What is So Incredibly Wrong About Maternity Leave in the U.S.

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Maternity leave  is the sort of issue you don’t really think or care about until you’re a few months pregnant and need to apply for it. But recently, paid leave has been receiving a lot of attention in the media: Clinton and Sanders have been advocating for paid maternity leave in their campaigns and Obama has also called out the U.S. for being the only “advanced economy that doesn’t mandate paid sick or maternity leave for its workers” (npr.org.)

Legally speaking, maternity leave is the time you take off while you are unable to work due to pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the time you take off to bond and care for your baby. The first part, pregnancy disability leave, is offered in New York (where we live), but many states do not give employees the right to time off paid through insurance. The second part, parental leave, is provided in many states, but New York is not one of them. New York employees must rely on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for their parental leave rights.

Under FMLA, expecting moms get a total of 12 weeks parental leave: 6 weeks are paid and 6 (optional) weeks are unpaid.

About 60% of women who take maternity leave report that it is difficult making ends meet. Almost half report they would have taken longer leave if more pay had been available.

In my case, the whole thing just left me confused. I have 6 paid weeks? As in… I have a month and a half to recover from childbirth and take care of a tiny human being? Oh, and when I say 6 “paid” weeks, don’t get the wrong idea. I received a mere 157 dollars a week. Yup. Thank God I had savings and my husband was able to support us both financially.

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Little did I know, though, I was actually one of the lucky ones. The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity or parental leave to workers.

I’ll give you a minute to look at the two diagrams above… Go ahead, let that sink in for a minute. 

In France, where my family is from, women receive 16+ weeks of maternity leave (70% pay). Men also receive 2+ weeks of parental leave (with 100%  pay).

In the U.S., maternity leave is considered to be some sort of “vacation”. The only difference that isn’t being taken into account is that a new mom sleeps about 1-2 hours a night, is lucky if she gets to shower, and eats leftover pizza for every meal because the whole new parent thing is overwhelming and cooking is temporarily out of the question…

Sounds like a vacation to you?

And as if that wasn’t enough: after only 6 weeks to bond with her child, a new mom who returns to work too soon is more at risk for postpartum depression and is more likely to stop breastfeeding (who can blame her? Exclusively pumping is a nightmare.)

In other words, the whole thing is not only bad for baby, but bad for mommy as well.

In my case, what I had planned to do was work until 2 weeks before my due date. Turns out that I was exhausted a month before my due date and decided to stop at that point to relax and prepare for Liam’s arrival.

I do suggest starting your maternity leave before baby’s arrival. These are the last few weeks/days you have before being extremely sleep deprived and overwhelmed. It’s inevitable if this is your first baby. Use the time to sleep in, go out to see a movie (I can’t remember our last movie night), and enjoy your significant other while it’s only the two of you.
Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 2.55.09 PMSince it was summer when I started my leave, I was able to welcome my baby into the world without worrying about time; but when August came around, I wasn’t ready to go back to work.

It is important to mention that my husband and I basically take care of Liam on our own. My family lives in the French Caribbean; they visit twice a year, once in the Fall and once in the Spring. My husband’s mother works an 8-5 job and lives a half hour away. She helps when she can. My sister in law is very helpful on nights when I teach my college classes (especially when Joe is working).

This was my postpartum decision: I quit my full time teaching job at a private middle/high school and transitioned to teaching one course at a local college. This paid a lot less, unfortunately, but gave me a lot more flexibility to take care of Liam. I also needed the time to start feeling like myself again.

That’s another thing that isn’t being taken into account: a woman needs about a year to physically and psychologically heal from childbirth.

This was the choice I had to make. I had to prioritize. I had to think about my son’s well being over my career. I was lucky enough to be financially stable because of my husband and family’s help, but what about mothers who don’t have the extra help, yet want to put their babies first? It’s devastating to be given no choice, no sympathy, and no understanding. It’s the country we currently live in.

As perfectly stated on Time:

Yes, parents choose to have children. But they’re doing it for all of us, like jury duty, or being the designated driver, or talking to the sad sack in the corner at the party so he doesn’t kick us all out of his apartment; they’re taking one for the team. So we should make sure the exercise doesn’t make them completely broke within the first month and a half.

Here are some countries with ideal parental leave, just to rub it in a little bit more…

  • Poland, Vietnam, and Venezuela offer 26-weeks of paid maternity leave to women at 100 percent of their income.
  • Cuba offers 18 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of a woman’s income.
  • Norway offers 35 weeks of maternity leave with 100 percent of a woman’s wage. If a mom opts to stay home for 45 weeks, she receives 80 percent of her wage. New moms also quality for child benefit payments, an infusion of cash to offset the cost of parenting.
  • Croatian mothers can stay home with baby for 30 weeks, while receiving 100 percent of their total income.
  • While Estonian mothers enjoy 20 weeks with their new babies and moms in Chile and Lithuania spend 18 with their children, mothers in each country receive an average pay of 100 percent of their total income.
  • Moms in the UK receive about 39 weeks of maternal leave, but the pay only amounts to about 30.9 percent of their total income. They get loads of other perks, though, including free prescriptions, dental care, child benefit payments and cash from the government to offset the cost of parenting.
  • While Sweden offers mothers 8.6 weeks of maternity leave where they make 77.6 percent of their total income, the country also offers public full-day childcare. All families with children between ages 3 and 6 up qualify for free preschool 15 hours a week. The remaining fees can be up to 3 percent of parental income but no more than 146 euros a month, which is determined on a sliding scale. (Time)

Wouldn’t the U.S. be a better place to live if they modeled their paid/parental leave laws on these countries? I know that on my end, I’d be a lot less bitter about the place I call home.

Wouldn’t you?

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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