By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Greetings of the day, as the PR emails that still come into my inbox, put it. I’m in Bangalore, on a sort of vacation, but never too busy to talk feminism! Let’s get at it.P asked:
Ever since I joined the company I work at, women keep leaving to have babies. I’m a single woman, and have no babies in my future just yet, and I don’t think it’s fair that I have to work hard and destroy stereotypes about “hiring women” just so that they can go off and have their kids. Is maternity leave fair? And how do I—a single woman—also claim my months off with pay, short of having a child?
Back in the day, I used to work for a leading national newspaper. Now, I was on the features or “soft news” team, one that was comprised solely of women. Some were mothers. I was in my early twenties then, so I worked hard and partied harder. Some mornings I’d get into work with my previous night’s kajal still smeared around my eyes, looking like a panda. And because I could usually churn out a story faster than my colleagues, I also chafed at the bit at having to stay late when they seemed to be able to get out of there at the drop of a hat just by using their kid as an excuse.
“You don’t have responsibilities,” one of them once said to me sneeringly, and I felt so outraged at this, I even blogged about it, a bit of which I will quote here, to show you my twenty-something state of mind: “Another ex-colleague said something once about how we (the single girls) had no excuses for not getting more stories. After all, we had no responsibilities. And, sadly, though I looked daggers, though she took it back etc, I’m sure she still thinks that. Oh, look at her breezing in at noon, all perfumed and low waisted jeans and hungover and oh look at her leaving, all excited about some night out when I have to go home to kids and husband and responsibilities. […] As for not having responsibilities, I may not be dealing with family type shit, or parenting, but I do do stuff. I make sure, for instance, that the maid cooks in the morning. I make sure she doesn’t make anything the other two don’t like. I keep an eye on the groceries and see when we’re low on stocks. I check how much water we have in the fridge and always make sure our reserves are okay, when we run out of boiled water. And so on. […] We look out for each other, my flatmates and I, and we may not be married or have given birth to each other, but still, we’re, you know, family. And in a single person’s world, family is important.”
Anyway, all this to say, I totally get you. I’ve been the woman picking up the slack when other women took off to have babies and disappeared for what seemed like a thousand years. I’ve been the woman who casually side-eyed any professional woman who told me they were pregnant, and wanted to keep working after the baby, because yeah right, as if their workload would ever be the same as mine. Arguments I have also made are: a) if they can have three months off to have a baby, why can’t I have three months off to write a book or go sail around the world or something? b) It’s their own personal choice to have a child, and I don’t see why I have to support their biological clock.
Maternity leave came about so that people could have their children and then return to be part of the workforce instead of dropping out of it. It makes sense, if you think about it, less pressure financially on a family, and babies who benefit from having their mothers around for the first few months of their lives. The fact is that we need babies. Even now when population rates are soaring—we still need people to have babies—even if it is for their own selfish reasons, because the fact of the matter is, P, if you and I never have children, and eventually we’ll be old, it’s those kids who are going to be part of the economy that pays for our pensions. (Well, not my pension, because no one pensions a work-from-home author, but you get what I mean.) In China, thanks to their one-child policy, they have a population that is rapidly ageing and no new people coming to take their place. Germany and Japan both have abysmally low birth rates, which means the workforce is set to shrink by a good 12% in the coming years. Which means not such a great economy. So you see, they may be having their children as their own personal, selfish choice etc but it’s actually helping us in the long run.
Here’s something else: maternity leave in India is actually one of the top 16 longest paid leaves in the world. Isn’t that nice? That means that if you have a baby—and mind you, I’m not saying you have to — you’re entitled to a nice long chunk of time staying at home, getting to know this brand new human. This was a recent amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, and means women can now take 26 weeks instead of 12, when they have a child. If your colleague, a smart, strong woman, can come back to work after her child, and be also happy with the amount of time she’s been able to spend with her child, that’s all the better for your company. You won’t have to invest in new people, and this highly skilled worker is not just going to slip through the cracks. (By the way, the law also allows you to take time off for a pregnancy termination or a miscarriage.)
However, things aren’t perfect. If we’re demanding equality for single women in the workplace, let’s take a moment to think about the fathers. Paternity leave rates are usually very low, with men pressured to go back to work as soon as they can. This is not great for families, and also for feelings in the workplace, where I imagine men grumble about having to pick up the slack while women have babies. We need gender neutral laws!
As for when you can take your soul-searching time off, I think there’s an argument to be made there also. Any company should encourage happy, fulfilled employees. There are sabbaticals you can take, but I don’t think most of them are paid. I encourage you to speak to your HR team about this, and also to your fellow colleagues, so you all feel equally valued. Also, another important tip before I close: practise saying, “That’s not my job.” So if your colleague gets time off for her kid’s emergency, it’s your company’s problem, not yours. You’ll feel a lot less resentful for it.