Maternity leave and its challenges to evangelical capitalistic patriarchy

As I write this, I am staring down my own maternity leave for our baby. I’m excited for that time but also nervous: will it be enough time? How will our family’s finances manage during those weeks? When I start back to work, how will the baby be sleeping? Will I be ready to juggle the demands of work and early motherhood by then? How will my clients be while I am gone?

Then there’s the questions I don’t have to wrestle with but that I am achingly aware other moms do. Will there be childcare available for my newborn? Do I feel comfortable placing this baby in their care? Will my family survive without my income during this time? Will I get fired from my job if I needed more time off? What if my baby gets sick and I need to take time off again but I’ve used all my PTO? What if life never really paused and I had to jump back into work 4, 2, or even 1 week after giving birth?

Nationally, we received news just a bit before Christmas that the grinch has stolen the hopes many of us held for a national paid leave policy to care for family members (along with a continued child tax credit and universal pre-K). I’m going to try to not dive into the politics of all that, but suffice to say that it feels really disappointing, to put it mildly.

In this time, I’m also reflecting on my own maternity leave experiences, that of others in this country, and people from other countries.

Many pregnant women join the What to Expect app, where English-speakers from around the globe discuss on various message boards the ins and outs of their pregnancy experiences. Maternity leave experiences are a frequent topic, and it’s fascinating to see what people in Canada and the UK are offered for their leave – and the sympathy / pity they extend to us poor Americans about our lack of leave. Most of us are guaranteed zero paid leave and try to scrape together a long enough maternity leave through some saved vacation time, FMLA, and/or short-term disability, often hoping our savings will cut it until we have to rush back to work.

The “family values” some of our politicians espouse to hold so dear do not feel very valued, to me. But on the other hand, they’re valuing family exactly the way they intend to, just with invisible asterisks attached:

Family values*

*For middle to upper class, married, heterosexual, white families where the woman is willing and able to stay home full time to raise the children while the husband is the breadwinner

Oh yes. Those invisible asterisks.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that family structure: I know quite a few families like this and like them a lot. My family resembles this mold in many ways, too. But: It’s not the only family structure that exists, it’s completely impossible for countless people, and it’s not the only – and not even the best (because what is the “best,” anyway??) – way to raise a family, either.

Cringe alert: When I was younger (definitely pre-kids!) I used to wonder why it would ever be a business’s job to pay a woman to not work after she had a baby. The business didn’t ask the woman to get pregnant! Why should they be punished by not only losing the productivity she provided to the company, but also have to compensate her for not being there?? Why should she get special treatment while her coworkers have to pick up her slack? Or why should the government pay, or help pay, for childcare so she could go back to work? Shouldn’t the mom just stay home with the kid she birthed? Why didn’t she marry someone who could actually provide for the family?

Ohh Christine.

I must have thought having a newborn and raising kids was easy or something. 🤦‍♀️. And I most certainly didn’t understand how much value women add to the workforce and how unfair it is to put women specifically in a position of having to choose children or work. And this was before I was ever hearing the fretting of economists worried about the dropping birth rates in our country, which I find amusing and insulting at the same time (because what, the incentives to have children in this era / economy are just so amazing??).

The religious system I grew up in encouraged the “Leave It to Beaver” model of family. As Kristen Kobes du Mez clearly articulates in Jesus and John Wayne, evangelicalism has always been very explicit about the preferred family structure (and by “preferred,” I mean “the only sanctioned” family structure. The Apostle Paul might have been single on purpose, but the church looks quite skeptically on adults who remain unmarried later into their adult lives). Ignoring how in biblical times, the extended family was the family, nuclear families were not even a concept, and oh yeah, don’t forget the normalization of polygamy – anyway, ignoring all that, evangelicals insisted that the only God-ordained way to have a family was to have a husband, a wife, and children. The wife’s duty was to become a mother and stay home with the children, because this was her biological as well as God-created disposition.

I didn’t mean to imbibe this as much as I did – but unconscious assumptions can dig themselves deep into one’s beliefs.

Capitalism and patriarchy contribute at least as much to this vision as any religious ideals do, however. Or perhaps more accurately, our current religious vision is shaped more by capitalism and patriarchy than these Christians would openly like to admit. Actually, they do openly admit it: but in their mind, this is the “correct” interpretation of the gospel they say they follow.

A capitalistic-centric model values people for the productivity value they can bring to an economy. Corporations and CEOs and other bosses are viewed as inherently deserving of any profit they make. Patriarchy values men, and their contributions, more than women. Women are there to support and be deferential to the men so they can have successful financial endeavors.

Why would we ever want to offer guaranteed maternity leave – especially paid maternity leave! – to a woman in such a system? Outlandish!

Her staying at home to care for a baby adds nothing to the economy (from a surface-level analysis, anyway). Her duty is to serve men, and there is no reason why she needs compensation for that. Her natural, God-given role is to joyfully stay home to raise the babies.

It works… until it doesn’t. Until you have a woman who wants to stay in the workforce, who is her best self both as a mom and a human when she has an outlet of working. Until you have a single mom with no options other than to work, but she still can’t go back to work immediately after baby (because frankly, it is preposterous that we ever expect women to return so quickly). Until you have a mom with children in an abusive situation who finds herself with little to no work skills or experience to help her escape from a marriage harming herself and her children. Until you have a mom who tries to rejoin the workforce when her kids are school age, and she finds how impossible it is to catch up to men who are not intrinsically better workers than she is but had the advantage of time spent slogging away in their field to move up the ladder. Until, until, until.

The issue is not only how little we care about supporting mothers who choose – or need – to keep working, but how little respect we have in general for the multi-faceted roles of women. How much we would rather take advantage of their contributions to society than fully recognize, honor, and yes, even compensate them for these contributions.

Maternity leave that is guaranteed, long enough, and paid is a small step towards fuller inclusivity and equality, and a small step away from patriarchal, soulless capitalism. We deserve better, right?

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Our current religious vision is shaped more by capitalism and patriarchy than these Christians would openly like to admit. Why would we ever want to offer guaranteed maternity leave – especially paid maternity leave! – to a woman in such a system? Outlandish!

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