Money

No, We Don't Need 'Meternity' Leave

But it might be nice if more people had the ability to take a real vacation.
May 3, 2016, 7:15pm
Having a watermelon is basically like having a kid, right? Stock photo via Getty

Having and raising a child is the strangest thing that will happen to most people in their lifetimes. A growth develops inside your body and then pushes its way out in an unimaginably painful way. The doctor hands you a double handful of wailing flesh and tells you it lives with you now. It's then your responsibility to teach the thing to walk and speak and pretend to be a person the way you have been pretending for years. Somehow, it's something lots and lots of people want, this smaller version of themselves that will grow its own hates and angers and loves. You'd think that in 2016 we'd have a better way of making more people, but here we are.

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The argument for maternity or paternity leave is that the arrival of a child is a rare and incredibly stressful occasion and dealing with it warrants a break from work. There's also the idea that a society so advanced its citizens can summon pizza to their door by simply tapping a button on a phone should make sure that parents in that society are not forced to abandon their newborns to jobs that probably aren't all that important in the first place. Maternity leave is one of those things that Europeans get but Americans don't, like government-provided healthcare and not being shot, and there's been a push lately to give US workers the same sorts of paid leave that their counterparts across the Atlantic already have.

You wouldn't really know about that push if you read only the New York Post, which in the past week has gone on a trollish tear, publishing op-eds from two women who say that they should get maternity leave for adopting pets and for doing nothing in particular. Let's take a look at what Meghann Foye from the "meternity" camp has to say:

There's something about saying "I need to go pick up my child" as a reason to leave the office on time that has far more gravitas than, say, "My best friend just got ghosted by her OkCupid date and needs a margarita"—but both sides are valid.

And here's "pawternity" leave fan Lindsay Putnam, who is also the Post's feature editor:

I couldn't help but think that, just as Jameson was getting used to me, he feared I, too, was abandoning him. The guilt continues today: While my co-workers with kids walk out the door at 6 PM, no one seems to care that I also have a child at home waiting for dinner.

Obviously, dogs and margaritas are fine things, but they are not children. A friend can nurse her sorrows without you; you can leave a dog unsupervised for hours and not worry about it dying. Adopting a dog is not a biological imperative, a dog does not come bursting out of your vagina—the list of differences goes on. As for the "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" that Foye talks about, that's a vacation.

The Post, in the oldest of tabloid traditions, is clearly serving up these kinds of essays as rage bait. The same day the "meternity" article appeared, one of the Post's own columnists tore it apart, writing, "If you've got a case of the sads, or sudden-onset reflectivitis, that's just a personality problem—not a reason to take off work."

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Other takes at other places followed, including a thoughtful one from Laura June at New York's the Cut. "I came away wondering if the article wasn't somehow emblematic of the entire problem our nation has with mothers in particular, and parents in general," she wrote, "i.e. we aren't curious about their lives, we do almost nothing to support them, and we consider them an unwelcome burden on all fronts."

The famously conservative, Donald Trump–endorsing Post might also have another agenda: to make the idea of paid leave of any sort seem superfluous. Even the Post would never criticize the notion that new mothers need time away from work, but when New York State passed a sweeping new paid family leave law earlier this month, Betsy McCaughey, one of the paper's right-wing columnists, called it "reckless" and a "liberal pipe dream" that was "part of an alarming national trend of fixing social problems by looting workers' paychecks." (The Post routinely criticizes other policies meant to help the poor, including the $15 minimum wage.) Publishing Foye and Putnam's columns can be seen as a way of advancing a similar, if sneakier, point: Isn't it silly that coddled white-collar workers want time off to walk their dogs and go on Eat, Pray, Love–inspired drinking junkets?

Maybe, but that's the point of paid vacation days. They're yours to do what you like with—to find yourself, to Netflix and chill, to (in Foye's case) write a novel about a woman who fakes a pregnancy to get a cheeky vacation. The core problem, which you probably won't find much discussion of in the Post's op-ed pages, is that many people can't take a vacation, period. As of 2015, nearly a quarter of Americans didn't get any paid time off at all; only 13 percent of workers get paid family leave, forcing many low-income women to return to their jobs two weeks after they give birth. Meanwhile, some UK companies are offering "pawternity" leave, and a few businesses now offer unlimited vacation time—but these are cushy benefits accrued by people working for shiny tech startups and other in-demand professionals who have the leverage to demand such perks.

It's easy to slam Foye and Putnam for dismissing having a kid as being on par with having a dog or a vague sense of existential dread. But it's also frustrating to watch them make impassioned cases for time off for "pet parents" and workaholic women without making any connections to the wider world. You don't deserve a break because your dog needs to be housebroken or you're burned out—you deserve a break because everyone does.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.