Today I told my boss that I wasn’t returning to work after Maternity Leave. I told him when he came to chat after Quaker Meeting. I had started the meeting tense because he was the inner doorkeeper this week, and I was expecting the conversation. Previously, I had said I wasn’t sure how and when I wanted to return, and I was feeling twitchy about it, because I was becoming sure that I didn’t want to come back at all. I can’t really reconcile my ambition for breast milk to be my baby’s main food until at least a year old with being at work – especially at the particular shop I work at, where my asking to have somewhere to lie down *on my breaks* was seen as too difficult to make work. Pumping milk and storing it safely? I just don’t see it working, and I’m not happy for my baby to go hungry or to end up on inferior substitutes because my employers are clueless – or, more to the point, because I ignored the fact that my employers are clueless and tried to act as if they weren’t.
It was a proper “Meeting for Worship.” I kept glancing up and seeing my boss, and feeling tense, and imagining how the conversation might go. But after a while, I realised that it was dodging the question that was stressful – in part because concealing the truth didn’t fit with the sort of actions that I wanted myself to be known for. I could hide behind the idea that employers aren’t owed honesty when the less-powerful party has much more to lose, but it would be a dodge, because my living situation is such that my employer doesn’t actually have all that much power over me. For some people – probably most people – concealment might make quite a difference to their security, but that doesn’t hold for me.
I suddenly felt the sun coming out. A tumble of epiphanies all at once. Dodging the question wasn’t right, and wasn’t right for me to do. Integrity. Forthrightness. Simplicity. I would own my decision, and let it be known.
It was still a frightening idea, though. I started to rehearse it in my head, and found that my mental self sounded timid “It would be best for me to-” and “I think I might.” “Owning my decision,” I reminded myself, and stripped the phrasing right down. “This has been a hard decision to make, but I have decided not to return to work.” “I have decided.”
In the end, I did insert an “I think” when I spoke to my boss. But only one – it could have been much worse. I was nervous, so avoided his face with my gaze while I screwed up my courage, but I didn’t qualify and disclaim my way into incomprehensibility.
I think that this conclusion applies quite widely in my life. In discussions of parenting, I try to be relaxed in the face of other parents making decisions different to mine, and only speak up to criticise if they are doing something dangerous and aren’t aware of the risks. But sometimes I hold so far to this principle that I conceal my actual parenting practice, and that doesn’t feel right. For instance, we bedshare. The baby is wearing his pyjamas and a 2.5 tog sleeping bag, and lies between me and the alongside cot with his head on a towel that is also underneath me (to catch any wayward milk). The duvet is shifted towards my husband’s side of the bed, leaving a foot of clear space for the baby to sleep on, and it is tucked in at the foot of the bed to stop it from migrating. I sometimes have a cold left arm and shoulder, but am usually fairly covered. The baby snuggles up and often holds my arm, in any case. This is “safe co-sleeping,” but the health visitors officially disapprove (even if as individuals most of them know it’s fine), despite the numerous benefits for mother and baby. On parenting forums, I often see women disclaiming to hell and back every time they mention bedsharing, and, well, is it neccessary? I feel led to, from now on, live and speak my truth more plainly.
I’m often tempted to dissemble when speaking to someone whose worldview differs from mine. I think it is probably half and half a noble and an ignoble motivation: Nobly, I want to get along comfortably with strangers at the bus stop, allow them to feel heard by this stranger they’ve just met, make connections with people even with whom I differ; ignobly I don’t want to put up with a fuss when I’m waiting for a bus, and fear conflict. I want people to like me. If I tell a mum who is weaning her baby onto complementary foods at five months that she’s wrong to do so, will that make me any friends? I gauge her commitment to the course of action with a test question, “The guidance says to wait until six months now, doesn’t it? That’s what we’re doing,” and then discuss more or let it go depending on the response. At the end of the day, there are a lot of things that go into parenting, and the one “wrong” decision that you are seeing is unlikely to be the decider of the child’s fate. One of my friends has her baby sleep on her tummy rather than her back: I know that she didn’t make that decision in ignorance of the guidance, but after reviewing the guidance and considering in in the context of her child’s needs. Just like I did with bedsharing. General guidance is offered in general, stripped of nuance in the interests of benefiting a large number of babies, or to avoid great harm to a smaller number. It’s informed by statistics, and it’s by looking at the statistics and caviats that you can make an informed decision to follow it or not.
Dissembling, or concealing ones decisions, partly comes from a desire to smooth over and avoid awkwardness. My enlightenment in Meeting, however, shows me that it can also come from a place of uncertainty – if someone were to question my decision, would it hold up to reason? Would I feel embarrassed? Perhaps so. And perhaps, for decisions that I’m going along with without making or owning for myself, that’s inevitable – I can’t defend them because I don’t endorse them, and for that to be revealed is embarrassing.
In future, I shall try to decide and apply judgement to my decisions, and so, be able to claim and defend them.