asked for flexible work schedules too? If companies don’t have official policies about it in some cases – what stops us from asking for it ourselves? Our lack of offspring? Well, that really can’t be made a criteria, can it? As far as the “moms” – we are working even harder from home and have more true work hours without the interruption of our chatty co-workers and water-cooler talk throughout the day. We are even working off hours and yet we fear people will think we are slacking. Well, why do we think that? A flexible work schedule is awesome and we can get A LOT more work done – but are we making sure we are truly accessible throughout a normal workday when questions from co-workers come up? Are we truly engaged when we are on a conference call from home – or are there interruptions from our kids in the background that we expect people to understand? People would certainly understand – but we can’t expect them to if it happens consistently (remember the story of that boy that cried wolf?). We can’t “hide” from co-workers if we need to be at our kid’s school for a couple of hours one day. Why wouldn’t we tell our colleagues if something like that came up? If a “non-mom” working full time all week on site had to leave for a couple of hours during the day to go to a doctor’s appointment, colleagues would know her whereabouts and most likely understand. What’s the difference? There is none. But maybe our insecurities are making it seem like there is, so we in turn become guarded.

As women, there are many obstacles we face in the workplace. And we make it harder on ourselves by separating into these “gangs”, so to speak. We can learn so much from each other if we took some time to talk to each other and truly understand the struggles we each have. We should be doing more to work together with our sisters – not doing everything we can to be caddy and bring each other down. How many of the women condemning the author of this book actually read it? I’ve read on Amazon quite a few negative reviews about this book – and I have to admit, I don’t think they all did. We are all certainly entitled to our opinion – but are our opinions based on our own experience, or are they assumptions based on what we’ve heard through the grapevine – or worse, our insecurities?

So here’s MY verdict. From a marketing perspective – bravo, Meghann Foye. You’ve angered a lot of people. You may even be selling a lot more books now because of the attention this book is getting. But most importantly – whether we all agree or not, a clever play on the word “maternity” has for this working girl brought a lot more to the table. An opportunity for all of us to bring these bigger conversations to the table and hopefully start seeing more progress being made. We’ve come a long way, ladies. But there’s more work to be done. Now, let’s hear your verdict.