Work/Life Balance: Maternity Life

**The views represented in this post are the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the Faculty Women’s Interest Group or the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.**

I am not on maternity leave. I had to keep repeating this two years ago to colleagues that assumed that because I gave birth to my son on August 20 that I must be at home caring for him. I was not on maternity leave. I was on maternity life. In anticipation of the work-life roundtable at ACSP, I wanted to share an experience different from a long maternity leave.

I was not on maternity leave for many reasons. The first reason is that Kansas State University does not offer maternity leave. The second reason is that I only just began my job as assistant professor in the Landscape Architecture | Regional and Community Planning department so I had accrued almost one sick day by his birthday and I did not qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which kicks in after 12 months of employment. However, the main reason is that I opted for maternity life. I am not alone in this work-life balancing choice. Marissa Mayer gave birth to her son the same month, just as she began her new job as Yahoo’s CEO. Many other working mothers and mothers-to-be are figuring out ways to be both in the office and in the nursery and opting for something other than a standard maternity leave. These negotiations are especially prevalent in academia because of the lack of clear maternity policies in higher education and pressure for tenure as Chronicle of Higher Education contributor Jeanne S. Zaino highlighted in her series of articles for the Chronicle documenting her journey through the first year of motherhood (and a tenure-track faculty position) in 2003.

My son was born on the first day of class. I did not come into the office the next day. But I did begin coming in every day the following week. I figured out a system where I worked furiously while he slept (which is quite a bit of the time in the first weeks after birth) so that I could nurse him or play with him while he was awake. Beginning in the second week of class, our nanny started coming to my office to help me care for him. This was a postpartum arrangement that worked for both me and my department. I was able to care for my son myself in the first fragile months, with the assistance of our nanny. And I was able to teach a class, write, and continue my research. Of course, I don’t want to imply that the maternity life was tranquil and stress-free. But, had a maternity leave been an option for me, I’m not sure I would have chosen it.

When I interviewed at Kansas State University, I outlined what I would need to be able to continue to work in the months following my son’s birth to my department head. To my relief, she said, “That is something I can work with.” She made clear what the department would need from me and we worked together to find a way that I could provide it and still be a good, caring and present mother for my son. It was not just my career that I considered when making this choice. It was possible for our family to choose this arrangement because of several factors specific to us. This was our second child so I did not have the anxiety, mental adjustment or daily calls to the pediatrician that accompanied the birth of our first child. My pregnancy and delivery had no complications. My son was healthy. My spouse is supportive and active in the care of our children. Had any of these factors been different, I may have made another choice. The maternity life was right for me and my family at the time. Every woman, every family, every situation is different. Women need to be able to negotiate the terms of their employment in the wake of this life-altering event so that it works for both the mother and employer. And they need to be able to negotiate it without it being a reflection of their dedication to their career.

While the lack of maternity leave as an option for women at Kansas State University (which adheres to the personnel policies of the State of Kansas) may reflect poorly on the state as a whole, I hope that my choice does not. When I tell people – especially women – that I did not take maternity leave, they are generally aghast. “What? They demanded you return to work?” The implication is that I was pressured to act as if I do not have a family. But that is not the case. The maternity life I chose put my family in the center of my working life. My office was half work – with a desk, bookshelves, computer, and other usual academic accoutrement – and half nursery – with a rocking recliner, bouncy chair, diaper caddy, and baby toys. Before our nanny arrived mid-morning, I often took my son out in the Baby Bjorn to get my mail, make copies and get ready for my class. My husband would come to the office to meet me for lunch or to take care of our son during a faculty meeting. Academics almost always take work home. For my maternity life, I took home to work.

Posted by Kate Nesse.

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