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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A year "off" : how mothers challenge and conform to gender on maternity leave Dengate, Jennifer Lynn


What actually happens on maternity leave? Leave involves long-term employment interruption but do new mothers completely trade career for caregiving? Moreover, what happens if they do? Using longitudinal interviews, this research investigates the influence of Canadian mothers’ jobs on their leave and return-to-work experiences. Intensive mothering dominates mothers’ leave experience. Successfully “doing” leave, according to gendered cultural notions of proper maternal behaviour, means mothers are responsible for the baby at all times and put babies’ needs first. However, this research finds that Canadian mothers construct their leaves in response to the pressures of both intensive mothering ideology and ideal worker norms that demand consistent career attachment. Efforts to resolve the emerging tension between caregiving and career produces a variety of leave and return-to-work approaches. Mothers’ unique job context dictates the degree to which they experience ideal worker pressure and, as a result, the extent to which they can detach from their careers. Mothers who strongly detach from their jobs are more likely to experience work anxiety, diminished professional confidence, and skill stagnation. Those remaining strongly attached experience insufficient caregiving time. Regardless of degree of work attachment, inflexible returns to full-time work increase work-family conflict, often resulting in job-specific concessions to preserve caregiving time. Mothers who cut-back on job duties or hours to preserve caregiving time may risk wage and achievement penalties after leave. In contrast, mothers integrating a moderate degree of professional activity with caregiving, both on leave and during the return-to-work transition, the report the most work-family balance. The benefits associated with moderate integration of career and caregiving are contingent upon mothers’ ability to control the nature of their career attachment. However, the extent of new mothers’ work activity is largely determined by their jobs and fathers’ participation in caregiving. As such, only some have the opportunity to challenge intensive mothering after childbirth, should they require an alternative work-family approach.

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