When I was 16-years-old, I decided two things: I would one day become a mother and I would be a medical doctor. That is what I planned to do with my life.
I did everything I thought I needed to do to make my dream a reality. I studied for almost eight years and became a doctor. After that, I studied one more year for a postgraduate degree. I even took additional courses to learn more about my future career.
When I was 30 years old, I became a single mother. I thought I was ready. I had three jobs, a supportive family and a good bank account.
Because of the injustices of our labor laws, I worked without being granted sick leave during my pregnancy. Even though I work in a health-care profession, I was not granted leave for my prenatal appointments. In fact, when I fell during my eighth month of pregnancy, I still had to go to work the next day.
My Cesarean section was scheduled for Dec. 14, and I had to work until Dec. 13. After delivery, I was given only 15 days of leave to be with my baby and to recover from my surgical intervention. After that, I had to pay a nanny to take care of my newborn baby.
The worst thing that happened to me was when I found out that my employer expected me to compensate for my 15 days of maternity leave. I will always remember when my boss told me: “Dr. Marin, we’ve already paid you for the entire month, so you’ll have to pay back in hours the work you didn’t do.”
For two months I had to work for eight hours every Saturday. I felt so mistreated.
I wanted to exclusively breastfeed my baby for at least six months as the World Health Organization recommends. I pumped every time I had a spare moment at home. I could not pump at work since there were no special rooms for lactating women. The first three or four months after childbirth, I only managed to sleep four hours—six if I was lucky—per night, and I had to give up one of my jobs.
I felt this was terribly unfair considering all my jobs were part of my professional development, and I also had patients who I cared about. But then again, I had become a mom, and my son was my number one priority.
While Peru has some maternity laws, they only apply to women who work under an official contract. The hospital I work at, managed by the Peruvian Ministry of Health, pays me for my “productivity” so I am not eligible for these protections.
But even women who do work under contract struggle to balance their careers with motherhood. If you have an official contract with your employer for at least six months, you have the right to one hour for lactation until your baby is one year old. However, you only have the right to maternity leave for a total of 98 days including the time before, during, and after birth.
In this scenario, the great majority of women prefer to keep working until one or two days before delivery, and only then start using their 98 days of leave. When their leave runs out, they must go back to work and leave their three-month old babies at home—even if their babies happen to be born with special needs.
The woman without official contract, money to pay a nanny, and support from her family is going to find herself facing a tough choice: either stop working or leave the baby in a daycare facility. However, daycare also has a cost. And the more expensive it is, the better and safer quality you get for your baby. This sounds like a horror movie, but sadly, it is the truth.
I went once to deliver a donation of little chairs to a daycare facility, and I found all the children crawling on the dirt ground. The walls were made of recycled wood and plastic, and the facility did not have potable water supply or toys. This free daycare center was responsible for overseeing the welfare of about 15 children aged two to four years old. I ask you, if you were a mother who needed to work or continue your studies would you leave your little child in this daycare?
Why is it that in Peru a woman has to choose between being a mother or a professional?
Until my baby was six-months-old, I barely slept. I worked as a medical doctor; I tended to my patients; I worked with my father (an orthopedic surgeon) as his second assistant in surgery; I played with my baby; I took him to all of his medical appointments with the pediatrician; and I took him to get all of his vaccines.
Despite the sadness of leaving my newborn baby at home with a stranger, the pain of my swollen breasts full of milk, and the constant exhaustion, I was working towards my dream: to be a mother as well as a professional.
I am more than happy for it, and really proud of myself. But how many talented women must we lose because they have to take care of their children instead of work? How many doctors, nurses, engineers, artists, economists? How many? Is this the society that Peruvian women want?
I do not want to renounce any of my dreams, and I believe no woman should ever have to renounce any of hers.
Enmita Marin is a contributor from Peru. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.