It’s no secret that maternity leave in the United States sucks, especially when compared to other Western nations. I didn’t realize just how bad it was until I started making arrangements for my own. Food for thought: Our fine neighbor to the north, Canada, offers 50 weeks of paid maternity leave. Two weeks shy of a year. France, Spain, and the Netherlands offer less than half. It’s still a seemingly generous deal, giving mothers four months of paid leave. If we assume that this is an average amount of leave, let’s look at what that gets you:
- Uninterrupted income as you add a new mouth to feed, a small fortune in doctor copays (if you’re lucky enough to have insurance), and a gajillion baby gadgets, supplies, and clothes.
- Reassurance that your job will be waiting for you when you return.
- Reassurance for your employer that you will return, meaning that the company neither has to search for nor train your replacement–inevitably more expensive than welcoming you back.
- Stability for the family as you welcome the new member. This includes bonding, comfort, and a slow-paced day that is needed to ease all of you into the world as a new family.
- It also gives you something just as important — the flexibility to create any kind of schedule that works for you. If your new bundle is awake all night and sleeps all day, you can, too.
- Delaying payment for child care. Which costs an arm, a leg, and at least half your teeth.
So these are the niceties that being French or Dutch or Spanish will get you. What if you’re Pakistani? Not usually a bastion of women’s rights, eh? Women in Pakistan get three months of paid leave. Know how many American women get? Zero. <ahem, cough=””> ZERO.
Let’s see what this means for you as an American mother:
- Women who work hourly jobs usually get nothing. No short-term disability, no reassurance that your job will be waiting for you when you return. Very likely no health insurance. Just nothing. Bye-bye job. Hello, new mouth to feed!
- Your employer has the fun and costly task of finding and training your replacement.
- Nobody in your house slept last night? Suck it up, lady. No matter how exhausted you are, you have to climb in the driver’s seat and haul yourself into work. Look out, fellow motorists! You will be nodding off every fifth mile or so. Just imagine how productive you’ll be once you lumber to your desk. A new mom will be exhausted no matter what. A woman who has to work on top of being a new mom is a whole different type of tired. And it ain’t pretty.
- Unless you are blessed with generous family members who are geographically close to you, you have the privilege of dumping your precious newborn off with strangers at a germ-infested daycare. From 9 – 5 your meetings and emails are interrupted by thoughts of “Has anyone held him today? Is he being changed often enough? Is he languishing in front of the TV for hours at a time? Is he being fed enough? Does he think I’ve abandoned him?” That’s almost as good for office productivity as going to work on three hours of sleep.
I’m not going to bullet the next point because this is super important. Paying attention?
Your family’s income is disrupted just as you add another soul to feed and care for. And let’s not forget those doctor and hospital copays. If you’re lucky enough to have insurance, that is. When you go on maternity leave, short-term disability kicks in (because pregnancy and childbirth is an illness, right? Aside–I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the acronym for this is STD. It’s just as disturbing as venereal disease). This gives you maybe a third of your usual income. Less if your income is above the threshold for reimbursement. To add insult to injury, this paltry amount won’t start to flow until you’ve been gone from work for a full week. So you have to take a week of vacation time in addition to the disability. You can earn this insulting amount for six weeks. Eight if you’ve had a cesarean. (And I know women who have prayed for cesareans just to have two extra weeks of leave. That’s the sign of a healthy work/life balance, right? Praying for major surgery?)
Now let’s take into account that in over a third of U.S. households, a woman earns more than her husband. Apply that fact to the above. A third of all families with new babies will need to make do on a third of the breadwinner’s salary for at least six weeks. At the exact time that their expenses will spike higher than they have ever been.
How is this good for anyone, employers, employees, or the economy? Of all of the nations on the planet, there are only three that don’t offer any kind of paid maternity leave. Papua New Guinea. Swaziland. The United States of America.
I’ve been incredibly lucky. I worked for a company that paid me the difference between my usual salary and what I was getting from short-term disability. I had insurance that wasn’t stellar, but good enough to make the bills manageable. I’ve been blessed with plenty of family who give loving and generous care for my kids when I’m working. And I have an awesome daycare situation where the kids are nurtured and enriched.
But I worry about my peers who don’t have the arrangements that I do. How do these families make it work? They patch together financial and child care scenarios that let them get by, but nobody’s thriving. None of this is ideal. But if Iran, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh can figure out how to make it work for their mothers, why can’t we?