One day after our first child was due to arrive but two days before he actually did, my husband and I had run out of ways to prepare. We had packed the hospital bag and set up the crib, purchased a boppy and a breast pump. But we did not yet have the baby. So, in an effort to encourage our little one along, we decided to watch “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” the episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky. The episode is the conclusion of a story arc that begins with one of the show’s more controversial episodes: “Lucy is Enceinte.” This famous episode manages to tell the story of how Lucy informs her husband, Ricky, that she is pregnant without using the word pregnant, which was deemed scandalous for television by CBS.
Nearly 65 years later, it is safe to say that the mere mention of pregnancy is far less taboo than in Lucy’s day. Still, our culture has yet to become fully comfortable with the realities of pregnancy and childbirth. The Hollywood version of childbirth often involves a woman clutching her stomach and definitively declaring, “It’s time!” This often is followed by an idealized birthing scene in which a woman, barely glistening with sweat, gives a push or two before being handed a clean, neatly swaddled baby. Meanwhile, the real-life version often includes far less comical screaming and far more bodily fluids. And there is no glamorous Hollywood version of what happens afterward.
Nearly three weeks into my own maternity leave, I admit I didn’t have a full understanding of what this time would involve. When the beautiful, bloody body of our son emerged and the doctors dropped all 10 wriggling pounds of him onto my stomach, a part of me thought: The hard part is over. But later that night, as I lay in a hospital bed at 3 a.m. holding my hungry, hysterically crying infant son, yet unable to get him to breastfeed, I realized I had been mistaken. So it was with some sympathy, but also a significant deal of frustration, that I read the now infamous article published last month in The New York Post titled, “I want all the perks of maternity leave—without having a kid.” In that article Meghann Foye, a novelist, discusses her inspiration for writing her new novel, Meternity, which tells the story of a woman in her early 30s who decides to fake a pregnancy in order to get maternity leave.
The Post article describes the author’s own real-life efforts to find work-life balance after realizing that if she did not ever have children, she would never have maternity leave and therefore “that socially mandated time and space for self-reflection may never come.” While Foyer’s larger message about the need for better work-life balance is a worthy one, likening maternity leave to a sabbatical understandably rubbed many readers, including me, the wrong way. The Internet was quick to point out that during maternity leave—a time that, in fact, is not available to a large number of women—mothers must care for a newborn while at the same time recovering from vaginal tearing or a C-section, cleaning stitches or taking sitz baths, trying to tend to a bleeding, cracking, leaking, aching, sleep-deprived body.
I know that caring for my son in the first weeks of his life is an amazing and rewarding privilege. It is not something I take for granted (and I appreciate America’s just parental leave policy). But it is important to acknowledge that for many people, this time can also be exhausting, frustrating, painful, isolating and terrifying. In my son’s second week of life, he and I had a combined total of five doctor appointments plus one emergency room visit and a session with a lactation consultant.
Being on leave has given me time to grapple with all these challenges. But a “socially mandated time and space for self-reflection” it is not.
When it comes to discussing the details of these difficulties among friends or family, many people hesitate, perhaps out of embarrassment or a fear of seeming ungrateful or unloving. And so many people were surprised by the candor of a recent tweet by the model Chrissy Teigen following the birth of her first child: “no one told me i would be coming home in diapers too.” Her public tweet emphasized that such topics should not be confined to new moms or parenting forums. A wider, more honest conversation about the challenges of childbirth likely would help not only to dispel the myth of maternity leave as a type of vacation time; it could also help employers see it as a necessity and new parents to realize they are not alone. When it comes to open conversations about pregnancy and childbirth, we’ve come a long way since Lucy’s days, but we’ve still got a long way to go.