It’s almost time: I’m about to “go on maternity leave.” Except I’m not “going” anywhere. I’m not “leaving” anything. My work, rather, is leaving me, at my own request. Essentially, I am becoming voluntarily unemployed for several weeks, hoping that when I’m ready, the work will return, like a boomerang I’ve never thrown before. It’s supposed to return. There’s no reason to suspect it won’t. But that’s assuming I executed the throw correctly. On my first try.
I don’t actually feel the level of trepidation I’ve just implied. Honestly, I think it’s going to work out just fine–or at least as fine as every other American woman’s maternity leave, and certainly far better than most American men’s paternity leave experiences. Because as gingerly as people ask me how I’m going to “handle” my maternity leave as a freelancer, it’s not any less sensitive of a topic than it is when any working woman is asked how long she’s going to take off. The question is loaded: If your answer includes too many weeks or months, you’re obviously not a dedicated professional. If you’re not taking enough time off, you’re obviously going to be a terrible parent. Unfortunately for men, the former judgement is even harsher; unfortunately for their families, the latter judgement hardly even exists.
My very optimistic point here is that parental leave is effed up and complicated for everyone in this country. In every other country–literally, the entirety of the developed world except the United States–parenthood doesn’t come with the unnecessary ethical hurdle of having to quantify your dedication to either your career or family in the form of how many weeks you’ll be taking off after the birth of a child. When every parent is legally entitled to a certain number of paid weeks off, everyone takes that time. No one is judged for it. Wouldn’t that be nice?
I sat down to write about how I’m planning to structure my maternity leave. Before I figured out a plan, I’d searched the internet for how other freelancers had handled their parental leave and found very little in the way of helpful information. So I thought sharing would be helpful. And then that concern about the judgment appeared. What happens when people think I’m not taking enough time off? What happens when I’m judged for taking too much time away from work? And how much of my decision making, by the way, did I base around those same concerns? How much have I judged myself into the choices I’ve made?
Well, screw it. I’m taking a slightly different amount of time off with each client, anywhere from a few weeks to more than a month. This is based on how much each one relies on me, how I anticipate each type of task will fit into early parenthood and how long I can afford to be away from each one. I reached out to each client in early January to work out the details, including how my work would be completed in my absence. Thankfully, it turns out many of my clients are parents themselves and were happy to accommodate.
But they don’t have to. Given the nature of freelance work, they don’t even really need to stick to the plans we’ve developed. Maybe I’ll have to seek out some new work on the other end of this; I don’t know. But I do know that this concern is not necessarily better or worse than those every parent has when taking time away. Will my client/boss/co-workers treat me differently when I return? Will my opportunities be the same? Will I be able to sustain the same amount of work and/or sufficiently prove my dedication to my client/boss/co-workers?
There’s really no way to know. Thanks to the lack of any legal standards or protections, not to mention the cultural pressures we continue to pile onto our employees, co-workers and every parent-to-be we gingerly ask, “So how much time are you going to take away?”, each of us are on our own, throwing a boomerang we’ve never used before into the wind, just hoping it returns to us in tact.