Susan Smith Blakely

Maternity Leave Is No Vacation

Only a woman, who has been through childbirth and becoming the primary source of care and comfort for a newborn, can appreciate the true meaning of “maternity leave.”   Yes, it is for maternal needs (thus, maternity) , and it is time away from the job (thus, leave).  But it is not a vacation.  So far from it that it is even hard to imagine.

Memories of my own maternity leaves when I was a young lawyer flashed through my brain as I read the thoughts of another woman lawyer on the subject.  Even though the other lawyers in my firm “in the day” — most of them male — did not have a clue about childbirth, childcare and work-life balance, I hoped that some of that had changed.  Some of it has, thankfully, but it seems that maternity leave is still a misunderstood concept.

But, fortunately, it also appears that things have evolved at bit.  Most of the male lawyers in my days of maternity leave seemed to be motivated by fear.  Fear, first of all, that you would have the baby right there at the law firm and that they would be required to boil water ….  or something.  Fear that your brain would become so scrambled after experiencing childbirth and bonding with an infant that you would need a period of time to compose yourself before returning to “the male space.”  Fear that you might start to talk baby talk in the middle of an important client meeting if you did not take the requisite time for composure.  So, even though it was plowing new ground to get maternity leave in those days, the empathy factor somehow was higher — even though often misplaced.

Today, things are different.  Jealousy and greed seem to be the behaviors (quite apart from the sheer ignorance and fear of the past) that are causing the confusion about maternity leave today.  Employers cite maternity leave as bad for the profitability of business and ignore the statistics associating maternity leave with improvement of retention.  This is greed at work.  Then there are the male colleagues and the female colleagues without children who audaciously refer to time off for maternity leave as a “vacation.”  This is jealousy at work — and ignorance.

Ironically, as noted in the article above, Big Law is leading the pack on generous maternity and parental leave policies.  In a recent blog, I discussed the ground-breaking policy at Orrick.  If you have not read about it, take a look.  Bravo to Big Law.  It gives all of us hope that maternity leave will become the norm and not the exception.  It also gives us hope that maybe our government will follow suit and mandate maternity leave.  As I write, the US is the only industrialized nation in the world without such protection.

While it is true that having children is a choice, there is no reason to make that choice so difficult.  I agree with those who say that they do not want to hear about childbirth and childcare ad nauseam in the workplace, and I also do not consider that behavior to be professional.  But, ignoring the difficulties to the extent of not acknowledging the need for maternity leave is unworthy of the law profession.  After all, the profession is grounded on issues of fair treatment.

And, believe me, maternity leave is fair treatment.


Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.

Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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