I was recently on the phone with a friend of mine who is 40 weeks pregnant. (My husband has dubbed 2011 "The Year of the Baby" because pretty much every couple we know is having a baby.) She was having very painful contractions that were coming at regular intervals.
"I think you should go to the hospital," I told her.
"No, I can't," she said. "I still have to go to work tomorrow so it won't count as a day off."
I can't throw stones. I spent most of the day I went into labor having contractions at work that were increasingly painful, and ignored the charge nurse yelling at me that she was NOT going to be delivering my baby. I had to get my work done for the day so that it would "count." (In my defense, the contractions were still 15 minutes apart when I finally went home.)
Honestly, I liked it that when people asked me when I was due, I could reply, "Tomorrow." I was proud of myself for working till the day I went into labor for two pregnancies. But that was pretty much all I liked. The last two weeks of pregnancy were an uncomfortable blur of swollen and achy feet, exhaustion, having to pause dictations multiple times to catch my breath, and Braxton-Hicks contractions that liked to come when I was driving. If staying home during that time wouldn't have cost me any money or time with my baby, I wouldn't have hesitated to do so.
FMLA guarantees 12 weeks off. That seems like a long time in some ways, probably the longest I've gone without work or school since I was three years old, but it also means you're going back to work and leaving a two and a half month old baby behind. It means that you don't want to sacrifice any of that time to stay home without a baby in your arms.
And a lot of residents and other professionals take far less than 12 weeks off. I know many women who took only 6 weeks off. I know a few who only took 4 weeks off.
This is not unique to medicine. Most of the women I know in other fields also worked until the bitter end. I don't know any who were happy to be still working at 40 weeks, but it's a necessity when the law only gives us a maximum of 12 weeks, and often that time is unpaid. Canada gives women a whole year to spend with their babies.
I'm not sure I'd enjoy taking a whole year off or if I'd really do it. But it would certainly be nice to live in a country where it was an easy option.