5 Thoughts on “Having it All”: A look at 20 years after the Family Medical Leave Act

I was 17 when the Family Medical Leave Act passed.  Newly graduated from high school, heading off to college, I had a plan. The pieces of the plan later fell into place much like I envisioned when I was a doe-eyed high school graduate, just as so many girls in the 80s and 90s believed these similar things would and should and could happen:  college, career, graduate school, marriage, career, baby, career, happiness, success, memories.  We didn’t just think they would and could happen, we were told it was all possible.

The narrative of this story hasn’t unfolded how I thought it would, however. Let’s review:

Education – check.

Marriage – check.

Healthy babies – check.

Don’t I have it all?

Well, it depends. The fairy tale got convoluted because though we are a nation that prides itself on the rights of women and girls, a nation where “family values” is a favorite buzz-word for politicians, where we’ve recently seen two women attempt to run for the highest and second highest office in the land and where our health leaders preach the importance of breast is best for baby, it turns out maybe we are just really good at rhetoric.

See, we love breasts during the Super Bowl. Breasts are best in movies.

But breasts need not disrupt business hours. Nurse your baby exclusively, don’t you dare expect to get formula after you’ve delivered a baby in New York City but get your ass back to work and don’t complain that we aren’t paying you while your vagina heals from child birth — this is what our actions say to new mothers.

Turns out, once you start personally experiencing what it’s like to have a baby in this country and then try to manage that baby with a career, using the right words is meaningless when the actions that muddy our personal narrative do nothing to support the words. No one says that when they tell an American teenage girl the sky is the limit and she is just as good as a boy.  In my own personal experience, I was lucky to have some paid maternity leave but it was the return to work and the inflexible employer towards the demands of babies on time during business hours that ultimately fed my departure.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post , in a piece about the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, profiled one Montgomery County woman who lost her job after she had an emergency C-section, a hysterectomy and then tended to her newborn in the intensive care unit for one month.  Pretty sure, when she was growing up,  no one told that local mom how easy it would be for a woman to get fired because she got pregnant, had a medical emergency and took care of her baby.  The reality is, millions of people in this country are impacted by our weak and pathetic system in place to support families, and somehow we keep electing the very people who do nothing about it.

Back to the same old question, the one that few of us were prepared for when we imagined our fairy-tale future: How can we possibly “have it all” when we don’t have laws to protect us and support us?

Clearly, I am reluctant to call the Family Medical Leave Act progress. Exactly what is “progress” about being one of three countries that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave?  And what else has changed legislatively since its implementation 20 years ago? What I can do is offer five perspectives on navigating your way to “having it all”:

1. Beware the seduction of “having it all.”

For she is but a temptress fed by the media. Talking about her makes for excellent web site traffic because just the phrase incites confusion and anger in most parents.  The trouble is, the overly-simplistic idea of “having it all” suggests there is an “all” – and more importantly, that the “all” is a universal “all.” Here’s the truth: what works for you probably doesn’t work for me. What you need to feel fulfilled is different than your best friend. Just as the way we all parent varies. Rather than seeking “it all,” I think we would all benefit from focusing exclusively on what works for ourselves, our partners and our children. What do each of them need from us and what do we need? How can we achieve what we want professionally and personally and feel proud?  Do you have the courage to ask for what you need at work and do you have the courage to be honest with yourself and then see it through? This ties nicely into topic #2.

2. Screw balance and instead find your boundaries.

First, no one ever feels balanced once they have a baby, unless you think extra weight, less sleep, odd fitting shoes and being chronically late conjures of feelings of balance and peace. Let’s divert the conversation from balance and instead focus on boundaries.  We make choices in work, at home, in social planning, in registering our kids for classes, in agreeing to take on school auction projects, and so on. The list of options is endless. Each choice has a consequence. Just be realistic about the trade-offs of your choices. Use your voice to confidently carve out boundaries that fulfill what you and your children need – not what you think others want from you. Someone always wants something. Only you can decide what and how much they get. This includes children. Own it and don’t apologize for the choices you make as long as you make them honestly and realistically.

3. Don’t covet thy neighbor’s situation. Otherwise known as “grass is greener” syndrome.

See that stay-at-home mom in her yoga pants picking up the paper at the end of the driveway while you’re tearing down the street worrying about getting to work on time and fretting because you’re leaving your baby for nine hours? Wow, don’t you wish you had her life?

Beware these thoughts.  As someone who has been a full-time working mom, a stay-at-home mom, a part-time working mom and a mis-mash of full and part-time from home, beyond being erratic in my own decisions, I can tell you — there are many days when that asshole boss couldn’t hold her own against that asshole boss who is 18 months old. Here’s the hard cold truth: The grass is always greener when you aren’t at peace with the choices you’ve made in your own life. Figure out what’s stirring those feelings and you’ll avoid the unnecessary judgment and idealistic vision of what you perceive someone else to have.

4. Know your tribe. Proactively help them.

Enter the importance of a community and the recognition that other parents are your tribe not your enemy or your competition. Hear about a mom in your neighborhood who just had a baby? Did you bring her dinner? See an email about a kid in class who has a sick parent or a traveling parent or a sick sibling? Did you invite that child over for a play date to give those parents a break? See that new mom struggling with her work schedule as she’s transitioning back to work after having a baby? Did you go talk to her and offer to help and just ask her how she’s doing? Pay it forward because the catch with parenting is this: You never get warning when you’re going to need others. And need others you will. We all do. It’s Murphy’s law for parenting that children all come down with the norovirus when you have a traveling partner and a major deadline at work.  Going out of your way to support the parents around you, even though you probably don’t have the extra time or energy, will return itself in the future. You just don’t know it yet. Part of having it all comes from supporting each other.

5. Don’t forget Dad.

Unless you married a lazy asshole, and hopefully you didn’t, don’t forget about Dad. He cares about his baby too. He wants to know how to take care of her without a note from you and guess what – he gets to do it his way – which will always be different from your way in some form. Make sure he knows the pediatrician’s phone number, where the baby Tylenol is stored and what the nap schedule is. Let him volunteer in the preschool classroom, handle pick up and register Johnny for a few classes. Dad’s role is critical and when mothers take all of it on, it becomes that much more difficult for her to ever have it all because she’s so busy doing it all, usually not too happily.  Not to mention, until more dads speak up and demand workplace flexibility, our cultural attitude towards working hours won’t change.  Babies and children have needs during the business day, so expect him to share in being available during business hours like you are expected to be when things arise. Odds are, he wants to be but we are still a culture that defers to mom.  Be mindful about your role in enabling this and then changing it.

The question I am left wondering is, twenty years from now, when my girls are 24 and 27, will we have made some actual progress? Join me on Facebook to keep up with this conversation and other fun.

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