In Issue 71 of The Dublin Review, Dominique Cleary shares the myriad ways coworkers, family, and strangers overstepped their bounds by giving her mothering “advice,” and ultimately the way in which she was forced to choose between her job and raising her children. Spanning the time before and after she gave birth, each section is titled with a different offender — boss; male colleague; husband; mother — so that the essay’s structure recreates the neverending, exhausting cycle of obstacles put in womens’ paths, and the ways society tries to undermine female autonomy. People tell Cleary how to dress, how to structure her days, how her career will tank and how breastfeeding will cause her breasts “to sag before their time.”
Getting from Monday to Friday was like swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool without coming up for air. I hated having to wait to see my children at the end of the day when they were tired and cranky. I was missing their milestones. First words and first steps were reported to me by the staff in the crèche, along with more perfunctory accounts of what they had eaten, whether they had napped and for how long, and the number and consistency of their bowel movements.
Under the Parental Leave Act my husband and I were entitled to eighteen weeks unpaid leave each for each child under the age of eight: seventy-two weeks in total. My husband didn’t want to avail of his rights. Men weren’t taking parental leave – not back then, anyway. He would lose traction at work, as well as income.
The leave was designed to be taken in large chunks, but it could also be taken piecemeal with the agreement of the employer. I sounded my boss out and made a formal request to take every Wednesday afternoon off, unless a case of mine was listed in the Four Courts on that afternoon. I could afford to do it this way, and it would ensure that I’d be present at my desk every day of the week.
My boss reacted with a low-grade vibration of disapproval. He cited ‘business exigencies’ and ‘inconvenience’, but in the end he let me take a small part of my entitlement in that way. I suggested I could take the rest of my entitlement in short blocks during court recesses. Months went by without a reply and I found the uncertainty stressful. Meanwhile, an employment agent called me out of the blue and offered me a job interview with a competitor. He made it sound like I was being headhunted, but I suspected that attempts were being made internally to move me out of the way. The thought of starting from scratch somewhere new was exhausting, so I declined the opportunity.