My daughter dragged my lofty Feminist principles down to earth.
The cold slap of reality came with a note from her 2nd grade teacher. Just over a month into the school year she was announcing that she's pregnant and will be going on leave around her due date in February. Presumably, she'll be out until May.
Now, my first reaction was a very human one. Good for her -- there certainly was nothing as rewarding in my life as being a mother. And who does not love newborns?
My second reaction was equally -- but less proudly -- human. My daughter will have to adjust to a new teacher midway through the year.
This is a girl who's already pretty shy. She's very bright and genuinely wants to follow rules and be a good kid. That tendency to follow rules and do what's expected leads her to identify strongly with the authority figures in front of her. To suddenly displace this figure and swap in a stranger for three months would be a pretty violent blow to her sense of world order.
The timing isn't ideal either. Second grade is where the educational rubber begins to hit the road. Math commands a significantly greater share of classroom time than previous years. Reading skills are assumed and developed. The unofficial but unavoidable labeling known as Tracking, by teachers, fellow students and self-creating individuals alike, begins to form. And, lest we forget, the very official and equally unavoidable standardized tests begin at this stage to lock students into the academic trajectories that will propel them through the rest of their lives. These are not stakes to be trifled with.
Maternity leave, however, is sacrosanct. My own was crucial. When this same daughter and her twin sister were born ten weeks premature, my leave at the time allowed me to spend eight weeks at her side in the hospital NICU and then another two months bonding at home.
After giving birth to her younger sister February of this year, I took full advantage of my law firm's three months full pay and one half pay, and tacked on another, painfully unpaid, month. That leave gave me the chance to exclusively breast feed my new baby, a relationship I have been able to continue while working because of our strong start. Breastfeeding was something my first daughter was too underdeveloped at birth to ever really get the hang of.
Women need this time. Infants do too. I look with envy at some of the countries that realize this while we in the U.S. lag. In Sweden parents split 480 days of paid leave at 80% salary between birth and the child's eighth birthday. Our Nordic friends manage this while reaching a 5.5% GDP Growth rate in 2010, nearly doubling the 2.9% registered by the U.S. in the same year. Their economy is a fraction the size of ours, but clearly, valuing family during that period of a child's development isn't devastating their bottom line.
The United States is, after all, one of only three nations in the developed world with policies that exclude paid maternity leave. (We are in the company of Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.) My daughter's teacher's leave will be unpaid.
So after reading the note I asked my daughter, "Are you excited that your teacher is having a baby?"
The gloom settled immediately onto my little girl's face. She looked away, mumbling that she didn't want to talk about it. Further pressing went nowhere. Appeals to her 6 year old commitment to forward leaning public policy, I feared, would be fruitless.
How can I tell her that it's good that her teacher will be gone for three months? How can I tell myself it won't make a difference at all to her education? Can anyone truly reconcile the human cost of political ideals?
This is where I have to begin: in all likelihood, everything will be fine. Beginning one day this winter the kids in my daughter's class will have to learn math from someone else for a while. Maybe the kids can all write letters to the new baby and do art projects and this can be a thread that pulls together the many chunks of learning that might otherwise fall away. Maybe. But even if it's not, it's still the right thing. Call it Adam Smith's Invisible Hand or the Golden Rule, I want the same right to those critical first few months after childbirth and so I will defend that right for others. The benefit is worth the cost.
My daughter may have to study harder this winter to make up for the disruption to her classroom routine. That's not a bad thing. The broader lesson is better yet. I don't want her to suffer in any way. But I'd be happy if, by getting pulled between grounded reality and high ideals, she managed to grow.