Magazine editor and novelist Meghann Foye made a name for herself this week with a NY Post article touting “Meternity” leave: her proposal that all women deserve a break from their jobs at one time or another, whether they’re home caring for a tiny human being or not.
I’ll be honest. My first reaction to the article was, “This woman is ridiculous.” Then I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she doesn’t really believe this nonsense. Maybe the piece in the Post is a publicity stunt to promote her new novel. Maybe it wasn’t even her idea and some publishing or public relations executive is now packing up their desk after Foye, ultimately humiliated by this theory, bailed at the last minute on a “Good Morning America” appearance.
And then I realized that Foye and I have a lot in common. We’re both writers. We’re both 38-year-old women. But most importantly? I once took a “meternity” leave.
As Foye says, “I was 31 years old in 2009, and I loved my career. As an editor at a popular magazine, I got to work on big stories, attend cool events, and meet famous celebs all the time.”
Well, I was 29 years old in 2007, and I hated my career. As a writer’s assistant on numerous television sitcoms, I wasn’t doing the job I wanted—writing for TV—but was instead typing story lines and jokes pitched by other people doing the job I wanted. And a lot of the time, I did so until 2 in the morning.
Around the same time, Foye, with all her big stories, cool events, and famous people, had a lot of looming, stressful deadlines. And then the 2008 recession hit. She admits she was lucky to still have a job. But that was the trouble! “Assistants and perks disappeared across industries, and I felt like the cultural expectation was that we should now be tethered to our desks and our smartphones.” In other words, Foye was simply tired of…working.
I, on the other hand, was having trouble keeping a job. Each show I worked on was canceled before I had a chance to prove myself to the producers, so not only was I stalled in my career with little hope of advancement, I was constantly unemployed and hustling for my next gig. I’d become so emotionally defeated and bitter, I no longer enjoyed writing. And when I came to this realization, I quit.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this was my “meternity” leave! I focused on myself, sleeping in and idling away the hours. I put my needs first over, say, my mother, who was in a blind panic over the fact that I was suddenly rootless and apathetic about my future. Really, I was paralyzed, looking at my upcoming 30s (and 40s and 50s…) with uncertainty and fear. I was also single then. I was sure I was going to be going it alone, so, where would I go? Who would I be? What would I do? And how in the world would I pay for all of it?
There are two ironic twists in my story.
Firstly, after my period of soul-searching and career counseling, I determined that I was, at my core, a writer. But if I couldn’t make a living off of it, perhaps I could teach it. I got a Masters in Education, but then just weeks after graduation was offered the opportunity to write my first TV movie. It aired in 2010, the first on a growing resume that I am both proud of and grateful for.
The second bit of irony is that, after having a baby this past spring, I did not take a maternity leave. The career I’ve been given a second chance at, the one I’m now so happy to have, is comprised entirely of freelance assignments. This means I don’t have one employer contributing to the state disability insurance that covers paid family leave. So when I had my baby, I just stopped working.
But in the first month or so of his life, our sweet little boy did do a lot of sleeping. At first I used that time to heal. To host visiting relatives. To send our birth announcements, write thank you cards, and finish setting up the nursery. When all that was done, I thought surely (with all this “free” time) I could go back to work. Right?
Wrong. The baby developed a milk allergy that made him constantly fussy and often unable to sleep anywhere but on us. We had no family nearby to help, and I soon had a sleep-deprived meltdown so extreme, I was convinced I’d suddenly developed postpartum depression.
I compared myself to friends whose husbands went back to work shortly after their babies were born. My husband was actually starting a new career and home every day. We were sharing the parenting responsibilities 50-50, so I felt like a complete failure when I couldn’t handle a part-time work schedule.
A dear friend helped me see that I needed to give myself more time to adjust to my new circumstances. I committed to spending a full three months or more focusing solely on caring for my child, to doing this one, very important thing that I loved—being a mother—before juggling it with the other, very important thing I loved—being a writer.
Now, on my unpaid maternity leave, I’m taking care of myself. I’m exercising to lose the extra weight still lingering on my frame from pregnancy. I joined a Mommy and Me class to meet other new mothers going through the same life change.
While on her unpaid “meternity” leave, Foye “grappled with self-doubt” while “away from the corporate world.” She also grieved the loss of her father who had recently died.
I can recognize that that experience—losing a life that was special and important to her—was as profound and shocking as my experience of bringing a new life into the world. But I’m not comparing myself to Foye, just as I realized it was a mistake to compare myself to other mothers. I don’t want to compete with anyone to see whose life is more challenging.
And that’s what’s missing from Foye’s “meternity” theory: empathy and, frankly, a healthy dose of maturity.
She says, “There’s something about saying ‘I need to go pick up my child’ as a reason to leave the office on time that has far more gravitas than, say, ‘My best friend just got ghosted by her OkCupid date and needs a margarita’ — but both sides are valid.” Actually, both sides are not equally valid. Keeping a small, helpless human being alive, nurturing his mental and emotional well-being, fostering his education, and generally trying to mold him into a future contributing member of society is actually a better excuse to leave work than your friend’s failed online date. (And I say that as someone who used to have a lot of failed online dates.)
It surely never occurred to Foye that many of those same colleagues went home, threw together dinner, tended to said children, and then fired up their laptops so they could prove their professional commitments alongside people like her, whose focus wasn’t split. It also probably never occurred to her how many people would have killed for the job she had, deadlines and all.
Foye was so busy keeping tabs on fellow magazine staff, convinced that they expected her to “stay behind to pick up the slack,” and so focused on her friends’ maternity leaves, convinced that they were becoming “much more sure of themselves” rather than becoming much more tired and covered in baby vomit, she failed to realize a simple truth:
It’s hard being a grown-up. For everyone.