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Let’s Not Forget the Very Human Component of Maternity Leave

Gabriela Chambi


  • Maternity leave is not about women "sitting around"; it's a crucial time for physical healing, adapting to a new role, addressing mental health, and bonding with the child.
  • The article shares stories of new moms and their experiences during maternity leave, highlighting the challenges they faced, including physical recovery, sleep deprivation, and the importance of supportive workplaces.
  • Employers can support new moms by evaluating workplace culture, revising parental leave programs, and offering flexibility in work transitions before and after leave.
Let’s Not Forget the Very Human Component of Maternity Leave
Photo by Leah Kelley

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of buzz around maternity leave. The legal profession has been responding to one attorney’s attempt to describe maternity leave as a time in which women “sit on their a**” all day. Such assumptions about maternity leave have infuriated women across the country and across all professions, leading to discussions about what employers can do to be supportive of expecting moms and new parents. Personally, as a new mom and attorney, I was frustrated and disappointed that these assumptions persist. Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I wanted to take a stab at changing the narrative. This article is not an effort to address the blatantly incorrect and misogynistic assumptions of maternity leave; it is an effort to highlight the stories of newly minted moms who have recently given birth and used maternity leave to heal and bond with their children. Their stories matter—they remind us of the very delicate and human component of maternity leave that we so often choose to overlook. It is through these stories that employers can learn some lessons to better support their employees. While this article focuses on maternity leave only, it goes without saying that discussions around parental leave must continue so as to better support parents as they bring their children home.

Let’s Remember

Maternity leave is a time for moms to physically heal, to grow into a new role, to figure out all the kinks of breastfeeding (if the mother chooses to breastfeed) and nourishing their child, to adjust to a new lifestyle, to address any mental health issues that may arise, and so much more. This stage has been termed “matrescence,” which is described as the developmental process of becoming a mother. (See Grace Bastidas & Audrey Nguyen, “How to navigate matrescence—the ups and downs of new motherhood,” NPR, May 26, 2022.) When we think of maternity leave, a time ranging between three and five months (in the United States at least), it is important to recognize that matrescence is an ongoing process and is not “completed” during maternity leave. It is a process that, unfortunately, moms in the United States have to learn about, accept, grow, and figure out, all while going back to work. Given the lifelong changes that begin during this period of matrescence, it is extremely important that employers continuously look for ways to support their employees and improve their leave policies and work culture.

To encourage this discussion and highlight the need for improved maternity leave, I want to share my story and the stories of my new (and old) mom friends who have just returned to work. It is my hope that those reading this article will appreciate and understand the vulnerability and openness of these women in sharing their stories.

My Story—Exhausting, Difficult, and Magical

Maternity leave was probably the most exhausting, difficult, and magical time for me—from sleep deprivation beginning immediately after giving birth to figuring out how to heal both physically and mentally, all while transitioning into this new mom life. Although I was exhausted from physically recuperating, figuring out breastfeeding, learning to sleep in a rocking chair, working on feeding myself, and attempting to have a clean home, I am happy and excited to see my daughter healthy, smiling, and growing.

As for my maternity leave, I was a newly hired employee at my firm, and I was extremely nervous to disclose that I was expecting. But when I did, I was pleasantly surprised with the positive reaction and excitement around my news. While I was not eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the firm got creative and provided me with some options that I could take for my maternity leave. And in planning for my leave and my return, the firm took steps to plan and transition my projects and caseload with time.

Sarah’s Story—Battle in the Trenches (At Trial and Post-Partum)

My parental leave experience was divided into two phases, and the first was managing the very physical recovery from childbirth, extreme sleep deprivation, and serious postpartum complications. I was hospitalized for several days with postpartum preeclampsia when our daughter was only 11 days old, which was a terrifying experience. After my treatment, things got easier for everyone and we were able to spend time getting to know one another as a family.

Scheduling my leave was complicated by the fact that I was chief of staff for a team going to trial one month before my due date. Given the possibility that I would go into labor during trial, I had to scale down my responsibilities significantly several months in advance, and prepare an “understudy” for my trial roles. This required months of planning and additional work on the part of my managers and colleagues. Ultimately, I made it through trial, my daughter arrived safely a few weeks later, and we won our case—the best possible scenario.

—Sarah, first-time mom and trial attorney 

Alexia’s Story—Recovery

Caring for a newborn baby was and continues to be possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The sleep deprivation, physical toll on your body, and abrupt change to your routine are a lot. It’s also an amazing time and incredible to see your child grow and develop in those early months. I felt very lucky to have a supportive boss and paid leave in my state, so I didn’t have to worry about my leave or getting back to work. That has allowed me to take the time I needed to recover and return to work excited to be there. Every new parent deserves enough parental leave to recover and bond with their baby, without the stress of work hanging over them. Employers should encourage and support us when we prioritize our families and our health.

—Alexia, first-time mom and attorney in Washington

Amanda’s Story—In Need of an Advocate

I did not qualify for FMLA or D.C. FMLA, so my union advocated for my requested time off. Expecting parents (especially birthing parents) to return to work after a few weeks ignores biology and psychology, as well as a family’s evolving needs and circumstances after a child is born. 

—Amanda, first-time mom and attorney

Elizabeth’s Story—Support

[Maternity leave:] It is so lonely. You go from interacting everyday with adults to suddenly just your baby and your (equally stressed and exhausted) partner. I’ve never felt more alone than being up at 3 a.m. with a crying baby who won’t sleep. You go through a complete physical and emotional change into an entirely different person with a different identity. You’re now a parent. If you gave birth, your body has changed permanently. You return to the office as a different person with different priorities, for better or worse!

I was so fortunate to have amazing colleagues and a supportive boss. No one questioned my leave or that I was taking four months instead of three. As a result, work never was on my list of things to stress about, and my mind was free to focus entirely on keeping my baby and myself alive. It was a literal lifesaver.

—Elizabeth, first-time mom and attorney

Yasmin’s Story—Need for Leave Flexibility

Scheduling my maternity leave was a relatively quick and simple process as I was able to freely choose my dates and fill out several forms for HR to log. Although grateful for the 12 weeks of paid parental leave I received as a federal employee, I had a C-section, and the physical and mental load of (a) recovering from major surgery, (b) recovering from giving birth, and (c) transitioning to motherhood (all at the same time) was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. The workload at my job truly pales in comparison with the round-the-clock responsibility of caring for a newborn while healing and recovering after giving birth. In the case of a Caesarean delivery, it is perhaps the only instance that a post-op patient is expected to forgo sleep and her own recovery without any readily available support. And while it was easy for me to schedule leave, the lack of adequate support and resources for mothers in this country became apparent when I tried to extend my 12 weeks because I needed additional time to recover and take care of my baby. I was not allowed a special leave circumstance for this scenario, and I had to exhaust my personal leave balance and did not have flexibility to use other leave types. 

—Yasmin, first-time mom

Alana’s Story—Preparing for Leave

Parental leave is a sweet, yet incredibly challenging time. Your entire life is turned upside down. Not only are you sleep deprived and transitioning to life with a newborn, you are physically healing from childbirth and pregnancy. Scheduling my parental leave was quite easy in my career, although preparing for leave is laborious. Our HR department created a flexible leave schedule, but I had to create and leave lesson plans for the entirety of my leave.

—Alana, second-time mom and teacher


While we have all had different experiences, what is clear is that there is still more work to be done. Employers can play a key role here, and below I outline a few ideas and lessons to begin this discussion.

First, employers should evaluate their workplace culture. As the “Great Resignation” has shown, more and more individuals are looking to workplace culture and work environments and benefits when deciding whether a job is worth it. This won’t change with new moms, as moms are looking to have jobs where they are supported and where an employer understands that being a parent is not a 9–5 job and that motherhood goes beyond maternity leave. Second, employers should take a hard look at their parental leave programs and evaluate whether they are able to make changes. For example, rather than restricting their programs to what FMLA allows, employers can consider alternative leave programs that allow parents to extend leave for various reasons. Third, employers should be flexible and develop policies for transferring work or for work transitions prior to an employee taking leave (or both) and policies related to returning to work and how that workload will be transferred back to the returning employee.

These three takeaways, and the stories of these amazing women, remind us of the human component of maternity leave that we so often overlook. Now is the time to improve our workplaces for “soon to be” or re-new moms.