With just a few days left of my leave, I have a lot of feelings. About maternity leave as a concept. About this country’s view on maternity leave. And just the expectations of new mothers in general. I’ve written a lot in the past year and a half, and been pretty honest. But, this one will probably be my most honest yet.
***Note: This is not an attack on my employer. I love where I work and I think it has a lot of family-friendly and flexible policies on the whole. It doesn’t have the worst leave benefits I’ve heard of, but it also doesn’t have the best. I am grateful to have been able to be off for 12 weeks with my little guy. But, this post is more about the way maternity leave is looked at in the big picture, and how it is in fact, trash.
US vs Everybody
If you look at other “wealthy countries”, the U.S. is, by a LONG SHOT, the worst country for maternity leave benefits offering a whopping ZERO weeks of paid leave. Yes, that is a big fat 0. See this chart for comparison:
Credit: Washington Post
Former President Bill Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act which requires employers to protect the jobs of pregnant mothers for 12 weeks. But, doesn’t require them to pay. It just means you can’t get fired for getting pregnant. Gee, how generous. Basically, the philosophy from the US is that it should be up to the employer because paying for leave would be a substantial burden especially for small businesses, so each should get to choose how they want to handle it.
When’s the last time you gave businesses in a capitalist society a choice on how they want to handle their money and on a large scale they were like, yeah we should pay people for a substantial period of time while they aren’t working?
I agree that I am sure paying people for leave would be/is a burden, but it also doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do both morally, but also economically. In the same Washington Post article I referenced above, the author writes “Research has shown that paid maternity leave is associated with better job performance and retention among mothers, increased family incomes, and increased economic growth.” So, if we looked at the big picture, I think it would actually be beneficial.
Currently, as I understand it, you are required to be able to take your 12 weeks without being fired. And, as part of FMLA, you can qualify as “disabled” for either 6 weeks for a vaginal delivery or 8 weeks for a cesarian section delivery. Since you are “disabled” you can get 60% of your pay for those 6 or 8 weeks. And the rest…well, that depends. Some employers offer some portion of your salary and for some of the time. Some give nothing. Some are ‘so kind’ as to let you take your own earned vacation/sick/PTO time so that you can get paid while you’re out. Others let you take your leave and then let you add on the PTO time afterwards. But those amounts obviously vary and depend on whether you got pregnant in a convenient time of your life after accruing enough time to get paid for most or all of what is left of your unpaid leave. That sometimes means, for people who are planning or trying to get pregnant, or for people who find out they are pregnant early on, skipping vacations or coming to work while sick in order to save that time to use while they’re on leave. This seems BANANAS to me. It also leaves mothers returning from leave quite vulnerable because they often have no days they could take in the case of sickness or emergency for them or their child(ren). But alas.
I sit in a privileged place where I knew I had enough PTO time to get paid for most of my leave. And I knew I could stretch some pennies to be able to deal with the 60% for a couple weeks. I was determined to take as much time off as I could. But there are many women who get no pay at all. Or can’t survive with only 60% of their pay for any period of time. Those women are forced to go back to work a few days after giving birth or cut any leave time very short. And that to me is devastating. As I sit here in my feelings about going back now, I always have that on my mind as well. At least I got my full 12 weeks, even if it meant saving sheckles for a bit to make it happen.
I also had the monkey wrench of my child showing up 6 weeks early and being hospitalized for the first two weeks of his life. I reached out to HR asking if there were any accomodations given those circumstances and the response was that the leave is based on the condition of the mother, not the condition of the child. Again, this is not an employer specific opinion but a philosophical component of parental leave in the US as a whole
If mothers who give birth are considered disabled, and that is how they “earn” a percentage of pay for a percentage of the leave time they’re required to be offered, then they are as I have always suspected superhuman. Because I have never done more with my body or my mind than I did in those first 6 weeks of my child’s life.
There are so many women who want, and those who need, to be home to care for their new babies and they simply cannot because they cannot survive financially. My mom wanted to stay home so she did, and worked nights at a restaurant to make ends meet. Legit. HOW. I think about that often now and I have no clue how she did that. When talking about equaltiy in pay for women this is a huge factor. Don’t even get me started on parental leave for partners who didn’t give birth or those who adopted. That is even more of a joke, most places. But it is all based on the fact that federally leave is based on the birth mother being disabled. If we started looking at leave for what it is, caring for young children who need a lot of care and attention, then I think policies would change. But, then again, it’s all about the dolla dolla billz y’all. Sure there are some progressive companies who offer a much more generous leave than they are required to (High five to those like Google and Apple, and others). There are few enough of them that can be named in a relatively short list.
Every child is different, but how many parents would say their brain is functioning at top speed when they are three months? How many are getting even close to a normal amount of sleep? Shout out to those babies who do sleep through the night early on though; mine is def NOT one of those. He has reflux, and is uncomfortable and often in pain in his sleep. Sometimes he spits up, shoots milk out of his nose or chokes while sleeping on his back (as medically recommended). So, where does he sleep most soundly and comfortably…with his face smushed into the side of my neck (see exhibit A below). Which definitely results in me getting rejuvenating sleep too. Oh WAIT. Most doctors will say longer sleep periods come after babies reach 10 lbs. For most full term babies this may happen after a month or so. For early or small ones it takes longer, mine is 11 weeks and just crossing that 10 lb threshold. Yes, this can be common in preemies, but I def didnt opt in to having him make an early appearance. But still, consistent sleep for longer chunks than 4-5 hours takes a while, usually longer than the 12 week leave.
Me vs. Myself
To say I have enjoyed my maternity leave I think would be a stretch. That actually pains me to write but in the interest of honesty. There you go. The first few weeks were spent in New York, living out of a bag, driving almost an hour each way to a hospital and spending 9 hours a day there. The next several weeks were spent in pain and tears attempting to breastfeed unsuccessfully. And all of those weeks were spent somewhat trapped inside my home without visitors since he was on a strict no visitors policy due to his premature age and immune system. I was lonely and isolated for the first half of leave. The second half was much better. We got the hang of breastfeeding (mostly), we (kind of) figured out his cries and sounds and how to sooth him. We also got the OK from the doctor to do some limited errands (with restrictions) and have some healthy adult visitors, occasionally. So, I got out of the house a little and got to have a few family and friends come meet him finally. The first half was particularly rough. I just wanted to snuggle and love on him, but we had lots of extra doctor’s appointments and our fair share of challenges.
When they say “sleep when the baby sleeps” I want to punch them in the face. Sure, this is great in theory. But when you are doing the breastfeed-bottle feed-pump trio and hold him up for 30 minutes (see my post called Groundhog Day for a more detailed timeline). The amount of time one COULD sleep whilst he is sleeping was like 20 minutes. Not to mention eventually you will run out of bras and bottles and burpcloths, etc. So, as much as I love the idea of just snuggling and sleeping and feeding…sometimes the house shit does eventually have to get done. And when your partner is gone 11+ hours out of the day, even though they are INCREDIBLY helpful, you do have to do some of that stuff to keep rolling.
I laugh when I think about the list I kept on my phone of all the TV shows I was going to binge watch while on leave. I watched exactly 0 of them. That would require having the time or energy to get the Apple TV remote or change the channel on the TV. Instead I became intimately connected to the people who work at NBC because that was just on 90% of the time. Don’t get me wrong I did my fair share of staring at my baby’s face in awe wondering how he exists or how any human could be THAT CUTE. And I did tons of snuggling and bonding and making weird noises and faces. But the fact is, 12 weeks goes by in a FLASH when you’re on 3 hour cycles and I don’t want to speak for all moms, but I wonder how many feel like they really got to cherish that extremely brief time with their new babe. When I ask most of my mom friends how they felt when they went back to work the common descriptions were heartbroken, crushed, and too soon.
That being said, I don’t think the stay at home mom life is for me. I should say, I don’t think I’d be at my best long term. I also couldn’t afford to do it-despite the outrageous costs of child care. I think the last 12 weeks have been hard AF. I believe I will be a better mom while working and being involved in things I am passionate about outside of the house. I give ALL the credit in the world to moms who stay at home and do the hardest job that exists (in my opinion) 24/7. But, the bottom line is…I am just not ready. I’m not. I’ll be at work next week, and I will be professional. I’ll be excited to see my students, reconnect with colleagues and work on projects that have been waiting for me. But, I’m just not ready.
So, there’s my hot take. I’ve always felt our country’s (and most employer’s) policies on leave were hot garbage. But obviously finally being in the current position I’m in now, those are certainly exacerbated.
If nothing else, let me appeal to our country’s “we’re the best” sensability: Currently what we offer is the WORST of all other wealthy countries. The actual worst. So, maybe we should look into this? If we were talking football, we would be getting the first round draft pick for going 0 and 16.
So, the question is…is anyone interested in moving to Bulgaria?
***Acknowledgement: Maternity leave is also likely trash for the people left at the office. Those who don’t have kids (by choice or not) or don’t need medical leaves end up doing a butt load of extra work while those on leave are out. Totally valid. I just think many countries, and some companies in the US, have figured out a way to balance the two so I believe it is possible!