Meghann Foye used to joke that she wished she could “clock out” and go on maternity leave. Then, she went a step further, and wrote a novel called Meternity about a woman who fakes a pregnancy so that she could do just that. She told the New York Post recently how she thinks single, child-free women deserve to take a leave, as well.
And then, every parent’s head exploded. Even my relatively tame Facebook world of smart, levelheaded folks had near-apoplectic fits.
Now, I want you to try to open yourself up to the possibility that this isn't an idea that you need to waste time being upset about. Let me try to explain why: Everyone, including Meghann Foye, knows that maternity leave is not a vacation. It’s not a sabbatical. It’s not even any fun. It is a messy, sticky, painful, emotionally torturous, sleepless ordeal that, were it not for the sheer beauty and joy of the baby itself, would be an unspeakable thing to do to a person.
Foye knows that a comparison between maternity leave and a vacation is going to raise hackles. She's aiming to be incendiary. It's a way to drum up interest in her book. Free publicity, if you will.
But if we respond by undermining Foye's perspective, we're doing more to reinforce gender discrimination than to diminish it. Just as women are gaining more power and influence than ever (hello, Hillary), we are being goaded into a constant girl fight. If we let it, it will distract us, blind us with rage, and divide us as women. Quite frankly, we cannot afford to let happen.
So, no. Child-free women don’t actually think your maternity leave is a three-month-long sleepover. As a child-free woman, I respect and healthy fear of motherhood.
I look at a mom running on three hours of sleep, pushing one kid down the street and pulling another by the hand, and I think, there but for grace of God go I. I am under no illusions. I don’t see the myriad responsibilities of being a new mother as a “perk”—and I don’t know one woman who does.
So, take a moment to consider that this movement may not have anything to do with motherhood at all. In my opinion, the push for paid leave is about single, child-free women trying to figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do now.
I'm not anti-mother. I'm just child-free.
Whether by chance or by choice, more and more women are not pursuing the path of the nuclear family. Time magazine reported in 2014 that 49.6 percent of women between 25 and 29 and 28.9 percent of women between 30 and 34 were child-free.
Women can do whatever they want today—marry or not, have kids or not—with few negative societal repercussions. But some elements of our culture and practices have not caught up with our choices. So the lives of unmarried, child-free women are missing predictable plot points. We are trying to understand what our lives should look like in this new era.
The maternity issue springs not from a “Wahh! I want what she has!” sentiment but from this vulnerable admission on Foye's part (which most people missed because they were busy setting their hair on fire):
“... as I watched my friends take their real maternity leaves, I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves. One friend made the decision to leave her corporate career to create her own business; another decided to switch industries. From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of them shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.”
This is a nod to motherhood, not for its “sweet perks” but for the fact that the sheer gravity of having a child, a life more important than their own to tend to, gives women perspective that they may have lacked. It's also one of the only things that gives women the permission to make anything more important than their job, their title, their work.
Foye isn’t advocating some three-month vacay, for the sake of paid time off. Instead, she wants people to recognize that women don't have to be mothers to be more than our jobs. She, and many others, are asking, When do I get that chance to define myself outside of my work—especially if I don’t have a child? And how do I do that? Our culture still sees women primarily as caregivers, wives, mothers—but for the many millions of women who are not, they can feel at sea.
So, what do you do when you’re figuring something out? You try different things. Remember when single women said, Hey, why don’t I get a gift registry? (Yes, Carrie Bradshaw.) And that time a woman from Fargo, N.D., married herself? She wasn’t the first or the last.
I think it’s a dumb idea to marry yourself, but I get why she feels the need to do it. Single women want to commemorate their lives, their independence. Ironically, because there's no structure for this kind of lifestyle, they end up borrowing from the very same institutions that, by design, exclude them.
And so single women are doing what, by the way, every major religion has done—tried on another, older religion’s holidays and holiness for size (Jesus wasn’t really born in December, you know).
Let’s remember this: We are women first. We are more than the choices we make, whether we end up loving or regretting them (and, in most cases, a little of both). There is no one lifestyle or life that is worth more than someone else’s.
To my single, child-free friends: The beauty of defining a new normal is that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do or be, and that’s OK. The flip side of freedom can be a little aimlessness. That doesn’t mean for a moment that your life has no purpose. But it doesn’t help to begrudge the gains women have made, even if their lives look different from yours. We need to create meaning for ourselves.
This means not apologizing for your own obligations or your life, or worrying they’re not as “important” as a mother’s. Too many single women stay later than they should because they fear their lives alone aren’t worth advocating for, that their boundaries aren’t as vital and thus, not as secure. This couldn’t be more untrue.
Stop waiting for the world to give you permission. Your life is enough; you are enough. Until you treat your own life with the respect it deserves, how can you expect anyone else to?
And to my fierce mommy friends: We don’t know how you do what you do, and many of us are not sure we ever really want to know. We envy the unassailable strength of your boundaries, and we respect it. We want some of that strength for ourselves. We need your compassion, too.
Do not, I repeat, do not let the ignorance of agitators trick us into attacking each other, squabbling over who has it worse. Mothers and single women are what make families and communities work. We need each other. There is no winner in the mommy wars.
As long as we compete for who has it the hardest, it’ll be a race to the bottom, instead of a drive to empower each other to make the choices that support us all. We deserve to be proud that we've gotten to a point where the major decisions in our lives are, in fact, ours to make.