Whenever I tell someone new that I had my first daughter (Isabella) while we were living in the U.S., I'm usually asked how I could have survived with little to no maternity leave.
My response almost always shocks them: "A hell of a lot better than in Canada."
The very first time I blurted out the answer, I felt unpatriotic. I'm a born and bred Canadian and by the time my second daughter (Elia) was born less than two years after Isabella we had resettled in our hometown.
Plus, how in the world could I favour a country that doesn't actually recognize maternity leave. Yes, the U.S. offers 12 weeks unpaid leave under its federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for a number of medical reasons, one of which is birthing a baby or caring for a newborn. But, I just can't classify that as maternity or parental leave in its truest sense.
Despite the inner conflict, I stood by my statement and still do.
It comes down to the exceptional community of working mothers that surrounded me during my first pregnancy.
Now, before I go any further, let me very clearly say that I was a woman of exceptional privilege when compared to most expecting and new mamas in the U.S.. I worked for a progressive company that offered incredible benefits. Among others, I received two weeks paid parental leave followed by six months' job protection during which a percentage of my salary was paid. In 2009, such policies in the U.S. were near non-existent.
So, what made my experience that much better in the U.S.? It comes down to the exceptional community of working mothers that surrounded me during my first pregnancy.
I had exceptional working mom role models
By the time I hit my early 30s I was coming to terms with the idea of being child-free. Babies and kids just didn't fit with my career-conscious mentality. That all changed when I got to work alongside and socialize with so many incredible women.
Some were childless, others child free, but so many were working mothers. And, all of them were killing it at work.
I'd watch them easily transition from an affectionate story about what their kid said the previous night to commanding a meeting room of mostly men in navy suits. They openly left the office at 4:15 only to take a conference call on the train at 4:30 so they could pick up their kids on time. And, I watched them progress in their careers, taking on exciting and challenging projects before earning their next promotion.
I was curious at how they handled it all, so I asked a lot of questions. They never let on that it was easy. They openly spoke about the discrimination they faced, the support they had at home and the struggles in their daily juggle. Despite all that, they made it seem possible.
I was given a license to stay ambitious
After I announced my first pregnancy at work, the head of my business took me aside and said these words to me: "I know you're pregnant and I want to be sure you stay healthy, but unless you tell me otherwise, I will not lower the bar for you."
Remembering that conversation and the intensity in her eyes still brings me to tears. Her words washed away so many of the fears that had overtaken me since seeing the double stripe on the pregnancy stick.
I was part of a community of working moms
I returned to my job when Isabella was 20 weeks old. It wasn't easy to leave her, but I was ready to get back to work. In the weeks thereafter, I felt a great sense of belonging.
In the elevator or on my way to the mother's room to pump, working mamas would welcome me back, ask how I was doing, and offer a tip or two on what worked for them. For a new mama trying to figure it all out, the unsolicited advice was priceless.
All this to say, these women provided me with the solid footing I needed to start my family. And, when I did, they made me feel normal that my desire to be a mom didn't diminish my desire to keep on my career track.
I returned to Canada when I was three months pregnant with Elia. I assumed in Canada, with all of its progressive policies, that my experience would only be better. It just wasn't. My growing belly had most people at work, in my social sphere, and even, in the office elevator question my ambition.
Most of the time I felt isolated, lost and full of guilt. Worse than that, the idea that something was wrong with me -- because, you know, good mothers don't want to pursue careers -- began to seep into my subconscious.
Four years later, my ambitious flame has rekindled and I now see it as my responsibility to pay it forward. I'm dedicated to sharing my experiences, insights and the lessons I've learned along the way, so new mamas have the solid footing they need to mingle their career success with all the love and fun their families provide to make one big crazy good life.
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