No Breaks in a Broken System: Common Horizon Excerpt
We sit in a small office off the main hallway. The insurance representative is pulling all the forms for me, the new hire at a medical records office. He spots the ring on my finger, my grandmother’s diamond newly set in the band. “Married?” he casually asks. “No. We are thinking of moving the date up a couple of months,” I beam at my hand. “My fiancé is still in school, and we are trying to sneak the wedding in before the summer is over.” He frowns at the stack of papers in the folder. “You’re interested in short-term disability?” I nod my head and sit straight up. First job after college, first insurance on my own. “My friend said that I will want that for whenever I need maternity leave since it is unpaid at this company.” “But you are not pregnant right now, correct?” My smile falters a tad, and I don’t understand why my face is flushing. “No, I am not.” My arms snake their way around my midsection instinctively. The relief rushes his face like a wind over the shore, settling his features back into place. “Good, good, good. Because you cannot use this short-term disability for maternity leave for at least ten months after your start date.”
We sit three in a row like we are on a bus, one girl in front of me, one girl behind. Our desks are simple—a computer, some pens, a stack of notepads, and a phone with over ten hold buttons. Emergency calls come in and we direct them to their next destination. Extension numbers are an extension in my fingers, I have memorized almost everyone in the office in the last four months or so. During lags in phone calls, we file patient paperwork in rotating shelves. They reach up to the ceiling, all the way down to the floor. The color coding is my favorite part, making the work more like a craft. It is simple enough that I don’t mind the hours inside this office. The other two girls are chatting about their weekend ahead, the parties and the dates. I rotate open another section of shelving, placing another stack of files away. I read every name, trying it out by saying them aloud as I alphabetize. “Which will you like, little one?” I say to my belly. I could not keep the news to myself, telling anyone who would listen. I smile at my own joy. One of the girls laughs before picking up another call, “I can’t believe you are already having one at twenty-one. I have too much life to live first.” The other nods in agreement, “I’m not even thinking about it until I’m ready to be home full-time. Imagine having to work and have a kid.”
I can feel the sweat sliding down my belly under my too tight shirt. I am officially a week past due and trying to not sit too straight at my desk to give my back a break. The girl in front of me turns around in her chair to remark on my size, smiling at the sight. “Don’t break your waters here! Why aren’t you home for your leave yet?” I half chuckle, half moan at the remark. “I don’t want to use up any days while being pregnant,” I explain. I have spent the last couple of weeks doing the mental math of it all. Twelve weeks maternity leave, unpaid. I have saved up all my vacation days to pay for the first week postnatal. Then I’ll dip into the short term for the rest. Short term disability and the personal savings account I pay into weekly, is how I plan to be able to pay myself for the three months at home. Three months of colic, lack of sleep, bleeding through clothes, napping on couches and chairs, watching nightly breathing and sneaking cold meals. Another Braxton-Hicks grips my pelvis and I wince while the phone rings at my desk. I propel my body forward gently and brace to answer the call.
Despite the weekly calls from the office about an early return, I have made it through the twelve weeks before taking my spot back at my chair. No longer big-bellied, now soft and stretched out, I try to get back into the rhythm of the work. It is important to answer the calls, it is vital to keep the records. The morning crawls into the afternoon. Yet my body is yearning for another body now napping in my mother’s house after her first trip to the zoo without me. A sweet bald head resting safely miles away. The thought of her lets down my mood and my milk. I feel the leaking start and grab the pack beside my desk, throwing a quick look at the girl behind me. She huffs a bit but nods in agreement. Another fifteen minutes alone to pump breast milk.
“Where can I pump?” I ask. My supervisor, after pausing, reminds me that the bathroom on this floor has a lock. So here I sit, bolting the communal bathroom and wiping down the counters, praying no one knocks this time. The machine pumps and pulls milk as I stare at my own reflection in the mirror. My phone dings with a picture of my daughter’s eventful morning, a sweet toothless smile in the palm of my hand. My joy at her joy awakens a sorrow. I cannot be there for it all. I cannot be the photographer of every milestone. Thank goodness for the noise of the machine to dampen my sobs. Fifteen minutes to wallow and straighten my face. Fifteen minutes and hide the milk in the fridge. Fifteen minutes and rush back to the desk. Fifteen more minutes until it’s time to repeat the cycle.
Years later, I accept an open position at my family’s business. My work and my motherhood dance in tandem. I nurse two more children while answering calls, checking orders, and running errands. I now have an alcove decked in crafts for my children to sit and watch me work when they are out of school. I can make car line drop offs and pickups. No longer do I have to choose between missing work and making doctor appointments. A news headline comes across my computer screen announcing that paid maternity leave is once again being contested in our country. The United States, staking a claim that pregnancy is a career breaker, a disability—not worth our money or time. The pregnant worker, a lesser employee.
What will it take for us to step up like Elizabeth, running out with haste and excitement to help her kin? What will it take for us to recognize the strength and skills of working moms? When will we notice that women are being forced to fight for their dignified work, physically bumping against lower standards? In that instant, I am looking at my reflection in that locked bathroom, smells of disinfectant and stagnant water, tastes of salty sobs and bad office coffee, the whirring noise louder than ever. I ache for young me and for any woman who has walked this path. Those who have no maternity leave. Those who cannot return to their work. Those who cannot stay home. My work is not a perfect career. My motherhood is far from the fantasy I long it to be. It is hard work and it is worthy work and it is good work and there is far more work to be done.
Excerpt from Common Horizon by From Here Media. Copyright © 2023. Used with permission.
Anne Marie Brannigan is an office worker by day and poet in all the other betweens. She graduated with a degree in English from Georgia Regents University (now Augusta University) in 2013. Her writings have been featured in Sandhills Literary Magazine, The Lamp Magazine, and Common Horizon. She lives with her husband and three children in Georgia.