Article Jun 1, 2016

Maternity is not about me

“You’ll need proof. Can you get a copy of the death certificate?”

I remember the awkwardness of trying to answer that question while booking last-minute plane tickets to North Carolina for my father-in-law’s funeral. Who would fake their dad’s death just to get a discount—and not a very good one at that—on airfare?

A misunderstanding of maternity leave

Apparently people do. But it’s not all they fake for the attending benefits. An article in The New York Post spotlights one childless woman’s idea of pretending to be pregnant in order to get “all the perks of maternity leave, without having any kids.” Meghann Foye, a magazine editor, dreamed up the idea for “mandated me time” in conversation with a pregnant co-worker. The Post reports,“‘You know, I need a maternity leave!’ I told one of my pregnant friends. She laughed, and we spent the afternoon plotting my escape from my 10-hour days, fake baby bump and all.”

They had some laughs, but she kept stewing on the unfairness of not getting the same benefits her expecting co-workers did. Foye said, “The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe in the value of a ‘meternity’ leave — which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.”

Eventually she gave her notice and took a year-and-a-half off to put herself first. She also wrote her first novel, Meternity, to encourage the notion that women who don’t leave work to have a baby should still get time off to focus on themselves, without the pressure of a 9-to-5-and later job, in order to figure out how to put themselves first.

In Foye’s eyes, the whole point of maternity leave was the self.

. . . as I watched my friends take their real maternity leaves, I saw that spending three months detached from their desks made them much more sure of themselves. One friend made the decision to leave her corporate career to create her own business; another decided to switch industries. From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of them shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives” [emphasis added].

The question is: What did their focus shift to? She assumes it was from their jobs, to themselves. But that’s not the norm on maternity leave. The benefit of maternity leave isn’t time away to do what you want, but what happens to you while you’re gone.

What’s unique about maternity leave is that grace and growth flow, not from what you receive—a baby—but from what you give—your very life. Motherhood is a crucible (as is fatherhood). It is one of God’s primary means of forging the character of his people. It is the daily dying to self for the good of another, who has nothing to give you in return, that has the potential to make us more like Jesus, “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6-7).

A heart held captive to self

We need to cultivate a response that sees through the selfishness of articles, books and beliefs like this one about a “meternity leave.” Underneath, there’s a heart held captive to self. And I’m talking about my own heart! My first response to Meghann Foye is annoyance, not love for the lost. Of course she responds this way to perceived unfairness. It is human nature to do so. Without the transforming work of Christ, we think we are the most important person in the world.

It’s not natural to rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). We tend to think, “That’s not fair!” And when someone suffers, to think, “I’m glad it’s not me.” Or, we sometimes try to one-up them with, “You think that’s bad?!” The Germans even gave us a trendy word for our secret glee over someone else’s misfortune: schadenfreude. We are, by nature, competitors, self-promoters and self-seekers.

But whether you have a new baby or write a new book, looking for meaning and satisfaction in self will never satisfy. Foye misunderstands maternity leave, but I misunderstand my response to her novel idea. I think it’s righteous indignation on my part. But, more accurately, it’s a grade-school entitlement mentality. In crying out, “Not fair,” we are both the same.

This is not the way of the kingdom of Christ. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, to weep with those who weep, to consider others more highly than ourselves and to rejoice with those who rejoice (Gal. 6:2; Phil. 2:3; Rom. 12:15). We need the commands of Scripture to know this is right and the help of the Holy Spirit to obey, because in our sinful state, we do just the opposite. It is easy to feel outrage because what Foye is proposing is outrageous—but also because we all want more than we deserve and believe we deserve everything we want.

Maternity leave is for becoming a mother. It includes the trip to the hospital to give birth, but that is only the beginning. We are not imbued with the tenderness and selfless love necessary for the job. Rather, the sacrifices required from the start are what shape women into mothers. But even that is not enough. We need the saving work of Christ to transform our selfish hearts and make us women who embrace the sacrifice for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, who said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).

Death to self will be hard, but it will bear fruit in this life, and even more so in the one to come—where redeemed hearts will be completely transformed and free to love without a hint of selfishness.