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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