What Makes You a Mother?

Is a mother who adopts a child any less a mother – after sitting up through colic, cradling her little one when he’s sick, or making 1100 school lunches in his first ten years?

What about scrimping to afford the new shoes he outgrows monthly, the piano lessons he’s been dying to have, the extra tutoring to deal with a learning disability?

Is a mother who uses a surrogate any less a mother, raising the biological child she shares with her partner? Picking her up after falling from her bike, celebrating after the first spelling bee win, sitting up through the night to nurse her fever?

What makes a mother a mother, anyway?

I admit that I was baffled reading this article at Huff Post Parents. At issue is  Jane Kassim, a 30-year old English woman, who is fighting a legal battle to attain the same amount of paid maternity leave as other mothers. Ms. Kassim was born without a womb, and her cousin acted as her surrogate.

Maternity Leave Policies

It seems the peculiarities of British law provide 13 weeks to Ms. Kassim (with surrogate), whereas mothers are generally entitled to 52 weeks of paid maternity leave. 

In comparison to the very generous UK policy, according to the Huff Post article:

… currently, American moms are only eligible for six weeks of paid leave. But because of various nuances and rules about companies that are exempt from the law, only about half of women are guaranteed that time.

Technically, the above statement is somewhat misleading, as I interpret the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, based upon various eligibility criteria. Of course, FMLA doesn’t apply to all workers or companies, and thus even this theoretical leave is problematic. And note – unpaid. 

American Mothers

Some in the Huff Post comments thread argue that since she didn’t actually give birth, her 13 weeks of leave should be sufficient. They dismiss the sleepless nights associated with most infants, the (sometimes terrifying) trial-and-error process involved in first-time mothering, the routine visits to physicians for well baby care and inoculations, not to mention bonding with the baby. Or in Ms. Kassim’s case, two babies.

Given that US leave policy is so paltry in comparison, many comments bordered on huffy, as though she ought to be grateful for her 13 weeks and keep quiet.

As women, I realize we can’t fight on all fronts at once. I also realize that for small companies with few workers, leave of any sort is a challenge. But does that mean that every woman who works for an organization not subject to FMLA – or ineligible due to length of service or other circumstances – must choose between a child or losing her job?

Good Mother, Good Start?

For a nation obsessed with Being The Good Mom, why aren’t we more insistent on laying the foundational work in the first months of life?

52-weeks may seem extreme to some of us, but what amount of time does seem reasonable? 40 weeks? 6 months?

Personally, I was happy to return to work after the birth of my children – 6 weeks “officially,” during which time I was required to use Short Term Disability and vacation days for a portion of it – all the more reason to hurry back to the office and receive a (necessary) pay check.

Unofficially, I was performing certain tasks from home, three to four weeks after giving birth.

When I did return to the office, not only was I not fully healed from a C-section, but halfway through each day, the desire to hold my child was so strong as to be physically disorienting. My preference would have been to work part-time, but that wasn’t an option. Likewise, doing without my pay and benefits also wasn’t an option.

Surrogacy, Adoption

The brouhaha over the Kassim case?

In the UK, both childbirth and adoption receive up to 52 weeks paid leave, but for some reason, surrogacy does not.

Sure – the physical act of giving birth necessitates an extended period for some of us, a hormonal roller coaster, and other adjustments to our bodies. But that doesn’t diminish the dramatic adjustments required of every family that welcomes a newborn, or even an older child, however he or she enters our lives.

My definition of a mother is a parent who loves, nurtures, sacrifices, provides for, and guides the life entrusted to her.

  • What do you think of this case?
  • How much time off did you take after you became a parent?
  • Were you concerned about losing your job or benefits?
  • What defines a mother?


© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    Well, I’d have to hack off a couple of weeks for parents with the child born via surrogate just because of the physical trauma a woman goes through giving birth, which they don’t have to experience. Nor the hormonal roller coaster ride, the possibility of PPD, the sheer exhaustion you feel trying to figure out breast feeding and hemorrhoid care.

    That said, being a mother (or father) is tough. Sleepless nights, colic, shit, spitup, constant demands, insecurity about “how am I doing?”

    All mothers deserve support. Personally, I think 6 weeks is fine either way, but then again, I never had to leave my baby to go back to work, so perhaps everything I’ve just said doesn’t mean a damn.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I hear you Kitch. But… if adoptive mothers get the same as “birth mothers” and those with a newborn via a surrogate don’t, how is that fair? (And yeah, it can suck to have to leave your baby and go back to work. Then again, you get a few hours off from diaper duty, and all the rest…

      Read the link under the words to do with the right amount of time off (40 weeks, 6 months, etc.). It’s from a Slate article discussing exactly that topic. Really interesting pros and cons to various amounts of time, for mother and child.

  2. says

    The whole thing strikes me as odd. Yes, the physical recovery isn’t part of it, but everything else that goes with being a new mom – the sleepless nights/the illnesses/the constant inoculations – is. Strikes me as weird and unfair to discriminate (albeit fascinating from a legal standpoint).

    I also had to piece together sick leave and disability for my second child to stay home longer than I was officially allowed. The longer I see all of this from this side of the pond (e.g. London) the more insane and heartless the American system seems to me.

    Delia Lloyd

    • BigLittleWolf says

      To Americans, a year may seem like a great deal of time off, but I agree with your assessment that our system seems heartless, Delia. It also doesn’t seem like good business. The option to return to work after 6 weeks? Why not? But with a maximum of unpaid leave (depending on the circumstances), how many bleary-eyed and less than effective moms are returning to the workplace too soon? What about everything we now know about the impacts of sleep-deprivation on health and productivity?

      Speaking of health, what about all the wellness / developmental advantages to babies if a parent is caring for them, that in the long run lower health care costs as a society?

      And isn’t it interesting when we compare leave policies and look at OECD data pertaining to work-life balance. Lisa Belkin wrote on this in June of last year, and I provided a little commentary of my own. See this article (mine) on Work-Life Balance, which includes mention of OECD data.

  3. says

    Physically, healing from birth wasn’t too bad for me, but for some it takes months. Some babies get onto schedules quickly (exhibit A my second) while others don’t (exhibits B and C, my first and third). Some babies have a hard time with food (be it breast or bottle) others don’t. There is no moment in that first year when you feel more at ease (unless you’re about to have a big shift). It takes time to adjust to the role of parent. And that is not at all dependent on giving birth. Whether you carried your baby in utero or you’re a forever mommy through adoption or surogacy.

    I don’t think there is a perfect amount of time to have off. I think six weeks is a kind of sad minimum. I can imagine how hard it would be for companies though. What about some middle ground – part time or flex time or options to work from home?

    Here’s something else – my brother in law got three weeks paternity leave even though he is not the ‘primary’ care giver. My husband, none. Though he could take time off.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      20+ years ago there was talk about job-sharing, flexible schedules, working from home, etc. But management styles and systems, not to mention job restructuring and compensation weren’t reconfigured to accommodate these theoretically good concepts that would work in some positions. So thus the points you raise about the employment environment make great sense, Kate, especially with the Internet enabling employers to Skype with white collar workers and monitor what they’re doing – if they were willing to do so. There are trade-offs for not being on-site, but you would think we’d take advantage of technology to create more options in delivering work product without having to be butt-in-chair or face-in-cubicle for 40 or 50 hours/week.

      You also raise the inequity issue as you move from company to company. Why does it make sense that if you work for Company A your brother-in-law gets paternity leave but at Company B your husband doesn’t?

      So many other valid points, Kate… each child is different, each mother is different, so there does need to be flexibility. We aren’t even close. In the equity or flexibility department.

  4. says

    In referring to the Sandra Fluke incident and how a completely male group of religious leaders were the supposed experts on the question of oral contraception, you commented with homonymous humour: “[It was] a (w)holy masculine audience.” (Rush Limbaugh: That’s spelled with one F and one U)

    As a businessman, I have both made the mistake and watched others do the same in trying to properly assess a situation without having the least bit of experience with said situation. I have learned that sometimes great leadership comes not from making a decision but from deferring to those who are in the know and even seeking those people out. When I made my first (and only) parachute jump, I followed the instructions of my trainer who had over two thousand jumps under his belt. When it comes to matters of contraception, women’s health, child birth and child rearing, I will seek the counsel of somebody with a uterus.

    In my posting “Saturday, April 28, 2012: Unite Against The War On Women“, I show a video of an interview with Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, who comments on this hubbub about contraception by saying, “you only qualify [to make decisions about reproductive rights] if you’ve gone through the process, if you understand what the process is.” It is frightening to realise that there are people making decisions who are not qualified to do so but it is even more frightening to discover they haven’t got the slightest idea they are not qualified and have no idea of what they’re talking about.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for joining the discussion, Mr. Belle. Apparently this less than amply informed decision-making you are referring to is taking place all over… Oh, for civilized discourse and logical thinking… with a dash of common sense…

  5. says

    As a mother who gave birth and adopted I see this from both sides of the issue. For me there was no difference in the stress of “mothering” after the birth of either of my children, regardless of whether I had given birth or not.

    I can remember foolishly thinking, before my adopted son arrived that it would be easier that time around because I would not be healing from the process of giving birth. I was wrong!

    I was just as tired, just as overwhelmed, just as sleepy as I had been the first time around when I had done the birthing myself. Babies are draining regardless of how they come about.

    And I had the luxury of being a SAHM. I can’t imagine juggling a job and an infant. I wouldn’t have been up to it physically or mentally.

    Since I didn’t have to work I’m not sure I should even have an opinion but I’ve always viewed maternity leave as being more about mothering than healing. In my mind it is and should be about the “developmental advantages” of having a parent at home with the child.

    When living in Europe I witnessed first hand the positive effects of a long maternity/paternity leave on both parent and child. In Europe they realize that a parent who isn’t stressed and worried about a child is more productive when on the job. They realize that a child given the advantages that come with bonding during those early months with a parent will one day be more productive on the job.

    Basically when it comes to parenting, working or most things, we lack common sense here in the U.S.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Cathy, Thank you for bringing your perspective of mothering from both the “childbirth” and adoption perspective. Wise words. And yes, it seems like common sense, doesn’t it.

  6. says

    I’m inclined to advocate for as long a maternity (and paternity) leave as possible, with a year being a good start. I agree with KW on the differential stress on the body of the birth mother, but the consequences over the life-cycle, for children to start with a secure attachment (and optimal stimulation for their brain development), which is primarily set up in the first 18 months, includes more secure and happy humans, which trends us toward prosocial behaviors, which makes the world a better place from mood to crime to the environment. Still, it’s not just a matter of time not having to work; for the situation to prove optimal for child and parents there needs to be support at many levels (nutritional, emotional, etc.). Not only does it take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to actually be a village.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      An important perspective, Bruce. And I imagine in your practice you’ve seen the results when that foundation isn’t properly or adequately set. And gorgeous sentiment – being the village. It takes more than talk. It takes action.

  7. Robert says

    I have no input on mothering, except to say that I liked both the content and the rebellious spirit of the facetious bills introduced by female lawmakers to make the point that their male counterparts were meddling outside their expertise when it came to woman-centric subjects.

    I also must say that I absolutely love the comments by Cathy and Bruce on the need for common sense understanding about the need for pro-social support for child development. And the comment “it takes a village to BE a village” is profound. I’m making a point of stashing that in memory….

  8. lunaboogie says

    There should be no difference in time off in terms of physical birth or adoption. This case really surprised me.

    After I had my daughter, I took off 6 weeks. It was unpaid time, as I had had to take 4 weeks off prior to the birth due to pre eclampsia, and had used up all of my sick leave. I would have lost my job had I taken more time. At the time, I felt lucky to be able to take that much time off, as other moms I worked with went back sooner, as their sick leave ran out. My husband took one week off. He was pressured to go back to work.

    It is a shame that our society places so little value on the care and support of new families. (and likewise, so little support for our children and education, the sick and the elderly. I’ll get off my soapbox now).

    What defines a mother? Unconditional love.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Unconditional love. Yes, there is indeed that, Lunaboogie. Sometimes it’s tough love, but personally, I agree.

  9. says

    Obviously a very emotional subject, with or without the post-partum emotions. Of course physical, adoptive and surrogacy should all be treated equally. The end result is the same; there’s a tiny being completely dependent on someone else for every aspect of their health and happiness! As a SAHM when my children were younger, I believe one could make a case to stay home with children at every age! For those that need to return to work, it’s definitely an emotional issue regardless of the amount of time decided upon. Honestly, I can’t see how any company could hold open a position for a year of maternity leave. And if they temporarily filled it, they would probably have trouble paying for both positions. I’ve known some women who were happy to go back to work after 6-8 weeks of being at home. I know some that agonize over being at work while their children are in the care of someone else. I don’t know the answer. But there does need to be some sort of standard across the board for situations such as you mention.

  10. says

    First, the leave policies should be the same for new infants, regardless of how they’re acquired.
    Secondly, leave policies (parental, vacation, sick) in the US are woefully inadequate and, frankly, soul-crushing. In the case of maternity and paternity leave, dropping off your 6 week-old infant with a complete stranger, in many cases (don’t get me started on the cost and accessibility of good daycare), has to be the most anxiety-producing event a new mother (or father) will ever have to undertake. I dropped my son off at 13 weeks (to be grateful for 13 weeks!) and prayed that I had made a good choice on daycare. It is eye-opening when you experience it firsthand and yet there is so little outcry for change.

  11. says

    I had my children in the US.
    If I could do it over again I would definitely do it in France. The healthcare and social welfare system is so much more humane and in the long run costs the government LESS that in the USA. True.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge