New mothers return to work sooner than ever

Celebrities don't come any younger or smaller than the twin daughters born last week to Jane Swift, acting governor of Massachusetts.

The arrival of Lauren and Sarah marks the first time a governor in the United States has given birth while in office. It also heralds the beginning of a statewide - make that nationwide - debate about maternity leave, an arrangement usually worked out quietly between a woman and her employer.

Even before the twins' birth, Gov. Swift moved her State House office, symbolically at least, to a hospital maternity ward when her doctor ordered bed rest. With the help of faxes and speakerphones, she maintained what aides called a "light schedule" of work.

That did not please one member of the Governor's Council, Edward O'Brien. He grumbled that just because the governor "happens to be a girl and happens to be pregnant," the state Constitution makes no provision for conducting a council meeting in absentia by speakerphone.

In recent decades, what could be called working pregnancies have become commonplace. More women are staying on the job for nine months, then dashing from the office to the delivery room.

Now a new phrase is entering the corporate lexicon: working maternity leave. Many new mothers like Swift feel increasing pressure to stay connected to work, beginning just days after giving birth.

"With the 24/7 economy, the demand for being on the job is significant," says Jane Bermont, senior consultant at WFD, a work-family consulting firm in Boston. "Any kind of leave creates difficulty, including vacation."

She sees "an erosion" in the idea that women on maternity leave "really can leave the office completely behind and stay completely focused on their personal lives." Technology, she adds, "helps people stay connected, but it also creates an intrusion" at home.

Despite all the brave talk in the past 20 years about "family-friendly" companies, progress in parental leave can sometimes be hard to track.

"We are moving toward a world where the boundaries between home life and work life are much more fluid," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Work and Families Institute in New York.

She adds, "We're having to figure out, each of us individually, and all of us in organizations, how to build new boundaries. Boundaries are necessary. We've seen that the people who don't take their vacations have a harder time" and feel overworked.

Just last week Ms. Galinsky's institute released a study, "Feeling Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much," confirming her point. Researchers found that one-fourth of all employees - 26 percent - do not take all of their vacation because of the demands of their jobs. Among that group, 55 percent experience high levels of feeling overworked, compared with just 27 percent who do take vacation time.

It's not hard to imagine similar figures applying to those who do not take all of their maternity leave. Galinsky notes that new mothers in positions of authority and responsibility tend to go back to work earlier.

One man I know whose wife was a rising star in a New York bank recalls the pressure she felt after the birth of their third child to return long before her three months of leave were up.

By law, employees in companies with 50 or more workers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. But in practice, many women cannot afford to stay away.

Waitresses, assembly-line workers, turnpike toll-takers - all must be on the job to earn a paycheck. No wonder many women are still going back to work two or three weeks after giving birth, according to Betty Holcomb, author of a forthcoming book, "The Best Friend's Guide to Maternity Leave."

The good news, she adds, is that 20 states now have proposals for paid family leave in various stages of development.

As Swift and her husband take Lauren and Sarah home to their farm in western Massachusetts, she has an opportunity to show by example that the state - and the world - can manage without her for a few months. After all, didn't the myth of Superwoman end more than a decade ago?

Making a case for enlightened corporate attitudes that would ease workers' fears about taking time off, Galinsky says, "There really should be time for being with your baby without career jeopardy. Getting to know your young child is important and wonderful."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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