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Morra Aarons-Mele Headshot

Maternity Leave, Unplugged

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In my work world, a day out of the social media spin cycle leaves one feeling out of touch; how to manage two months? Sitting here waiting for a baby who doesn't seem to want to come and feeling very antsy being off work... I'm staring down the face of maternity leave. The process of checking out for a couple months is making me feel vulnerable. I feel like I'm going to be left out of the party and everyone will keep surging ahead.

I did not feel this way with my first baby; I checked out happily and didn't even open my laptop for three weeks. It's two years later now and such a leave feels like fantasy. Is it the result of the vulnerable economy, an even increased dependence on social media and 24-7 connection, or just growing older and wearing the responsibilities of breadwinning on my shoulders?

Is this how men feel when they think about whether to take paternity leave (only 7 percent of U.S. dads get any paid paternity leave)?

Is my anxiety about shutting out work for maternity leave another crappy unintended consequence of edging towards workplace equality?

The 2009 U.S. birth rate was the lowest in a century, a fact many attribute to the continued recession. In almost two-thirds of families, women are either the primary or equal breadwinner. The truth is, being a new mother is still a totally immersive experience, but maternity leave is no longer by fiat a work-free zone. Anxieties are higher. Boundaries have shifted, and as they have for all other previously sacred family times. Like an evening free of the late night work check-in, a checked out maternity leave may be a thing of the past.

I asked several successful working mothers how they'd approached their leaves.

One said,

"I'm headed back full time on Monday. When the baby came I was so ready to stop working for awhile. But there was a reorganization going on at work and I felt very insecure being out entirely. I was back on email by about four weeks and back to work at eight weeks. I think I felt like I'd get lost, left behind, overlooked if I was out too long. In retrospect that was probably a little silly [but]... I'm excited to go back full time to relieve that whole set of angst plus meaningfully engage in my work again rather than just barely triaging."

Leanne Chase, five years on from leave said:

"I think the hardest part of maternity leave for me was that I had been tied to my career from the age of 22 to 37 and it was the first time since I was 16 years old that I was not working... [I] found it most hard when I was on leave -- in fact much to my HR person's dismay I would check in and check email... she pointedly told me to stop."

Another colleague said, "The thought of being disconnected for several weeks actually puts a knot in my stomach. I see this as a negative quality that I have, although much more benign than other addictions. I'd personally like to take a deep breath and get back to basics, like immersing myself in my family life. "

Moms a few years out from having kids have a more sanguine perspective on checking out, though.

Wendy Sachs told me,

"After having my babies -- each time, I felt a constant churning. Yes, I was thrilled with new babyhood, but I was restless... I also felt angst-ridden that I was stalling my career and that because I had taken myself out of the workforce (I didn't have a real job when my second one was born, I was writing a book) I worried that I may never get a job again. Even the adage, "enjoy your babies, they grow up so quickly" was hard to do. Looking back, you realize that life is long, careers can zig zag and the cliché is true, your babies are only babies once."

Whitney Johnson, president of Boston-based investment firm Rose Park Advisors noted,

"On my second maternity leave, I didn't disconnect as I had on my first. It was crunch time at work and try though I might to time my pregnancy so that it wasn't during crunch time (one of life's little reminders that I'm not always in charge), and so I re-connected. It was a mistake... And so post-partum depression ensued. I got through it. But my advice: Disconnect from work so you can reconnect with yourself and with your children. You will feel vulnerable. But you will also be OK. And when you come back you will be more yourself than ever."

I'm using this little mantra with myself: unplugged time is an endangered species. It will never roar back, try as some might. If maternity leave is one of the last sanctioned times you're allowed to unplug completely, we need to fight to keep that time precious, even if it makes us feel vulnerable.

And men need to feel this tug, too. A recent Boston College study shows that while men's careers don't suffer the same as women's do when children arrive, nor do men get the space they need from employers to disconnect and recognize the huge, life-changing event that is a new baby. And that's the saddest of all.