On my first day of leave I took a nap, took a prenatal yoga class (my first of this pregnancy), and took another nap.
On my second day of leave, I did the Sunday crossword puzzle (because really, who can do the Sunday crossword on Sunday when you have a four-year-old jumping all over the sofa you’re attempting to recline on?), ordered swaddling blankets and nursing paraphernalia online, and napped for the entirety of the afternoon.
On my third day of leave, I went to the doctor, fed my iron deficiency with an old school diner cheeseburger, and again, napped for the rest of the afternoon.
It’s anyone’s guess what today may hold. The world is my oyster, and it’s just the right shape for sleeping. I have that long, long list of all the things I’m really supposed to be taking care of before baby comes, but somehow the simple act of submitting my leave paperwork has lifted my anxiety like a magic elixir of relaxation, as if the sudden removal of my fifty hour work from home week has created a wormhole in my life where time is infinite, immeasurable.
This feeling may be related to the near constant dream state I seem to have entered with these long naps and slow mornings. Or the feeling could be the result of the other side effect of going on leave, which is the surprising and near complete cessation of my contractions – all last week labor felt imminent; now it feels eons away.
The past few days represent (by a margin wider than a Cadillac) the longest I have gone without working since I started my new(ish) job nearly two years ago. This is despite vacations, despite sick days, despite long weekends. And while I feel out of sorts and more than a little guilty, I also recognize that I am already a completely different person than I was last Friday. The sleep helps, yes, but in the absence of constant stress I can recognize now the very real physical impact of every mildly snarky email, every minor political intrigue, every reminder of yet another task not yet completed. My breathing has shifted, my brow has softened, my back pain has decreased. And most importantly, because this is maternity leave we’re talking about, my baby has finally settled down.
But because this is maternity leave we’re talking about, there is guilt. In yet another manifestation of institutionalized sexism, pregnancy and maternity leave are grouped under the broad category of DISABILITY. This means that the state is paying about half of my salary, and I’m making up for the rest of it through the sick and vacation time I’ve saved up at work. And because the state is involved, it’s an all or nothing deal – I’m either working, or I’m disabled. And right now, technically speaking, the state considers me to be disabled.
Last week, while working through contractions, anxiety, and exhaustion, I almost bought into the disability argument. I had reached a point where I really, truly could not work anymore, and so out on disability I went. But after a few days of intense rest, I’m feeling almost human again and wondering whether I made the right decision by signing my name on the dotted line. Were those few delicious (and clearly necessary) naps really a strong enough rationale for leaving my staff and colleagues in an understaffed lurch? Am I really unable to contribute to society to the point of requiring state-funded assistance? Am I committing career suicide by not waiting until labor begins to formally stop working?
Clearly, I am not disabled. I am, however, at a point in my pregnancy where I could go into labor at any time. I am also at a point in my pregnancy where a couple more weeks or even a few more days could mean a healthier baby. A healthier baby could mean a healthier adult. And a healthier adult, ultimately, means a healthier society. So maybe the problem is not in my decision to start my leave this week, but instead the problem is simply one of branding: I am not in the midst of a disability. I am, however, exchanging my commitment to serve the greater good through my professional work with a commitment to serve the greater good through nurturing a new human being into existence.
Paid family leave is a topic that keeps coming up in the context of the presidential election cycle here in the States. It’s an embarrassment, of course, that for all our talk of progress and freedom and supreme standing in the world, we are dead last in providing social services that are the norm in other industrialized nations. But maybe, just maybe, once we sort out whether or not women should be supported in their desire to contribute to society in both the professional and a procreational realms, we can actually start looking at how to approach finding balance between these two roles.
Not calling us disabled may be a good place to start.