An op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by a 17-year-old Jewish high school student brought up some suppressed memories. This was not only because she wrote about the issue of paid maternity leave, but also the fact that she goes to a New York Jewish day school at which I once worked — and where I was treated badly because I asked for that benefit.
Emma Goldberg (the daughter of Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg and Advancing Women Professionals’ founding President Shifra Bronznick) wrote that she was surprised and worried to see her teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School return to work only four weeks after having given birth. Apparently, the teacher, like many other women, could not afford to go without a salary for more than a month. Consequently, she spoke with the school’s administration about its maternity leave policy, did a lot of research on the topic, and wrote a strong piece calling for longer paid maternity leaves in all workplaces.
As much as it heartening to see a Jewish teenager so aware and so activist on this issue, it is also disheartening to see that nothing has changed in the close to 20 years since I was a young woman trying to concurrently build a career and a family. At least Goldberg, as a high school senior, is already aware of the uphill battle working mothers face and knows where she might be able to seek help or support when she herself reaches the point at which she needs to take maternity leave. In this regard, she is in a better place than I was when I was in my late 20s.
Back in the spring of 1996, I lost a job at Heschel because I was pregnant. I had been invited to return to the school for the 1996-97 academic year, and the head of school had met with me to discuss which classes I would teach. Being early in my pregnancy with my second child and having not yet announced it, I saw no need to tell the head of school. (I had learned my lesson about prematurely announcing a pregnancy after I had suffered a miscarriage a couple of years prior.) I was also vaguely aware of the fact that according to the law, a woman could not be fired or let go for being pregnant.
When a few weeks later I had reached the end of my first trimester and my husband and I felt comfortable about telling people about the pregnancy, I told the head of school and also mentioned that I would need some maternity leave in the early fall once the baby was born. Not long after that, the head of school informed me that my teaching services were no longer needed for the upcoming year. She also had some unkind words about my having initially withheld the news of my pregnancy from her.
I was devastated, but decided not to sue. I was fortunate to have quickly found another, better job and a supportive new boss who was happy to grant me maternity leave. I was feeling overwhelmed and wanted to focus on my new professional responsibilities, raising my 1-year-old son, and preparing for the arrival of our new baby.
When several years later I found myself at once expecting another baby to be born during the fall and being offered a big new job at Park Avenue Synagogue, I did the smart thing and consulted a highly respected labor lawyer. She guided me in my contract negotiations with the congregation to ensure that my rights would be protected. When, after the ink had dried, I revealed to the synagogue’s chairman that I was pregnant, he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the timing of my maternity leave, but he realized that he had no choice but to support me (and as it turns out, we went on to develop a positive working relationship). Having been badly burned once, I was more interested in protecting myself than in making nice with others.
I was fortunate to have secured paid maternity leave. But it was only for six weeks. In fact, I have never had more than six weeks maternity leave after the birth of any of my three children, and I think that in many ways I am paying for it now (just as Goldberg writes that she is worried for her teacher’s wellbeing). Goldberg writes about how so few working mothers in the U.S. receive any paid maternity leave, and about how not all women are entitled to the 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. That makes for a whole lot of exhausted — even burned out — moms like me. You can only keep up the supermom act for so long.
As a Canadian whose female relatives back home have all enjoyed year-long paid maternity leaves, it has been tough. Certain experiences stay with you, even if you try to put them behind you. I have thankfully moved on in life and in my career. With my eldest son getting ready to go off to college next year, I am closer now to my future daughters-in-law’s maternity leaves (or my sons’ paternity leaves) than to my own.
It’s just that I would have thought that by now I wouldn’t have to worry that my children would face the same obstacles that I did. The only way they won’t is if policymakers and employers heed Goldberg’s plea to them to make “the right [choices], so that my classmates and I won’t be choosing between work and health five years down the line.”