If I had taken the "standard" 12 week, unpaid maternity leave that is available to (some) women in the United States, I would have been back at work by now.
But, I did not qualify for maternity leave. Instead, I quit my job.
How is it possible that I did not qualify for maternity leave? Well, under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a primary caregiver is entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave under some circumstances, including a birth of a child, with a few caveats. One of those caveats is that you had to have worked at your current company for at least 1 year before taking leave. I was only there for seven months, so strike one against me.
Individual states have their own maternity leave policies in addition to the FMLA. In Massachusetts, there is the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA), which allows for 8 weeks of unpaid leave (woo hoo, how generous). My employer told me that to be eligible for MMLA, I had to have worked at the company for 6 months after the probationary period, which was 6 months, which brings us back to the 1 year requirement. Strike two against me. (I just found out that this was actually incorrect information: all that was required was the completion of the probationary period, or at least 3 months, which means I should have been eligible for MMLA. But still, 8 weeks???)
Other than New Jersey and California, I am not aware of any states that provide for any kind of (miserly) pay during maternity leave. However, some people use short term disability benefits during leave. While it does provide some sort of income, it irks me to lump birth and postpartum period into something defined as a disability. Nevertheless, I was told that, once again, I had to have worked for the company for at least one year to be able to claim disability (which, in itself, is ridiculous - what if I had an actual disability develop before that year was up?). Strike three against me.
Given that I wasn't eligible for any maternity leave or pay whatsoever, but I was still planning to give birth and care for the newborn baby, I decided to leave my job. I ended up in this situation because, obviously, we have some family-friendly policies in this country. Instead of being bitter about the situation, I decided to think of it as an unpaid version of the European-style maternity leave (or Canadian, for that matter). I recognize that I am very, very lucky that our family is able to live on one salary for some period of time, and so I decided to take a year off to stay home with the baby before returning back into the workforce. (I have no delusions that it will be easy to find a job in this economy, so stay tuned for that adventure.)
This decision left me feeling very conflicted. I have never envisioned myself as a stay-at-home mom, but that is essentially what I am at the moment. Three months in, I have to say that I have developed even more respect for stay-at-home parents, because it literally is the hardest job I've ever had to do. Things are getting better around here these days (no, the baby is not sleeping through the night yet). But the first 2.5 months were brutal. There were days where I told my husband I wouldn't make it. The continuous sleep deprivation, the constant baby cycle of nursing, refusing to nap, and screaming added up, and there were several nights and days when I broke down. The unsustainable (lack of) routine hit its peak around 6 weeks postpartum. A couple of weeks later, we realized that our baby has acid reflux, but that is a post for another day. Anyway, 3 months in, things are improving greatly, and we are developing a routine with the baby, which helps immensely.
So, on one hand, I was exhausted and had moments where I really, really wanted to be at work and not stuck at home with a screaming infant. On the other hand, my daughter is changing so quickly that on a weekly, daily basis, she surprises me with something new - swatting at toys, chatting, smiling. It is so rewarding to be there to witness these moments, I wouldn't trade them for anything.
On the third hand, we have the issue of the ridiculous cost of daycare in our area. Let's put some numbers out there: did you know that to have your infant (6 weeks to about 1 year old) in a daycare center full time (which could be from 8 am to 3 pm, not exactly coinciding with a full work day) would cost you about $2500 a month? No, that is not a typo. So, just considering the financial side of things, forgetting for the moment about my own feelings and emotions about the situation, I would have to have a pretty well-paying job in order to make it worth my time to work and pay for daycare. Putting the emotions back into the equation, I would have to really love my job to consider shelling out this much money for daycare AND being away from my baby.
(Huge note to the internet: all these musings and considerations are made possible only by the fact that our family is able to survive on one salary for the time being, which I realize is not a situation for everyone, so please don't take anything I say personally. This is just my own thoughts about our specific situation. Same goes for all the emotional stuff I am writing about. I have all the respect in the world for working parents, stay-at-home parents, and work-at-home parents. All these choices require hard decisions and sacrifices, however different they may be individually.)
So, for the time being, I am adjusting to life as a stay-at-home mom, and I am trying to be as grateful about it as possible. It's an uphill battle, but I am stubborn, and I am winning.