To leave or not to leave? There has been much recent focus around paid parental leave, the most recent of which is regarding Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook offers employees, regardless of gender or birthing method, four months of paid parental leave and Zuckerberg himself is taking two months of leave to be with his new baby daughter.
Often, however, the focus in the media has been on the implications for the corporation, or how coworkers view those who leave, with less emphasis on the emotional aspect of taking a parental leave or not taking a parental leave, or the impact on a partner or spouse.
Many parents have a deep desire to have time with their newborns. More recently we have finally brought into the light that many fathers want the same opportunity to be with their children. For years women in the United States have been taking maternity leave, most often without pay, yet even taking this more traditional leave is not necessarily an easy decision to make.
There are a myriad of feelings experienced by parents considering parental leave, whether that be considering taking leave at all or trying to determine the length of leave. We may experience fear, anxiety, loss, anger, frustration or sadness. Making this decision isn’t as simple or straightforward as writing up pros and cons, and can stir up much internal conflict, as there are many emotional, social, familial, and financial aspects to the decision.
Many parents fear that if they do take leave, then their careers may be affected, especially if coworkers and bosses are not supportive. Even when coworkers and bosses are supportive, we parents often feel a sense of guilt in leaving our responsibilities to another person. We may even believe that we are the only one who can handle the role.
But we moms and dads also start to think about the effects on our children if we don’t take a leave, knowing that we will miss a profound bonding experience, an amazing experience which cannot be replicated. Guilt may also be evident if we begin to think that we are de-prioritizing our baby or our family and denying our own need to be close to the new child.
Having a child and contemplating leave may also bring to the forefront ideas and dreams that you’ve had for many years. Many people take this time as the signal to embark upon a new phase in their lives, from opening up a business of your own, becoming a consultant in your current field, or simply exploring flexible hours at your current company.
And while these may be exciting, new fears and anxieties may also surface here, like “what will we do without the salary that I currently bring home?” or “what if the business fails” or “I’m not sure how to get started”. All of these thoughts and fears are entirely normal and a part of the process.
Tuning in to your own needs:
All parts of us need to be part of the decision-making process: our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. In order to make a decision based on you, and not on the opinions of others, it can help to ask yourself these questions: What do I need? What does my baby need? What does my spouse need?
If you say to yourself “I want to take off two months”, notice whether you feel dread or excitement. How does that idea feel within your body? Close your eyes and notice if your heartbeat is speeding up, have you momentarily stopped breathing or does your body suddenly feel completely relaxed? What happens for you may be a clue to what feels right within yourself. Would it feel better to give yourself longer, or to perhaps not take any leave at all? (You can ask the question again with a different statement like: “I want to take off six months”.) Ponder whether the statement is really what you want, or is it simply too scary to contemplate the potential loss of income?
Setting boundaries is another part of learning to listen to your own needs. Though others may try to be helpful, questions and comments from others may spur a sense of guilt over your decision. Whether the helpful include bosses, coworkers, friends, or grandparents, simply let them know that you appreciate their concern and that you would like to make your own decision (together with a spouse or partner).
Asking with Authority:
Once you and your partner have decided what it is that you want – whether that be three months off, six months off, or a year of flex time, only then have a conversation with your boss or company. While much of your decision may depend on whether the leave is paid or not, you never know what sort of flexibility is available until it is asked for. And, by law, your boss cannot ask you if you plan to return from your maternity leave (though many still do!). As Susan Lucas of CBS’ Moneywatch says on this topic, “You are under no legal obligation to tell your boss whether or not you are coming back after the baby.”
While on Leave:
Many parents, both men and women, experience a loss of identity connected to one’s career. This isn’t always negative, but it’s definitely an adjustment phase. You might start to see yourself in a different role, and this identity shift to being “merely” a mother or father, without the responsibilities of the current job role, can be difficult.
If you are an entrepreneur or have chosen unpaid leave, this may be especially hard, as not having an income (whether as a mother or a father) is difficult in our culture, where success is often measured as income. Often, too, there is an adjustment period with a spouse as each person determines their new role and gets comfortable valuing their own contribution.
As you tune in to your feelings, you may find that you struggle with your own sense of value. Many of us have self-identified with our career for so long that taking a break from it seems strange and surreal, as if we are no longer important to others. To overcome this sense of loss, it’s important to become aware of this feeling or thought, and then to tell ourselves that this thought has no power over us, and that we can allow it to be let go. Simply acknowledging and letting go are very powerful tools.
If the decision-making process is overwhelming, or if you feel as if you are unable to communicate what you really want to either your company or your partner, you may consider speaking with a trained and licensed therapist. At Nassau Guidance and Counseling, we counsel many individuals, couples and families facing these tough life choices. We work with you to discover the emotional tools and communication skills necessary to handle the beautiful world of birth, both before the baby is born and afterwards.