By Rachel Lippolis
My first child is due to arrive just before Halloween, and I’m already dreaming about the cute costumes I can put him in — an Eric Carle-style hungry caterpillar; Nibbler, from Futurama; or a miniature Totoro. My husband and I probably won’t be able to tote him around our neighborhood trick-or-treating (a ten-day-old newborn is too young for that, I think), but maybe we’ll be able to sit on our front porch, greeting and handing Reese’s cups out to ninja turtles and Elsas. I guess we can figure that out later; it’s nothing I need to worry about now.
Still, I do have a lot of things I’m worried about. How will I sleep? How will he sleep? Will he eat? Will I? I’m worried about SIDS, about autism, about ADHD, and about raising a little boy to be generous and empathetic well into adulthood. But one thing I’m not worried about is returning to work right after he’s born. I’m fortunate to be part of an organization that allows me to take 12 weeks off of work and to use my accrued sick leave to get my full paycheck during that time.
I hadn’t thought much about maternity leave before getting pregnant. My mom stopped teaching before having me and my brothers; she didn’t return to the classroom until my youngest brother was three and in preschool. Locally, most of my friends who have had children were either teachers, benefiting from having the summer off near the time their children were born, or otherwise had flexible positions that allowed them to schedule their own hours. I didn’t think of the new moms, married or single, who didn’t have jobs that provided paid time off or that welcomed them back into the workforce.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law passed during the first year of the Clinton Administration, guarantees employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave without threat of job loss. FMLA can be used after the birth or adoption of a child, to take care of a sick family member, or while the employee recovers from illness. In order to qualify for FMLA, however, an employee has to have been with his or her company for at least 12 months, and the company must have a staff of 50. These requirements leave about 40 percent of the workforce ineligible for FMLA protection. For those mothers who are eligible to take their 12 weeks of leave, they often face a choice between spending time at home with their new baby and getting a paycheck. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer.
Every industrialized country in the world has objectively better leave policies for new mothers. In Canada, for example, new mothers are eligible for 17 weeks of maternity leave, and 37 additional weeks of leave can be shared between both parents. In the United Kingdom, new mothers are required to take the first two weeks off after her baby’s birth, and then are eligible for 52 weeks of paid leave. In Germany, a new mother is not allowed to return to work for two months following her child’s birth (to prevent employers from pressuring her), and she can stay home for up to three years with the knowledge that her position at work is safe. The German government will subsidize her pay during that first year.
Paid maternity leave is associated with lower rates of infant mortality and better health outcomes for both parent and child. That “the United States is the only wealthy country not to have a formalized policy guaranteeing workers paid time off following the birth of a child” is shameful. While companies like Netflix and Facebook are voluntarily offering generous leave packages for both parents, the women who most need it — lower wage, hourly workers — are left vulnerable. Their children enter this society at an even greater disadvantage.
My baby is kicking — unusual, since it’s early in the morning, and he’s typically most active at night when I’m laying in bed thinking about names or considering cloth versus disposable diapers. My husband’s still upstairs sleeping, and the house is quiet. Both our lives will change forever in less than three months, and I feel grateful and lucky to know that I’ll have the time and security to adapt to those changes.
But I wish our government would do more to provide all mothers with that same security. Maybe Congress will follow the lead of states such as California and New Jersey in offering guaranteed leave and protection, and the United States can join the other 182 countries that provide cash benefits to women on maternity leave.
Rachel Lippolis is a library specialist in the Outreach Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and one of her favorite parts of her job is teaching nursing home residents how to download ebooks, send and receive emails, and even get on Facebook. She and her husband of three years are excited to have their first child this October.
Editor’s note: After several years of knowing each other only through our online posts and emails, I finally met Rachel face-to-face this year. We got together for lunch when I passed through Cincinnati in May during my three-city baseball stadium tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio. She was as kind and self-effacing as I imagined she would be.
Tomorrow: Sue Wilcox, Last words