11 Nov Paid Maternity Leave – Why are we still talking about it?

When I was pregnant with my second child, I was entitled to twelve weeks leave from work. However, only two of those weeks were paid leave; the rest was unpaid. When I told this to some European friends during a visit, the room went silent. My friends could not quite comprehend what I was talking about. I continued to explain how I resolved some of the financial loss by using up my saved vacation days, which covered an additional three weeks. One of my friends almost choked on her coffee: “You did what now?” She was puzzled, because if I used all my vacation days for maternity leave, then when was I going to have a vacation that year? Well, there is always next year. When you work full-time and have a toddler and a newborn at home, who needs a vacation? Right?

There is a reason my friends were having such a hard time with this. To put this in perspective, paid maternity leave for working women in many countries in Europe is mandated–often with a significant proportion of your salary–for at least fourteen weeks. In some countries women can take some of that leave prior to her due date to prepare for the new baby. In other countries the leave is even more extended and/or offers paternity leave as well, to encourage men to take time to bond with their child. In fact, according to the International Labour Organization, which looked at data of 185 countries and territories, the US is one of the two countries that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and thus the only, yes – the ONLY,  developed country that does not.

Please, take some time to let that sink in.

Compared to my European friends it seemed like I was receiving the short end of the stick. However, what I did not quite appreciate at the time, was that compared to many women working in the U.S, I was privileged. Let me explain. The FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) was passed in 1993. It provides for unpaid, job-protected leave for employees meeting certain criteria. To be eligible for FMLA, your company must employ more than 50 people and you must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year. It’s hard to find recent numbers, but according to a survey conducted for the Department of Labor in 2012, only 60% of all workers are covered by the FMLA, and less than one-fifth of all new mothers.

Even for eligible women, many will not take the full twelve weeks because their family is dependent on their pay check. Data from the same survey, analyzed for an article in In These Times, shows that 23% of women who had taken leave for a new baby were back at work within two weeks. Two weeks! At that time I was still sitting on one of those donut shaped pillows and figuring out how to breastfeed…

Now, I think we would all intuitively agree that having enough protected time for every parent to bond with and care for their baby, can only be beneficial. And does paid leave concern women only? No, it doesn’t. But this is a mommy-blog. We, the women, are the ones giving birth. If men had figured out how to do this, I wonder if we would even be having this discussion. Giving birth and having a newborn is exhilarating and wonderful, but also exhausting. Our body needs time to recuperate properly, during a period riddled with sleep-deprivation, while trying to meet the ongoing demands of a newborn.

For instance, take breastfeeding, of which the benefits for child and mother have been shown over and over again. As many women know, it takes time and support to establish breastfeeding, which can be a struggle. In 2012 the non-profit Save the Children reported on breastfeeding practices in industrialized countries. Norway, which has a generous paid maternity leave, topped the cart with 99% of babies having ever been breastfed, and 70% exclusively breastfed at three months of age, versus 75% and 35% respectively in the U.S. Are there other factors influencing these numbers? Probably. But would a paid maternity leave for all working mothers help increase ours? I think so.

In California, one of the few states that actually has implemented a paid maternity leave, 91% of the businesses reported no negative effects in profitability from allowing this. So what is holding us back? As a nation, shouldn’t we decide that paid maternity leave for all is something that is just plain common sense? That it is something that would benefit the health of our working mothers and their children? Shouldn’t we be sending the message to our young women and daughters that becoming a mother is something that should not be penalized, but instead be celebrated and supported?

In this day and age, as we are asking for more women to “lean in,” a significant portion of women are either forced out of employment as babies are being born, or struggling to make the combination of motherhood and work a success. Let’s take maternity leave out of this struggle. Honestly, why are we even still talking about this?

Mother, writer and physician, who has lived in both Europe and US.
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