In 2006 I was working for a Fortune 500 national retailer in their corporate marketing department, writing snappy headlines about the latest fashion trends. It was a fun job – one that, as a widowed mother of a three year-old daughter, I felt lucky to have. I enjoyed the work, the hours were comfortable and my salary was sufficient for the two of us.
Then I got remarried. Not long after, I became pregnant.
My new husband’s job required him to move across the country for a year of training. Anticipating that getting by on his academic salary alone would be a challenge; I began to look for work. I pictured myself trading in my corporate perks for an on-the-floor retail job that paid by the hour. Miraculously, my employer stepped up and offered me the opportunity to keep my current job as a copywriter and work remotely. Hurray!
I had been with the company just a few years; long enough to connect with other working mothers and overhear comments such as: “the maternity benefits kind of suck.” And yet, it didn’t seem to be holding anyone back from having babies. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, someone was pregnant. Maybe this had to do with the fact that the company’s employees are about 90% women.
Riding high on honeymoon bliss and pregnancy hormones, it wasn’t until my third trimester that I checked into the company’s maternity leave policy. Sure enough, the benefits were abysmal. Six weeks paid disability leave at 60% of the previous year’s salary (which, in my case was pretty low because I’d been working part-time as I struggled with the burden of being a widow and a single parent), and then there was an option to take an additional six weeks of unpaid leave. It barely met the basic conditions of my state’s Family Leave Act. But what was I supposed to do, suddenly become unpregnant just because I didn’t like the company’s benefit package?
I held on, thankful that working remotely saved me the hassle and expense of a fashionable maternity wardrobe. I didn’t even have to brush my hair if I didn’t want to. And sometimes, exhausted from my pregnancy and the demands of my daughter, I couldn’t even muster enough energy to take a shower. Think about that the next time you are tempted by some catchy online copy that makes you just have to have that designer purse you can’t really afford. The person who wrote it may not have bathed all week!
My son was born in the spring of 2007. Because I was defined as being of “advance maternal age” (I was 37 at the time), things were a little trickier in terms of complications as well as my own anxiety level. And, even though I didn’t feel old, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life. Disability was an accurate term for my maternity leave. I opted to keep my daughter in daycare, which took up nearly all of the disability payments. Still, given the choice, I would have done it all over again as I felt it was money well spent. She was happy and well taken care of at the Bright Horizons learning center near our apartment, and I was able to rest and recover. The six weeks passed quickly. I couldn’t imagine sending my newborn to daycare so soon, but I did. The staff helped me through the transition and because I was still working remotely, I continued to wear the same pair of sweat pants all week.
Splitting my maternity leave in two parts was an option, as long as it was within a year of my son’s birth. We moved back to the West Coast and I used an additional unpaid month to get settled and enroll the kids in a new daycare just a few blocks from my workplace. The time went quickly; there was so much to do and I hardly felt that I was spending quality time with either of my children. I thought, why couldn’t my leave be a full year like in those civilized European countries, instead of this hodge podge system of measly disability benefits that have to be taken within a year of my son’s birth?
Back at work full-time, things had shifted. The long-term project I’d been working on had suddenly been nixed and I was not enjoying my new work as much. In the designated onsite mother’s room where we lactating mothers went to pump during the day, I overheard grumbles about my daycare. The staff doesn’t pay attention to the kids. It’s not very clean. Did you see that one teacher outside smoking? You couldn’t PAY me to send my kids back there. I reasoned that it was temporary. I got on several waiting lists. I thought everything would be okay because I was just a few blocks away and I could run down and breastfeed during lunch. My daughter, however, was miserable. After a somewhat trying search, I found a terrific academically-oriented preschool near our home, but the hours were 9am – 1pm every day and then I had to secure a different program for her to attend in the afternoon. None of the “good” daycares had any room. The waitlists were years long. So my solution was to employ three different nannies (morning, early afternoon and evening) to transport her and care for her while I shuttled my son back and forth with me downtown.
I did the math. Two-thirds of my salary was going to childcare expenses. The rest was going to commuting, wardrobe and parking costs.
I pointed this out to HR during my exit interview. She was a fashionably dressed young woman in her early 20s who blinked at me like I was speaking a foreign language when I explained to her that I was leaving the company because they didn’t offer any childcare benefits or anything more than a lip service support for working mothers. “Write that down,” I pleaded. “I want this rant to go in my file! Please share my frustrations with your supervisor!”
Reluctantly, she agreed. “But you get the clothing discount!” she protested, as if the 20% deduction we got was worth every penny we spent on maintaining the right appearance to work there.
I sighed, picked up my coat and purse (purchased from a less expensive competing retailer) and headed for the door. The company doesn’t even offer a maternity department for their shoppers, let alone their employees.
The next day I changed my online profile to read “self employed” and wrote a catchy headline to promote my new business.