Parental Leave

It’s hard for me to write a coherent post about the lack of paid maternity (or parental leave) in the U.S.  As far as I’m concerned, we’re very short-sighted about the whole thing compared to Europe and most industrialized countries.  While we pay lip service to the importance of family, our policies (or lack of) work against families, especially those with working parents.  Until this changes, individuals have to make the best of it and more often than not, women quit the workforce out of frustration and lack of support.  (Of course I think a part of this has to do with the fact that many people simply feel that women should stay home).

I believe that  the U.S. had at least 6 months of paid maternity leave (1 year would be ideal and also with paid paternity leave).  I think at least 6 months is needed in order to coincide with 6-months of breastfeeding, which is the minimum recommended by pediatricians.  I can honestly say that a huge part of the reason I quit breastfeeding is that I could not muster the energy to pump at work while juggling meetings and deadlines.  And even if you don’t pity me and fellow white collar professionals, I know that it’s impossible for those in the service industries to pump and work.  Pumping takes time and flexibility, which is often lacking in job situations.  Just six months would allow working moms to provide infants with the best nutrition (I’m not “against” formula but do believe that it’s best to give breast milk). 

Working Mother magazine is trying to address this with an effort to get Congress to enact a law on parental leave by 2015 that will benefit women and their families.  You can read details here. (Truthfully I would do more but anything is better than nothing.)

What’s your story?  Would a longer and/or paid maternity leave had made it easier to return to work?  I’m certain a longer leave would have made it easier for me.  After 6 months, I was finally getting sleep and rest again.  After 6 months to a year, it’s a bit easier to leave an infant with caretakers.

Spread the word, and let’s act collectively to help ALL women and families…

12 responses to “Parental Leave

  1. I didn’t even make it to three months of breastfeeding, much as I wanted to–leave was probably the only thing that didn’t contribute to that, as I had seven months (mostly unpaid) available to me, and was lucky enough to be in a position to take just about all of it.

    But even without bringing nursing into it, I think six months is entirely reasonable for physical healing, bonding time, and figuring out what on earth you’re doing as a parent–yes, people all over the world are doing this, and have done it for millennia, but a great many of them aren’t doing it with as little social support for families. For an awful lot of us, we really do have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to parenting, because we don’t have ready access to mothers and grandmothers and aunts and experienced neighbors. So it takes time.

  2. I’m all for six months of parental leave, but I’m a small business owner and feel like the parent should at least work from home. If my employee left for six months I would have to replace her, train a replacement and then fire the replacement when the parent returned. A perfect scenario for my business would be part-time remote working; then you wouldn’t have to juggle meetings and pumping. I’ve known people who have written books and run stores while their kid was asleep in the other room. I guess it depend on what sort of work you do.

    • JNU — I do think an option to work from home could be explored if both parties agree (maybe for smaller businesses who can’t afford to have employees gone for long periods). I am sure many women would be able/willing to work sooner than 6 month-1 year if given more flexibilty.

  3. JNU – I do see your point but I think if the leave policy was uniformed across the nation then businesses wouldn’t be at a disadvantage because they would all offer the same benefits. While I think I was able to give my best upon returning to work, it was really only possible because my husband took the night shift. Imagine a household where both parents work.

    My “other” concern is that this is the time period when many women drop out because it seems impossible to work and care for baby (while the husband keeps his career, in most cases). If given just that extra time, I think you can make a more clear-headed decision. Without adequate leave policies (IMO), we subtlely encourage women to drop out of the workforce. Believe me, in the first six months – first year, the work/life balance seems impossible with zero sleep, desire to breastfeed, difficulty in leaving a tiny infant, etc… You really do get zero sleep if both parents work. By the end of six months, you either start getting sleep again or you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Only then can women really have an equal chance of staying in the workforce. Obviously many/some would not work regardless of leave periods but it is much more difficult to leave an very young infant (versus a 1 year old) in daycare or even imagine working/caring for a child when you get no sleep.

  4. I support expanded parental leave, even though I am not a parent. But, I think we should expand the existing FMLA to address a broader range of needs, not just those of parents. I think its time to close loopholes that give employees of small companies like mine (less than 50 employees) minimal protection against job loss in the event of a prolonged illness. So much attention is being paid to growth of small business as an engine of economic growth; this is an important piece of that.

  5. A worry is that firms will be reluctant to take a chance on hiring women. I like Sweden’s mandatory paternal leave.

    I had zero leave because I wasn’t yet covered by FMLA (DC was accommodating enough to be born over Christmas, so at least I was able to sit down by the time classes started), and actually going back to work wasn’t all that difficult, though I did work from home on the days I didn’t teach. (I also exclusively BF for 8+ months and extended BF for almost 3 years, but I also had my own office, a high salary, and a mostly flexible schedule.) 6 months often coincides with stranger anxiety and the start of crawling.

    • There are always pros and cons, but I rather take my chances in terms of company reluctance to hire women (which still happens anyway!). I think it was through your blog that I discovered Wandering Scientist’s blog which has several posts about maternity leave in which some people called her out as a woman of privilege due to her ability to make the work/life balance work. And my main point is that I don’t think it should be a position of privilege to have an “easier’ time breastfeeding or more bonding time with your infant; it should be available to all women (and fathers someday). I see both sides because I had some wiggle room and a somewhat understanding boss/company but nowhere near the flexibilty given to other women. You and Wandering Scientist seem somewhat higher up in the educational/work hierarchy than many (which is great for you both!) but leave is an area where I think it should be equal and not easier for some due to a combination of luck/brains etc…

    • N&M: Yes, a mostly flexible schedule and your own office definitely helps prolong breastfeeding.

  6. From a collective POV I think it’d be great if everyone had the freedoms and protections that my European based colleagues have.

    I have a European colleague who is planning a 1.5 year leave, or at least won’t be back full time for 1.5 years, ideally. While it’s not mandatory to grant her the latter half year’s part time transition back to work, and the first year is protected leave, I smile to think that my boss feels that while it’s inconvenient, it’d be “mean” not to grant it.

    So we will hire someone to replace her for that period of time, though I’m not precisely certain how that will work – hire someone who gets to work full time for a year and then only part time for half a year? That seems odd. But I’m happy we are planning to oblige.

    Meanwhile, if I were to have a kid, I will have … what, 2 months? Paid and protected? Excellent.

    I don’t actually want to stay home with the kids full time but I do want one of us to. *ahem, PiC* He does like the idea. But immediately after childbirth, if I were to bear my own kids, I don’t think that my health would be terribly robust and returning to work could be difficult. And paternal leave is so lean, if it even exists, that I would be on my own after a week or two because my family can’t help and his family doesn’t care for me so they couldn’t be bothered. Now that I think about that aspect of it, it’s a bit more stark than I originally thought.

    • Revanche — I definitely think that we need to start thinking collectively (we’re all in this together) rather than every woman/man for himself/herself. Even if I didn’t have kids, I feel that parents deserve that support and that women have a better chance at keeping a career if not forced to make that big decision so soon. If Europeans can do it, so can the U.S. I admit though that the recovery time can be difficult for many women so here biology does come into play.

  7. I’m late to this post. Sorry- I’ve been vacationing and then catching up from vacationing!

    I definitely support 6 months leave for all. I like the idea of extending FMLA to cover it- which would also cover other situations, like elder care. @JNU, Here in California, where FMLA is paid, it works like worker’s comp insurance. We all pay in (employees and employers) and my benefits were paid by the state. They are some percentage of salary, and there is a cap, which I met- so I’ve always been fuzzy on the financial details.

    @JNU, I don’t mean this in a snarky way, but from your comment I’m guessing you’ve never cared for a newborn.

    For me, working from home part time would absolutely not have worked. I had a very intense first baby, and she didn’t really nap in those early months without intervention- i.e., I was rocking her, or pushing her in a stroller. If by some miracle she did fall asleep somewhere other than in my arms or her stroller, I took a nap. Or ate something. Or showered. I was sleep-deprived (she didn’t sleep so great at night, either), struggling to get used to breastfeeding (you nurse A LOT in the early months), and really only able to check my email once or twice a day to make sure no one had an urgent question for me. (Yes, I did this while I was on leave. At the time, I was working for a contracting firm, and if I didn’t have a project to come back to at the end of leave, I would have gotten two weeks’ notice.)

    Also, I just think that being able to focus on the baby in those early days is important. I was the head of a two person department at a small company on my second leave. I was able to set things up so that my leave wasn’t a huge burden on them, and we also budgeted for some temp/contract help if needed.

    I did manage to pump at work, and breastfed my first baby for 23 months. I’m just now starting to wean the second baby, although I haven’t pumped since the beginning of the year. She is two. I have the sort of job that can be done while pumping, so I was able to make it work, although meetings schedules got challenging sometimes. As you note, oilandgarlic, I also am high enough up the corporate food chain to just say “I need a twenty minute break in that all day meeting so that I can pump.”

    My ideal leave would have been 6 months off followed by 2 months part time. What I got was 3 months off followed by 1 month part time, which is a heck of a lot better than a lot of people.

    My husband took 2 weeks off the first time and worked part time for a month (we split month 4, I worked three days, he worked two). The second time, he took one month off at the start, then one month part time.

    I am glad that pumping protection has now been extended to more women (it was in the health care reform law). I wish we could get parental leave extended, too. I’ll go take a look at the site you linked to.

    • Wandering Sci – Thanks for dropping by.. I really enjoy your work/life posts. For anyone who is doing the juggle or thinking about it, I definitely would check out her blog.

      The first months, especially the first six, are so intense. Before having kids, I bought into the lie that you can sleep when they sleep. Maybe some people are lucky, but one of my kids only liked to nap in my arms. So no nap for mom…No shower…Lucky to eat a decent meal most days.

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