What Happens When You Can’t Take Maternity Leave

We’re bringing you articles about maternity leave all week — covering everything from current policies (or lack thereof) to personal stories and solutions that may be crazy enough to work. #matleaveweek


When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew two things for certain: First, although it sounded physically impossible, this baby was going to exit my body. Second, I would take maternity leave.

I had started a small Web consulting business a few years earlier, and as the sole proprietor, my plan for maternity leave included telling my clients I was having a baby, hiring a freelancer to handle my projects, and crossing my fingers.

maternity leave
Illustration by Heather Bradley

The woman I found to cover for me — let’s call her Robin — was more of a trainee. I'd been coaching her, but she wasn’t totally getting it. As I scaled down my hours in the last week of my pregnancy, one of my clients panicked. "These aren’t the way you do them," my client said, clicking through site schematics.  

I rubbed my belly, thinking about all the nesting I was supposed to be doing. I said I’d work with Robin and would deliver what they’d been promised.

A few days later — on my due date — I woke up with contractions. That afternoon, while waiting for my body to figure out how to produce an actual human rather than just sharp pains, I checked my email and found several unhappy messages from my client. Before I knew it, I was on a conference call with Robin and the client team while in labor.

"I know you’re about to have a baby soon," my client said, "but this needs to be done correctly." Sooner than you think, I thought as I breathed through a contraction.

I bent over my desk to ease the pain of the contractions, listened to Robin and my client bicker, and realized that this was simultaneously the best and worst day of my life. On the one hand, I was kind of living out a secret dream. I was the businesswoman I’d aspired to be: so important that I couldn’t stop working to give birth.

But on the other hand, being on a conference call while in labor closely approximates the ninth ring of hell. I was supposed to be listening to soft music while sitting on a birthing ball, baking cookies for the hospital nurses, and folding and refolding newborn clothing. I was not supposed to be mitigating between an agitated client and an employee who didn’t know what she was doing.

So I did the only thing I could do: I fired Robin.

I told my client I was going to be leaving the house shortly because I had this thing I had to do over at the hospital, and that I would get back to her in a few days. A few days later, I was back at work, my son sleeping next to my desk in his bouncy seat.

My labor had been long and arduous, and nursing wasn’t going well, but I had no choice. I couldn’t lose this client, and because I’d planned to take maternity leave, I had no child care lined up.

My husband helped when he could, but most days he was teaching at a university an hour away. The days passed in a blur. Eventually I hired a part-time nanny, toward whom I felt both grateful and hostile. I wondered if anyone in the history of mothers had ever hired a nanny to care for her two-week-old infant. I worried that this was a sign that I’d be a terrible mother, always putting work first. But what else could I do? We needed to buy diapers.

As it turned out, this was my first lesson in motherhood. As much as I might fantasize about being the kind of mother who has so much maternity leave that she complains about being bored and ready to get back to work, I was going to have to settle for being the best mother I could be under the circumstances I'd been given. Or as Maya Angelou famously said: "You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better."

The next time around, I did better.

By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I had several freelancers I'd worked with over a period of years, and had grown my company into much more than a one-woman show. When my daughter was born, my clients barely noticed I was gone, and I got to take that long maternity leave I'd craved three years earlier. I’d sit in the TV room, nursing my daughter, watching America’s Next Top Model, and think, I’m kind of bored and ready to go back to work.

More From Maternity Leave Week:
These Fortune 500 Companies Make Billions — but Won’t Pay for Your Maternity Leave
Think Federally Funded Child Care Wouldn’t Work? We Did It in the 1940s 
What Nobody Ever Tells You About Paternity Leave