U.S. lags on maternity leave

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.

rachel-pregnant (2)

Rachel Lippolis, first-time mom.

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

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7 thoughts on “U.S. lags on maternity leave

  1. This is one of the most to-the-point, unbiased posts I’ve ever read on this subject. I have had countless unproductive conversations with people about this subject and unfortunately it seems there needs to be an entire cultural shift to bring this about. Americans value work not families, as much as we tout otherwise. With my first I took 8 weeks, but only 4 of that was paid. With my second I had accrued enough PTO and sick leave I was able to take 16 weeks (I told my husband and supervisor, “I’m making up for the time I didn’t get with Remmy”) and 4 weeks of that was unpaid. Blessings on you as you await the arrival of your little one and enjoy these last few months as a family of two. 🙂

  2. I agree that the US lags behind other developed countries in maternity and family leave, among other important areas. I support a team in Montreal and am amazed over the amount of maternity and paternity leave granted! It’s great for the parents and the new arrival, and that a person’s job is protected while they tend to their new baby removes so much stress, allowing the new parent time to focus on being a family. If this is how some define “socialism”, I say bring it!

    Congratulations on this exciting time of your life! I’ll be watching for VOA 7.0 when we meet the little guy. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comments and kind words! There is so much I left out in order to be more focused and succinct. For example, I found out that after the second world war, to address their depleted populations, many European countries enacted policies to encourage women to have children. The United States, on the other hand, didn’t need to do anything. Men returned from war, women left their jobs, and the baby boom occurred.

    You’re so right, Nike, the U.S. needs a cultural shift to occur. I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction.

  4. First, you look great. Congrats. Parenting is such a privilege. I didn’t really see it coming, but it allows me to view the world, my surroundings, myself and creation more clearly.
    As much as I like the ability and choice to stay home with a newborn, I’m not a fan of paid-leave mandates and don’t hope for them. I think that paid leave, along with other widely-cast social safety nets for people in need and people not in need, will hurt us as a nation, bringing us further away from the personal responsibility and smart decision-making needed for our society and individuals to thrive.
    I’m glad for your family that leaving work to care for the new wee one is a non-worry. The pressure to breastfeed, even if you produce no milk, the lobbying to grind only organic foods — yourself — when kids start eating, and all the co-sleeper arguments you’ll likely endure are worry enough in the beginning days!

  5. Thanks for this post! Maternity leave in the United States isn’t just unsupported, it’s misunderstood. Last April, an author published a book called “Meternity,” a book whose plot focuses on a character who is “jealous” that her co-workers “get to take maternity leave” and “leave work on time” because they have kids. See the New York Post’s interview with the author here: http://nypost.com/2016/04/28/i-want-all-the-perks-of-maternity-leave-without-having-any-kids/.

    In her interview, the author says, “For women who follow a “traditional” path, this pause often naturally comes in your late 20s or early 30s, when a wedding, pregnancy and babies means that your personal life takes center stage. But for those who end up on the “other” path, that socially mandated time and space for self-reflection may never come.”

    She later says, “It seemed that parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility”.

    The backlash against the author was quick and fierce. Women were pissed at the very idea that maternity leave was a moment for “self-reflection” and that parenting allows people to have more flexible lives.

    But to me, what was most frustrating about this was the perspective of the co-worker who stays behind while his/her co-worker is on maternity leave. If my co-workers are ever jealous of me taking maternity leave (coming up January 2017), I invite them to come over to our house for a 24-hour period. They will leave feeling infinitely relieved to return to their non-baby-filled lives.

    Parents bear a tremendous physical, emotional, and unfortunately, financial burden to raise young children in the United States. Yes, it’s our choice to do this, but our choice benefits the larger society. Our children will become future taxpayers for this country. And many of us pay astronomical amounts of money to give birth, take maternity leave, provide medical care, and pay for child care if we return to work. And unless we are poor enough (which is pretty damn poor in the United States), we do it all without much help from the government.

    You’re welcome, America. 🙂

  6. I feel fortunate to be in a profession and position (school administration) where when a female staff member has a child, I can wholeheartedly congratulate her and support her motherhood with no mixed feeling whatsoever. Maternity leaves among teaching staffs are so commonplace in public schools and these moms deserve every bit of our encouragement.

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