I was in my last year of grad school when I gave birth to my son. My plan all along was to write my thesis while on maternity leave (and yes, I know that sounds crazy, but I’m not one to make it easy on myself). The timing was perfect. I was due late January. I could stay home all winter with my little guy, hibernate, and write. What I didn’t plan for was to give birth at 26 weeks — in the middle of my last semester of classes.
I gave birth on a Saturday morning. By Monday, I was out of the ICU and in the cardiac ward being monitored. I had my laptop with me to keep me from being completely bored out of my mind. I couldn’t wait to go home. By that Friday, I was home. By the following Monday, I was working again. By that Tuesday, I was back in class. My classmates didn’t even know what had happened.
While in the hospital, I had to decide what I wanted to do about maternity leave. My company doesn’t have a policy beyond the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers 12 weeks unpaid leave that can be taken anytime within a year of childbirth and guarantees job security at the same level of previous employment. On top of that, I had the option of taking 6 weeks disability, which would offer partial pay, but in order to use short term disability, it would need to be taken right away. That was not part of the plan. The plan was that my short term disability would supplement the lost income by running concurrently with FMLA.
But I was leaving the hospital without a baby. Why would I take leave now?
I decided to continue working while my son was in the hospital and take unpaid leave when he came home. I worked from home to make it easier to see my son whenever I wanted to. I had to get written permission from my doctors to say that yes, I could return to work. Why? Because I had just had major abdominal surgery — I literally had my body cut open right in the middle a week before. For any major surgery, it is probably unusual to return to work so quickly, and when it comes to a cesarean, you are supposed to take it easy. But, like I said before, I don’t like to make things easy for myself.
I could have taken short term disability right then, and taken maternity leave when my son was home, but aside from the financial implications of lost income, I didn’t want to be out of work for that long. While my job would have been protected, I was fearful that my value as an employee would diminish. I couldn’t risk the career set back.
One of the classes I was taking that semester was on power and privilege in the workplace. I wrote my final paper on parental leave in the United States. In that paper, I described this broken system. I described how FMLA, with its stipulations only covers 60% of the American workforce. I discussed how only a handful of states to date have offered paid policies all mostly covered through disability, which based on what I said earlier would likely not be helpful for those who deliver prematurely with babies in the NICU. I talked about the companies that offer different policies to employees, often based on gender, as if one parent deserves leave more than another, as if one working person deserves leave more than another, as if a resident of a particular state deserves leave more than another.
It’s crazy to say this, but strictly from a historical perspective, we have come a long way. FMLA was only introduced in 1993. In 1978, federal legislation was passed to prohibit discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers, protecting them from being fired, demoted, or not considered for employment. Before then, it was expected that women would leave their jobs upon giving birth. Before then, single income households were still the norm. Men were still expected to be the breadwinners.
But a lot has changed in the workforce which is now nearly 50/50 male/female. Sadly, from a federal policy perspective, little has changed since 1993. And if you get confused by the decades like I do, that’s over 20 years ago. In 2013, Senator Gillibrand proposed the Family Act, which mandated 12 weeks leave for new parents with 66% of their salary, but it did not become law.
But it needs to, or something like it. This has to be done on a federal level to ensure equal access for men and women, for lower class and middle class. As Jennifer Dulski, COO of Change.org, whose company policy offers 18 weeks of paid parental leave, puts it: “Equal leave is particularly important for reducing stereotypes that exist in the workplace because non-equal policies encourage hidden biases that women will be away from work longer, and thus get fewer raises and promotions.”
There are also economic benefits to creating a federally paid equal leave policy. Studies show that “leave, whether paid or unpaid, can have a positive effect on long-term productivity by improving recruitment, retention, and employee motivation,” (The Council on Economic Advisers). Keeping people working who would have otherwise quit is good for companies and families. Research shows that “one in four women quit their job around the time of the birth of their child,” (U.S. Census Bureau). Having access to protected leave, particularly for women, increases the chances that women will go back to work and continue moving forward in their careers. By keeping people working, employers lower the cost of training due to employee turnover while improving employee morale, (The Council on Economic Advisers).
There are so many other well studied and documented reasons why this matters, and what it really comes down to is this: We, as a country, need to start valuing people and family again, just as much as we value productivity. And family is not solely the responsibility of the mother. Making money is not solely the responsibility of the father. This is the new millennium, and we need to start having policies that support that.
A federal policy alone of course is not going to solve the whole problem. There needs to be a cultural shift towards support for a work/life balance. All people need to feel confident and comfortable making use of benefits available to them. Even with job protection, leadership needs to own this. “Leaders have to create a culture where the policies aren’t just something that is on paper, but are encouraged,” (Grant). We need to change the environment so that work/life balance is not only possible, but expected.
The Council of Economic Advisers. (2014, June). The Economics of Paid and Unpaid Leave. Executive Office of the President of the United States.
Grant, Rebecca. (2015, March 2). Silicon Valley’s Best and Worst Jobs for New Moms (and Dads). The Atlantic.
Guendelman, S., Goodman, J., Kharrazi, M., & Lahiff, M. (2014). Work–Family Balance After Childbirth: The Association Between Employer-Offered Leave Characteristics and Maternity Leave Duration. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 18(1), 200-208.
Ibarra, H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. (2013, September 1). Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers. Harvard Business Review.
Johnson, J. O., & Downs, B. (2005). Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-time Mothers, 1961-2000. US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau.
Livingston, Gretchen. (2013, December 12). Among 38 Nations, U.S. Is the Outlier When It Comes to Paid Parental Leave. Pew Research Center.
Shortall, Jessica. (2015, October). The US Needs Paid Family Leave – for the Sake of Its Future. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/jessica_shortall_how_america_fails_new_parents_and_their_babies
Suddath, Claire. (2015, January 27). Can the U.S. Ever Fix Its Messed Up Maternity Leave System? Bloomberg Business Week.