Does Sheryl Sandberg Remember Life Before the FMLA?

The news is abuzz with talk of Sheryl Sandberg’s forthcoming book, and supposed new social movement, for working mothers to “Lean In” to their careers as a way to create more women leaders in all sectors of life. To do this, Sandberg suggests that women shouldn’t let parenthood be a barrier to advancement.

Sounds good, but I know life doesn’t always work out that easily once you’ve become a mother.

Sandberg was only 24-years-old and a relative newbie to the working world — she’d been an assistant to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers when he was at the World Bank and hadn’t yet started Harvard Business School — when President Bill Clinton signed the historic Family and Medical Leave Act into law.  As Sandberg calls on working mothers around the country to be more aggressive about leadership roles, even while having young children, I’d like to remind her what life was like before the FMLA, and how even with the FMLA, many working women who aren’t as privileged as she is, still have stories similar to mine.

Three years before that groundbreaking legislation allowed parents time off from work to care for children or sick parents or ill spouses, I had my first child. I have a twinge of envy about those who benefited from the FMLA.

Prior to 1993, parents had little promise of any time off after a child’s birth. Parents with a seriously ill child—perhaps who needed a bone marrow transplant at a tertiary hospital miles away—risk losing employment. What about individuals with aging parents in far-off retirement communities who fell ill? I did not have a sick child or an ill spouse or parent; I was just a nervous, first-time 33-year-old working mom.

No Family Medical Leave Act protected jobs. Parents made difficult choices. And I was one of the lucky ones, allowed six weeks of pay from my employer.

In 1990, I worked for a large hospital. I used two of my six weeks prior to my son’s birth when I had pre-eclampsia.

I wanted off a full six weeks off, but my boss asked me to return when my son was four weeks old. The business needed me to help launch a new product. How could I complain as most people didn’t get paid maternity leave?

We registered our son for at-home daycare, but the sitter couldn’t take him until he was six weeks old. My husband—on the low end of the academic food chain—could not take time off in mid-semester.
My boss suggested I bring the baby to work with me. I agreed, because he slept most of the time. Returning to work early was hard on me; I didn’t have time to slow down breastfeeding and I quit cold turkey.
Why couldn’t I breastfeed at work? There was no suitable place. I did not have a private office. My only option was a stall in the bathroom, which seemed an inappropriate and frankly, disgusting, place to pump breast milk.
How ready for career success was I when I returned to work with painful breasts and a four-week old baby in tow?

I was exhausted, even though my husband did more than his share.
Ask any new mother. If she’s honest, she’ll reveal that a helpful partner doesn’t figure much in the beginning (unless you don’t have one). Men don’t breastfeed. New mothers notoriously wake up at every little peep.
Even if the baby isn’t in your room, most new moms have a monitor— a baby radio tuned to “All Baby — All the Time.”

When my husband got up to feed the baby a bottle, I listened to every gurgle and burp. Only then could I go back to sleep.

New moms eventually listen to older, wiser mothers who remind them to “sleep while the baby sleeps.”
My son lasted a week at the office. I was unproductive and distracted, and spent most of my time entertaining curious visitors who came to see the (mostly) sleeping baby.

The weekly employee newspaper contained an unsigned letter to the editor about me. It said in part, “Why is Manager X allowed to bring her baby to work in the South Building when others cannot?”
I brought the baby to work because my boss suggested it.

Had I been able to stay home with the baby, believe me, that’s what I would have chosen for another two weeks or a year. But, we needed two incomes; neither of us had a job that paid enough to support us.
There was a terrible tug and pull between baby and bills.

My college friends made one of two choices: either they didn’t have kids or they had kids and worked.
In 1990, no one in my circle stayed home with children. There are many parents who stayed home during that era, but I didn’t know them. I couldn’t have coffee at mid-day or go to the noon-time PTA meetings. I was at work.

I lost that job less than a year later. I got pregnant again (a shock since I had been on infertility drugs with my son), but without the progesterone needed to sustain the surprise pregnancy, I miscarried.
I was exhausted from my job, mothering, surgery recovery, and insomnia. I missed time at work from a bad flu that spring, and the day I came back to work I lost my job in a “Reduction in Force” along with several other managers.

I missed six weeks when having the baby, and I missed a bunch of days from the flu. You can’t miss work; those are the rules.

Would I have kept my job had I not been so exhausted that certainly reflected in my performance? I’m certain my immune system was compromised that fall after giving birth and having a short pregnancy and subsequent D&C within months.

I questioned myself about this for years. After I lost my job, I spiraled into a postpartum or post-miscarriage or post-reduction-in-force depression. It took me a good six months to crawl out of it, pulling myself up the side of a deep well by my fingernails.

After I healed, I vowed that I would never be in that dark place again. I have not. The reality of our career choices means I need to work. I realized a long time ago I couldn’t do it all or have all of it all at the same time.
Today, parents can benefit from the Family Medical Leave Act. No situation can fully cover everything, nor should every organization have to bear every burden, FMLA offers a compromise for men and women and a decent social safety net. Now, let’s finish the job and get all the same rights for LGBT parents, starting with marriage equality.

Guest contributor Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. Amy specializes in health writing, with a passion for rehabilitation and disability issues. She also enjoys writing about politics, travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth, at her web-site or as  Bernadine Spitzsnogel on Open Salon.  She likes to hear from readers at

Image via Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved.

  • Jaime

    This is such an eye opener. I can attest to the fact that partners are little help to new mothers – unless they help with older siblings. Neither of my newborns ever adjusted to drinking from bottles. They only drank from me. If I wasn’t there, they didn’t eat. And a breastfed baby is a ticking time bomb, going off at random hours 24/7. I’m exhausted thinking about it. I had the luxury, however, to stay home with both of my children and to work from home.

    Great writing, Amy!

  • Cara

    I think we also need to be clear that some of the FMLA benefits are still not actuallized. The last two places I have worked offered only a bathroom stall to pump which is unsanitary. And the 12 weeks of leave are wonderful but with the AAPM recomendeding breastfeading for the first 6-12 months of your child’s life it is often not enough.

  • Bernadine Spitzsnogel

    @Cara. I agree with you about the breast-feeding. There just isn’t support at the office.

    • Cara

      I agree there isn’t support at the office, but what I am more saddened by is the lack of basica sanitary conditions. The breastfeeding in the office conversation I think seems to be optional when it’s framed in terms of “supporting mothers” in thier “choice to breastfeed.” I prefer to think of in in terms of providing a safe and sanitary space to perform a natural function of the body. The same way we don’t ask employees to use latrines behind the office building, we shouldn’t ask mothers to breastfeed in bathroom stalls. I guess what I am trying to say is, to me, it’s a public health issue that the FMLA has yet to accomplished.

  • Ahmet

    Gee, Amy, I’m sorry we weren’t more attentive to you while you were going through what appears to have been a pretty painful set of transitions. Thanks for laying it all out now.

  • Lynn

    FMLA isn’t very helpful when you work at a company for less than a year or work in retail. Here in Indiana they can fire you for unrelated things and you’re pretty much screwed. If the office moms are screwed, the hourly wage moms are doubly so.

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