The Invisible Cost of Missing Out on Maternity Leave

The definition of wealth in our society can be a murky one. Is it the money we make? Is the title next to our names? Is it our health? Is it the memories we bank with our friends, family and children? It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story of what others think we “should ” be doing with our own lives at the expense of other forms of personal wealth.

Hustle gets praised in a hustle culture. Advancement gets lauded when we prop up people who advance. For Amanda Moriuchi, CEO of AppIt Ventures, all of that flipped when she gave birth to her son Bennett. She found that the inertia and incentives to push herself and her company to new heights so soon after childbirth caused the wealth that mattered most to come tumbling down. 

In an interview with Tilt, Amanda shared a message she gives to her employees today as it pertains to their relationship with work and childbirth: “I demand you take your full maternity leave, and if you don’t, I will fire you. It’s a non-negotiable.” Adding, “When you’re ready, we’ll talk about why that matters.”

I demand you take your full maternity leave, and if you don’t, I will fire you. It’s a non-negotiable.”

Why it matters to Amanda becomes clear when unpacking the consequences she has dealt with, and is still dealing with, for pushing maternity leave to the side. It’s been several years (and thousands in medical and therapy bills) since the day Bennett was born. One week earlier than Amanda expected.

She remembers her first thoughts being, “Oh damn, I had planned on having more time for work,” and will be the first to admit that in hindsight it should have been “I get to meet my son a week early!” A reflection that weighs heavy on her today.

“I worked until late that Tuesday night,” she recalled, “and I was like ‘Okay, I’m going to go off and be a mom tomorrow.’” She remembered thinking to herself, “Oh, I’ve got this, I can do anything.”

Narrator: She couldn’t.

It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Bennett was born on a Wednesday via C-section and by Friday Amanda found AppIt in the death throes of a cash-flow nosedive that required her full attention. Back to work she went.  

When the Show Must Go On

Amanda’s return-to-work experience is far from an isolated one, as currently one-in-four moms return to work within 10 days of childbirth according to the advocacy group Paid Leave US (PL+US).

Amanda was at a crossroads she wasn’t anticipating. She was already a stepmom to two wonderful children, but being a mom to a newborn meant she was now responsible for keeping two entities alive, Bennett and AppIt. She had been so focused on the external wealth her successful career brought her that she neglected all other areas of her life. She never gave herself the time to heal mentally or physically, and her opportunities to just be a mom in those most critical early moments in Bennett’s life had slipped away.

Her journey is a lesson for women in any position, at any company, and is a testament to how critical “paid leave for all” is as a human right.

“I hadn’t been cleared of any physical activity,” she said. “I think Bennett was maybe a month old. I hadn’t even fully healed from my C-section, so I would bring him into work with me and take client calls and meet with people and work around him waking up and being hungry.”

With her life out of balance severe anxiety set in, but Amanda was admittedly deep in her new-mom, CEO hustle with AppIt, and to the outside observer she was crushing it. With more time in the professional spotlight, the warning signs of her life unraveling were easy to overlook, tucked away in the shadows.

…I would bring him into work with me and take client calls and meet with people and work around him waking up and being hungry.”

Leaders often battle anxiety they aren’t encouraged to show on the surface, and the evolution of our society has played a large role. As psychologist Rollo May puts it, “We are no longer prey to tigers and mastodons, but to damage to our self-esteem, ostracism by our group, or the threat of losing out in the competitive struggle.”

“I remember feeling like I didn’t have a choice, which you do, you always have a choice, but I just shut that part off,” she said. “I wouldn’t allow myself to feel anything. And I dealt with that later.”

Soul Meets Body

Back when Bennett was still a newborn and with AppIt stabilized and climbing, it was time for Amanda to focus on getting her body back into pre-mom shape. She still felt she could do anything and the success of her business was proving it. The external pressures on appearance added yet another layer of anxiety-riddled complexity.

Amanda tells the story of how she remembered a Victoria’s Secret model returning to the runway shortly after giving birth and voila, her benchmark was set. Treating her body like she did Appit, Amanda poured all her energy into looking good at the expense of what she really needed, getting healthy.  

While there are resources on healthy exercises a new mom can do, Amanda had bigger aspirations. “The effort I put into my body to ‘look good’ instead of ‘get healthy.’ caused a lot of damage, and as a result, I now live with an umbilical hernia and other related complications. My abs were split and I didn’t realize it, a condition that was made worse by my exercise choices. Yet again I was blinded by focusing on the end result of looking good, and not on what I needed to be healthy.” 

Physically failing and mentally struggling from a cocktail of unprocessed emotions, she reached a tipping point and turned to professional practitioners for help. A mixture of medication and therapy would give her the clarity to realize what she was doing to herself.

By not taking maternity leave and not taking the time to bond with her son, she had sacrificed so much of the wealth that mattered to her. She’ll never be able to rewind the clock and bond with Bennett. She’ll never be able to go back and heal her body correctly, and they are mistakes she hopes no one she knows ever has to go through.

“Having Bennett come into our lives was a sacred moment and I missed it,” she says. “And I get to carry the burden for that for the rest of my life. I can choose how to use that burden for my improvement and the improvement of my community, but at the end of the day, my heartbreak is that I didn’t get to meet my son the way that I wanted to.”

…but at the end of the day, my heartbreak is that I didn’t get to meet my son the way that I wanted to.”

This is why taking maternity leave matters. For Amanda, this is why it’s a non-negotiable. 

The Price of Praise

Up until Bennett’s birth Amanda had been able to accomplish anything she set her mind to, so there weren’t any data points to convey that a different mindset was necessary to not lose everything. 

Two super humans!

People who hustle for their success are sometimes portrayed as “badasses,” and if you make it to CEO you might even be considered “superhuman!” These were the descriptors that had been applied to Amanda, and those monickers come loaded with expectations. She had no intention of giving people a reason to think she wasn’t worthy of those of those labels and she paid the price for it.

While burnout and stress are at all-time highs across all professions, we continue to receive praise for achieving more than we are often capable of sustaining. 

“What upsets me is I was rewarded,” she recalls. “I was praised for that kind of behavior. People would say to me, ‘Oh my god you’re such a badass. You’re such an inspiration.’ In reality, I was making steep sacrifices that very few actually saw.”

She adds, “Everybody can look at just the positive because that’s all that anybody wants to show. But it’s not real.”

A New Way of Living

As children, we are carefree and curious. We don’t factor in the thoughts and opinions of others when determining our decisions. As adults, it’s often too hard to discern the source of invisible forces persistently pushing us to produce. We rarely stop to think if these achievements and accolades really important, or if you’re sacrificing what matters because you’ve been led to believe they are?

I was praised for that kind of behavior. People would say to me, ‘Oh my god you’re such a badass. You’re such an inspiration.’ In reality, I was making steep sacrifices that very few actually saw.”

Amanda believes that “whether you’re a CEO, an employee or a solopreneur, you need to trust your intuition because you know better than you give yourself credit for. And we make the best choices with the time that we have, with the data that we have and our only responsibility is to choose better when we know better.”

It’s important to be able to choose when we push through the uphill of any climb, and Amanda wants to remind us that “we always have a choice.”  There are more forms of wealth than just monetary, and it’s time we highlight those as a society.

While we all can choose what matters to us in life, the sad reality in the United States today is that not everyone has that choice when it comes to work leave. Not everyone has access to paid leave for life’s most critical moments, and in cases like Amanda’s, when they do, there are so many external pressures telling us we need to be badasses, and badasses can and should push through anything.

“I don’t want my colleagues to go through what I went through. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational. It affected every area of my life. I often wonder how my life would be had I not taken the path that I took.”

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