I remember scrolling through Alysia Montaño’s Instagram feed while nursing my younger daughter. We’d both given birth in the summer of 2014 and both of us were runners. Granted, while Montaño won a national championship when she was eight months pregnant, I was just happy to be teaching my weekly spin class one day shy of my due date.
The Olympian and seven-time national champion appeared to have it all: a healthy child, a supportive husband and her dream job. What she didn’t have, though, was maternity leave.
On Mother’s Day, the New York Times published Montaño’s story exposing Nike’s reaction to her plans to become pregnant. As Montaño told CBS, her then-sponsor said, “We’ll just pause your contract and stop paying you.” Since Montaño’s revelation, Allyson Felix, an Olympic gold medalist and world champion in track, has come forward with her own story of Nike’s refusal to guarantee her paycheck during pregnancy. Meanwhile, Nike has promised to protect athletes’ pay during pregnancy, and members of Congress have asked Nike to provide details about its policies.
Watching Montaño train and race through pregnancy and the postpartum period, I had no idea she was driven not just by her passion, but by the terms of her contract. Running fed her soul, but it also had to feed her family. And as she recently revealed, the costs were huge.
Still, many would consider Montaño fortunate. With flexible hours and the ability to work from home, she could hop on her treadmill while her baby napped, or lift weights in her garage. She was free to train at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., and nurse her daughter between intervals, as long as she performed.
While the U.S. remains the only industrialized country without national paid family leave, for many parents, self-employment or contract employment may seem like the next best thing. But even without the pressures of being beholden to an employer with rigid hours, strict time-off policies and tedious commutes, self-employed or contractor parents shoulder heavy burdens. Under the best of circumstances, new parents are under tremendous strain, whether they earn a living running track or running a business.
Like Montaño, Molly Canu sets her own hours. As a self-employed personal trainer, Canu regularly commuted from her home in Tarrytown, N.Y. to New York City. Meeting clients before and after their own work hours often meant leaving at 5 a.m. and returning home at 9 p.m., a schedule she knew would be unsustainable with a family. Though she says she felt lucky to have loyal clients, she was “terrified” of having to create her own maternity leave when her son was born two years ago.
Canu’s decision to take six weeks off and return to work gradually came with a high price.
Once she was ready to return to a full schedule, difficulty finding child care got in the way, and forced her to turn clients away.
In addition to financial stress, Canu faced emotional and physical hurdles. Her husband returned to work when their son was four days old. She recalls:
Though she wanted to breast-feed, initial difficulties and the logistics of pumping between clients led Canu to choose formula. And while she felt fortunate to have the opportunity to slowly increase her work hours, she says she needed more time to heal. After a delivery that caused vaginal tearing, even working three partial days per week drained her energy and put uncomfortable pressure on her pelvic floor. She sought pelvic floor physical therapy (not covered by insurance). She advises her clients to allow their bodies a full year to recover from pregnancy, even though she wasn’t able to do that for herself.
“Even if you feel better, there’s soft tissue and that takes a really long time to heal,” she says.
Montaño, too, may have benefited from more recovery time, but without a guaranteed paycheck, she didn’t have that option. In a video accompanying her New York Times story, she says that by the time her daughter was born, Asics had replaced Nike as her sponsor. But Asics threatened to stop paying her. So she jumped back into running and did her best to protect her postpartum body from the rigors of her sport. She ran with her abs taped together because of a diastasis recti (a separation of the abdominal muscles) and wore a brace while lifting weights.
Montaño might have spoken up sooner had she not been required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with Nike, but some parents avoid talking openly about the stress of not having paid leave because they think it could affect their career negatively. Tampa dad Dwayne Vera was happy at his job when his now 1-year-old daughter was born. But when his start-up employer ruled out remote work and required him to return to the office only two days after her birth, Vera quit. He took four months off and then struck out on his own as a consultant.
He worried his employment gap would permanently affect his employability and earning potential. Meanwhile, his family was living off savings while he mapped out his next career move. The immense financial stress coupled with the demands of having a newborn left Vera overwhelmed. He was reluctant to share his feelings with anyone, including his wife, who had her own stress as a new mom.
He says men stay quiet, rather than risk being perceived as ungrateful for the opportunity to support their families.
A Pew study, for example, found 15 percent of Americans think men shouldn’t be allowed any paternity leave, even unpaid, while only 3 percent think mothers shouldn’t receive maternity leave.
Some self-employed parents who take family leave find it challenging to balance work and family. Since his daughter’s birth in April, independent PR and marketing consultant Heath Fradkoff works about six hours per day instead of the usual eight to 10. In his Brooklyn home, he divides his attention between his laptop and his family. While he’s happy to be able to take his share of his daughter’s night feedings and play with his 3-year-old son during the day, he often feels anxious trying to juggle both at the same time.
Finding balance is indeed tough. Montaño competed at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing just days after her daughter’s first birthday. An ocean away from her family, she pumped breast milk to be shipped home.
Many of us face similar hard choices. Even in the absence of the demands of a traditional workplace, parents often struggle with whatever choice they make. When he needs to work, Fradkoff says, “every time [my son is] like ‘Hey Daddy, come play with me,’ ‘Cat’s [in the] Cradle’ starts going in the back of my head, you know, as the soundtrack ... I don’t want to turn my kid away.”
Pam Moore is a freelance writer, group fitness instructor and mom based in Boulder, Colo.