taking care of business

Don’t Hide Your Maternity Leave

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Anna Sale is the host of Death, Sex, and Money, a podcast from WNYC Studios about — I know this tagline by heart — “Things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” The show started in mid-2014, and two years and dozens of episodes later, Sale has interviewed everyone from John Cameron Mitchell to Brooke Shields to a funeral director having a crisis of faith. Listeners have followed Sale on what feels like an existential search — with a title like Death, Sex, and Money, would you expect anything less?

I’ve always admired Anna, but never more than recently: Along with the rest of the show’s listeners, I’ve been able to follow along with the show as they’ve navigated Anna moving to the West Coast, having a baby, and taking a paid and very, as Sale calls it, “visible” maternity leave. I found myself driving around and sobbing with a strange brand of relief and gratitude as I listened to the first episode of what they called “The Great Guest Takeover” — wherein former guests of the show sat in the hosting seat and invited on guests of their own to interview. Midway through one episode, the guest host (in this case Sonia Manzano) called Anna to check in with each her. You could hear the baby cooing in the background:

Anna Sale: I’m really good, how are you doing?

Sonia Manzano: Well, I’m not doing as well as you, with a new baby, and the world looks different to you I’m sure with a new baby. That’s how it was for me.

Anna Sale: Yes, it’s a total — it’s like the world is, feels like it’s in different dimensions now.

The image of Sale, probably sleep-deprived, with a new baby on her chest, letting herself be vulnerable and professional all at once, not trying to push it to the side and pretend it wasn’t happening, felt more radical to me than it probably should have. She managed to make maternity leave feel like something important, something to be respected and acknowledged openly, rather than to be spoken of in hushed tones or treated as an inconvenience or indulgence. I sent her a message on Twitter to tell her how much this meant to me as a woman and a working mother, and asked if I could interview her about how she’s handled this chapter of her life and the show.

When you got pregnant — I’m sure you freaked out on many levels — but professionally speaking, how were you feeling? Did you tell WNYC right away?
That was much harder than I thought it was going to be. I just didn’t anticipate all the feelings I had about disclosing that I was pregnant. We’re a small team, and I’m the host of a show. I was so afraid they were going to be like, “Great, well, what are we going to do for four months while you’re taking care of your baby?”

But I told them when I was around three months pregnant, and they were so immediately supportive and awesome. We had a series of retreats where we talked about what we could do that would be interesting and exciting for them, while also not requiring too much maintenance from me while I was out.

You managed to treat it like an opportunity rather than an inconvenience, or a problem to be solved.
Often the way it gets dealt with is if you’re a news host — say you’re Katie Couric, or someone who’s very visible — they go on maternity leave, they disappear, there’s somebody who gets the great opportunity to show what they can do while someone’s gone. And then the person who was on maternity leave comes back and you’re like, “Huh, wonder what they were up to?”

Exactly! Is this how the idea to do the rotating guest hosts came in?
Instead of thinking about, like, who’s the one guest host that would be really engaging or exciting for the audience, what would it be like if it was someone who we met through the format of me interviewing them?

It sort of fills out the community around the show. It’s not just about me and my questions; it’s about what all of us need to know or want to know. And then I also thought it would be cool to have a short phone conversation with me in those guest episodes, so that there wouldn’t be that, like, great black hole where the person on maternity leave went.

There’s a sense that, you know, maternity leave is happening for Anna, but she’s still living and breathing and a real person. And not just, you know …

A disappeared milk machine. I think the effect was really profound. Even just the intention makes me want to cry — as a woman, and a parent, who has felt almost apologetic, or like I want to sneak my life in around my work rather than the other way around, you know?
Oh, I definitely had that feeling too. Even though this has been a very ideal maternity leave, there are definitely still afternoons when I’m like, “Well, I need to email my boss to make sure that my boss knows I’m still ambitious and interested in work.” [Laughing.] You know? “I just need to check in.” So I feel that, and then I also feel like I needed to create some kind of constraint so I would be sure to take advantage of this time to be with my baby.

Did you feel like it worked in practice? How has your maternity leave been for you?
The thing that I’ve been struck by with maternity leave is it’s like you’re really busy, but also your brain has a lot of time to brainstorm and think big thoughts. On the one hand, I’m coming back to work like, “Anna, just figure out how this works, and don’t overdo it right out of the gate.” And then the other part of me is like, “But, I thought of all these good ideas that I want to do that would be, you know, big!” [Laughing.] And also, the ego part is like, “Make sure I’m still relevant, and people haven’t forgotten.” Or, somehow — this is the most insidious thought — “I hope people don’t just start to think of me as, like, Mommy with a capital M, and that’s all I have to say or have thoughts about.” How to keep making sure I feel like a multidimensional personality, you know?

So that was the idea: to make maternity leave more visible while still respecting that it’s a time when you don’t focus on your job at work. But then the thing I was most struck by was my resistance to actually leaving. Around 36 or 37 weeks pregnant, I had so many mixed emotions about taking the time. The baby wasn’t there yet to distract me, so I just felt a sort of guilt — like, “Who am I going to be if this isn’t my routine?” I felt a real sense of loss, which I wasn’t expecting because you’re like, “Maternity leave, it’s great!” You know? [Laughing.] But, I did.

When I was about to have my son, I felt a sort of suspense. Like, “What is this going to do to my work brain?” So much of my identity has to do with work. And people talk about, you know, “Oh, I never wanted to go back to work again.” I was afraid that would happen to me.
Yeah! Yeah, you’re like, “What, what are these strange chemicals going to do to my personality? I have no idea.”

What I think is so perfect about having this visible maternity leave is that this moment you’re in is really what your show’s about: uncertainty and transition.
The line that I thought about a lot while I was on maternity leave is from the Ellen Burstyn episode, where she talks about becoming a mother to her son she adopted, and she said, “You become the noun by doing the verb. By mothering, you become a mother.” Which I thought was such a comforting line. It gave me permission to not immediately feel like a mother. Especially when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Totally. It’s a process. So do you feel like you’re coming back to work a different person?
You know, I think that’s also a really important part of parental leave. It’s not just nursing the baby and taking care of this helpless thing. It’s also giving space to reset your priorities and your identity. But you know what I feel the most acutely? That certainly having a child makes you think differently about the future, and about what’s important — but I think the thing I feel the most that I didn’t expect is a whole new layer of financial stress and worry.

The idea that it’s not just about “Am I going to run out of money for myself?” It’s like “What am I doing to build stability for this kid? What are we doing to build stability for this kid?”

Oh yeah, I definitely lie awake at night more being like, “What if this happened, then what if this happened? And then what would we do? And we’re parents, this is horrible! Like, we can’t be late on a bill, we’re parents!”
Yes! That I didn’t expect. I’ve been like, “Let’s do more episodes about money.” [Laughing.] Because that shit is real. Child care is a huge expense, but then also you have to figure out life insurance and wills, all that stuff.

What about you, how did you find going back to work? Do you have any advice?

Hmmm. Well, I will say that just the anxiety of not knowing what your baby is doing at every minute is really hard at first and really distracting. But it slowly recedes. You have to go through it, you know, to get to the other side. Also, that the first day my son was in day care I had a glass of wine in the middle of the day. That helped!
Yeah, that’s a really good tip. I’m gonna buy a bottle of wine to have my first day back.

Don’t Hide Your Maternity Leave