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We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Maternity Leave

It’s not just a “women’s issue”

03.23.17
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Before I had my daughter, the concept of maternity leave made sense to me. It seemed — in an abstract, removed way — like the right thing to fight for. A few months spent at home caring for my newborn daughter was all it took to drastically change my views. What I’ve come to realize is that maternity leave isn’t enough. We aren’t asking for enough. Maternity leave, in lieu of paid leave for all caregivers, not only immediately genders the shit out of child rearing, it also relegates this work to a woman. Solo. Alone, at home, trying to figure everything out and keep herself and an inchoate human alive while recovering from something pretty physically taxing. Does that not seem like an impossible ask?

Maternity leave is in the news after a former law student of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch alleged via public letter that Gorsuch had said, during a classroom discussion, that “’many’ women use companies for maternity benefits and then leave the company after the baby is born.” He also allegedly stated that, “companies must ask females about their family and pregnancy plans to protect the company.” (NPR reports that another student is disputing this account and Gorsuch has denied it; Monday was day one of his confirmation hearings.) It is, in fact, not illegal to ask a woman about her plans for a family during an interview — though it is illegal to discriminate against her given her response.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the U.S.’s parental leave policies are regressive and out of step with almost every other developed nation in the world. If you haven’t read at least five think pieces/anger-inducing reports on this topic, I envy you.

According to a Forbes piece optimistically titled, “U.S. Dead Last Among Developed Countries When It Comes to Paid Maternity Leave,” “the only other country that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers is Papua New Guinea.” As The Washington Post explained in a story titled, “The World is Getting Better at Paid Maternity Leave. The U.S. is Not.,” “Despite having one of the world’s most advanced economies, the United States lags far behind other countries in its policies for expectant mothers. In addition to being the only highly competitive country where mothers are not guaranteed paid leave, it sits in stark contrast to countries such as Cuba and Mongolia that offer expectant mothers one year or more of paid leave.” Notice that both stories still refer to leave as the domain of women. A story from PS Mag paints an even more dire picture, noting that, “nearly one in four women [in the U.S.] who took leave to care for a new baby took only two weeks or fewer off,” and, “about half of those women were back to work in under a week.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if Gorsuch — or employers, both male and female — felt that women of childbearing age were some sort of liability. In fact, studies have proven this bias. Often when we discuss topics like pregnancy, birth or child raising, we center women and women’s bodies and sideline or erase men. As the ACLU explained, the Trump administration has focused on maternity leave “for married birth mothers only.” Not only does this “lead to reluctance to hire or promote women,” it also “ignores everyone else…dads, non-birth moms in same-sex partnerships, two-dad families, and adoptive parents.”

Everyone’s experience is different, but for me, staying at home and trying to take care of a newborn was extremely stressful. It’s hard to describe it in a way that doesn’t tip into cliche — no time to eat or prepare meals for yourself, barely time to shower, sleeping in two to three hour shifts, never changing clothes, etc. etc. rinse repeat. Maybe describing it feels like a stereotype because we’ve heard this same story over and over again without taking it too seriously. Living this life is isolating in a way that’s almost impossible to identify with if you haven’t gone through it. One might even go so far as to assume that the lawmakers responsible for our current state of affairs haven’t been put in this position.

Parental leave isn’t a “women’s” issue. The more we frame it as such, the more likely women of childbearing age will be seen as “host body” ticking time bombs. Caring for a child is physically and mentally exhausting. That women are expected to do this by their lonesome right after childbirth is ridiculous. That a large percentage aren’t even granted such a non-luxury, that many women have to return to work days or weeks after childbirth, is criminal. I obviously don’t have all the answers, and I’m still unpacking how I feel about my own experiences. But it seems to me that at even in its very best form, maternity leave still sets up women to fail. Why is a few weeks, even three months paid, still the brass ring we’re all reaching for?

Photo by Jeffrey Coolidge via Getty Images.

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  • RattlesnakeKate

    Thank you for this article. My husband and I are trying to start a family, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that my employer provides six weeks of paid parental leave (for mothers and fathers), and that I have enough paid leave accrued to take the full 12 weeks provided by FMLA.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my colleagues and I are represented by a strong labor union. Sadly, I think the rise in pro-business/anti-labor sentiment in US politics has created an environment where paid maternal leave for any amount of time is decades away. (Tbh, I am a little worried about the continuation of FMLA under this administration.)

  • Wonderfully written! It seems as US maternity leave laws are created my men. I feel extremely blessed to be living in Germany. We get one year maternity leave per couple, shared between the two parents if desired. I just can’t imagine what it does to a woman going back to work, a week after giving birth. How awful!
    Love from https://tbymallano.com/

    • Basil

      Exactly! The UK recently introduced shared parental leave – maternity leave us up to 52 weeks guaranteed leave, partly paid (I have a generous employer that gives six months full salary, then it goes down after that) which can be shared between the parents. The take up has been slow but the option is there.

      I totally agree with the author though – that although a blessing, it can be a curse for a woman. Because you get the leave you end up being the main caregiver and caring for an infant can be stressful and isolating. When I went back to work a friend asked which was harder – staying home with the baby or being in the office. Definitely the baby. It’s wonderful and beautiful but can be incredibly hard, physically tortuous and lonely

  • Anne Dyer

    Yes Leslie, yes. Thank you for starting this conversation. The effects of birthing on the body coupled with the jarring responsibility of caring for a newborn is overwhelming. When you add the stress of “enjoying the moment” because you must return to work in eight weeks it can be anxiety inducing. I was given twelve weeks paid (which is considered a long time as you know) and even at that I remember stumbling into a Zara two weeks before my return with leaky breasts and a newborn trying to find a blazer to fit for my impending return return. After baby number two we decided I would stay home and that freeing feeling was liberty at its best.

  • I am currently on Maternity leave and being in the U.K. I am ‘lucky’ enough to be entitled to Statutory Maternity pay for 9 months. This barely covers a third of my normal salary. Also, many people seem to view it as almost a holiday. Only now, 3 months in, am I managing to get some sense of routine and time to actually both eat and clean during the day. But there is also the taboo of me actually wanting to return to work after 6 months. Disregarding the money aspect, I want adult company on a daily basis again and some mental stimulation.

    I don’t understand why as women we are expected to have family or career, I fell pregnant unexpectedly so wouldn’t have been able to tell my employer my ‘plans’ as there were none. Just because I now have a family doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to my role in the company in the same way.

  • Kate

    We need paid family leave for all workers. Whether it’s a disabled sibling, sick [grand]parent, or newborn, we have a human right to provide care for our families without going into extreme debt or losing our homes. I think the reason we frame the entire issue as a mom-centric one is because American society is super comfortable criminalizing pregnancy, and mandating motherhood. So they keep the conversation shrouded in these simple “shoulda kept your legs closed” terms we’re all familiar with. That way they never have to explore the implications and benefits that fully fledged family leave would have.

    • snakehissken

      Actually, Hillary’s platform did include paid family leave for all workers. So the idea is out there, it’s just not getting the political traction that it deserves.

      • Kate

        I doubt Hillary is who this author was referring to in describing lawmakers and our fights for scraps of paid leave…

        • snakehissken

          That wasn’t my point. The article is about how the conversation only includes talk about maternity leave. That’s not really true at the political level when one of the two major presidential candidates was promising something far beyond that…. but there was essentially no coverage on the policy. It should have been so popular that everyone had to adopt it, like wearing a flag pin.

          The thing is that a lot of this problem is cultural. Even in the countries where parental leave is for any parent and families can split it however they like, women take most of the leave. Back when Tony Blair was PM, he was criticized for not setting an example by taking at least a little paternity leave at the birth of his fourth(?) child, but there were a ton of people that rolled their eyes that a world leader would do that. I believe it’s Sweden that’s started making a dent by promising an extra two months of leave if the father takes the time off (I’m not sure how this works for non-hetero parents.)

  • Caroline

    To be honest, it can’t be said often enough; child care is not a mothers task only. I often wondered, i was pregnant 9 month, what if it was obligatory for the partner to spend the same time caring for his/her baby? Luckily, living in Austria, we have multiple options for parental leave. However, it is women who are expected to take the leave, and as a mother who chose to go back to work 3 months after child birth, I can tell you that no employer has understanding for a breastfeeding, full-time working mum. So maybe the US have more work to catch up to other countries, but even in those countries where we’ve made progress, we’re nowhere near finished when it comes to fighting for our rights.

  • Stephanie

    I think the reason the discussion focuses primarily around birthing mothers is because she is the one who experiences a medical event with the birth. If you are lucky enough to work for an employer who offers short term disability then as the birthing parent you may have some portion paid because you had a medical event. (My work is 6 weeks for a vaginal birth, 8 for a c section) That said, non-birthing parents are also subject to all of the stresses of a newborn as well. It is time to support families and all parents- birthing and non-birthing.

    • Leslie Price

      It’s such a complicated issue and I have a lot of thoughts around the birthing conversation as well, but yes – we should support all families.

    • Suzy Lawrence

      Your company determines leave time by the method for which the child is born? Are you expected to present this medical information to an HR representative immediately after labor?

      • Stephanie

        Actually, yes. It’s through short term disability so it would be like any medical event you had (any surgery or illness that required you to miss work for an extended period of time). My work has it administered through a third party, so it’s not really my work’s HR department. But I did recently give birth and had to fax over releases so the disability insurance could get my medical records

        • Suzy Lawrence

          That is so interesting to me. Thank you for the response. Congratulations on the new baby!

  • Thorhildur Asgeirsdóttir

    Leslie, great writing.
    ALSO
    The photo => ~*Get Out vibes*~

  • Meg S

    The only conversation about maternity leave that I want to have is that paternity leave should be given too. It’s not just the mother that needs to bond with and care for a new baby. Fathers need this too, and they should be included in parental leave. I also think it should be longer, and that every office should have a proper parent’s room.

  • Jenny

    This is such a good conversation to have. Even here in Ireland where we get great maternity benefits (either 6 months full pay or 6 months statutory pay (depending on your company), plus 16 weeks unpaid leave and any holidays accrued during that time), dads still only get two weeks paternity leave, which leaves it to women to do the bulk of the childcare. The Scandinavian countries really are streets ahead when it comes to shared parental leave. I really feel for parents in America, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to return to work barely weeks after giving birth/bringing a baby home and trying to adjust your life, and it must be really hard on the babies too. It’s so regressive and penalises women, making those in the 20 – 40 ish age bracket less employable (despite what laws are there to supposedly prevent discrimination).

  • Exactly right! “…that many women have to return to work days or weeks after childbirth, is criminal”. Isn’t this a human rights issue??!! As soon as I started working in the States I was amazed that things like a culture of maternity leave covers as a normal and expected part of the workforce WEREN’T a thing.

    “One might even go so far as to assume that the lawmakers responsible for
    our current state of affairs haven’t been put in this position”. Lol, yep.

    Love this, thanks!

  • b.e.g.

    Once again the USA is leagues behind other developed nations. All we care about in this nation is the bottom line of businesses. Lawmakers should have addressed this decades ago. But, nope. It is nuts. Maternity leave should be at least 1 year. Both parents (whatever gender) can split up the time maybe? Or some other way of working it out. But weeks off after the birth of a baby (6-8 depending on the birth type) is just plain criminal.

    Great article, Leslie. I hope your generation can bring change to this issue (and others naturally).

  • Martina

    In sweden we have right to parental leave until the child is 18 months. Some of it is ‘reserved’ leave for the father to increase the percentages of men that go on parental leave. It is still a issue that in a lot of households, the man has a higher salery so the family would get less money during those months. Also I am not sure how it works for same sex couples.

    Also for an employer to ask about family plans is illegal.

  • Daria

    We have a maternity leave of 70 days and the rest of it, up to 3 years total, can’t be used by the mother or ‘care-giver’ – not necessarily the father of the child but grandparents, in-laws, uncles and aunts etc.

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