Chapter Two: Maternity / Paternity Leave
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M: Maternity/Paternity Leave
Selena, twenty-seven, pushed a shopping cart full of pasta, rice, tortillas, and other basic food staples that she and her family needed for the coming weeks through a big, bulk grocery store. It was her once a month, major shopping trip. Her son, Anthony, then three years old, was home with her husband. A close friend, Vanessa, joined her to shop that night, and they were bantering back and forth as they walked down the grocery store aisles. Selena was thirty-two weeks pregnant and looked like someone had stuck a balloon under her shirt.
A pain started as a nagging stitch, and she turned to her friend Vanessa and said, “For some reason my stomach is hurting.” Selena wasn’t that worried though, she wasn’t due for at least another six weeks, and it certainly didn’t feel like labor to her. She decided the pain would likely just go away, as many strange pinches and pains do during pregnancy, and continued shopping for her family.
Ironically, access to paid family leave is more often available to women in high paying jobs that also have college or other advanced degrees, than those with lower income and education levels who are living closer to the edge of their family budgets. Compounding the issue is the fact that those with lower incomes are significantly less likely to have any paid sick, personal, or vacation time at all, leaving the most fiscally vulnerable segments of our society unprotected.
Selena and her husband, James, were excited about their soon-to-be new baby. They had carefully worked out their finances to accommodate a second child. Like 61 percent of American families with children, they both worked. Selena and James relied on both of their pay to support their family, and they knew exactly where they stood financially when the new baby arrived. It wasn’t guesswork.
One night Selena and James sat down together, worked the figures of their monthly incomes, and calculated out to the hour how much time they could afford for Selena to take off from work. James was working in construction at the time, and Selena worked in an administrative capacity at a nonprofit organization.
Together they figured out that if Selena didn’t take any paid leave time for prenatal visits or anything else during her pregnancy, then she could use her accrued paid leave from her sick and vacation time for about two and a half weeks of paid leave after the baby was born (which, of course, left her without any paid vacation or sick leave if either she or her children got sick). After those first two weeks, they could afford for Selena to take off another one and a half weeks unpaid, but when that time was up she needed to be back at work bringing home a paycheck.
Selena was better off than many other American women facing similar predicaments. She lives in one of the four out of fifty states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Washington, and Wisconsin) that has laws guaranteeing the flexible use of accrued paid sick or other leave days to care for a new child.
Yet Selena still shares a fairly common experience with new mothers across America—one of financial difficulties and time stretched too thin with the birth of a child. This experience isn’t as common in other nations. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have paid leave other than Australia (which does give a full year of guaranteed unpaid leave to all women, compared with the only twelve weeks of unpaid leave given to those who work for companies with more than fifty employees in the U.S.). A full 163 countries give women paid leave with the birth of a child. Fathers often get paid leave in other countries as well—forty-five countries give fathers a right to paid parental leave.
When we had our first son, I was encouraged to take family leave: four weeks off when he was born, and four more weeks when he was two months old after my wife went back to work. During that time, I was the one who changed his diapers, determined when he needed to be fed, put him to sleep for naps, and played with him.
Even when both parents work similar hours, the cultural myth persists that moms know how to care for children, and dads do not. The act of being my son’s primary caregiver put me on equal footing with my wife in terms of how we raise him. It helped pull me out of the mindset of asking my wife for everything, and instead relying on my own intuition in how to care for my child.
Sadly, few fathers receive any paid time whatsoever when a child is born. Perhaps more insidiously, even when fathers are given leave, we are often discouraged from really taking the time off. Sure, you can be on leave, our companies tell us, as long as you keep up with email and come to important meetings. In my experience, workplace evaluations also ignore time spent with a new family member when considering workload and goal achievement.
Family leave is not a women’s issue. Without family leave for fathers, everybody loses: fathers don’t get one-on-one time with their children; mothers become overworked and overburdened with parenting decisions; and, most importantly, our children do not receive the full participation of both parents.
By way of example, our close neighbor to the north, Canada, gives the birth mother fifteen weeks of partial paid leave for physical recovery, and then also gives another thirty-five weeks of partial paid parental leave that has to be taken before the child turns one. These thirty-five weeks of parental leave can be taken by the mother or the father, or can be shared between the two. The pay during the fifty weeks total of leave related to a new child is 55 percent of the average gross salary over the past twenty-six calendar weeks. All in all, there are fifty weeks of partially paid leave available for new Canadian parents to spend with their child.
Sweden, with about a year of paid family leave and some time specifically reserved for fathers, is often used as the example of a model policy. Not surprisingly, with this support, Ann Crittenden writes in The Price of Motherhood, “Swedish women on average have higher incomes, vis-à-vis men, than women anywhere else in the world.” Yes, Sweden has about a full year of paid family leave.
America, on the other hand, generally leaves it up to parents to patch together some type of leave on their own. Some states are starting to give more support to new parents, but only one of our fifty states, California, offers paid family leave. The federal government simply doesn’t offer a paid family leave program at all. A weighty consequence emerges from this lack of family support. Research reveals that a full 25 percent of “poverty spells,” or times when a family’s income slips below what is needed for basic living expenses, begin with the birth of a baby.
The morning after her grocery-shopping trip Selena still felt the strange pain under her rib cage. Starting to get worried, she called her OB and set a time to come in to check everything out. The first available appointment was at 3 P.M. that day, so Selena worked through the day at her desk.
The pain started getting worse as she made the forty-five minute freeway drive to her OB’s office, by then “it was a constant terrible pain, but it wasn’t coming and going like labor.” She finally made it to her destination, but couldn’t find parking—she didn’t want leave her car in the parking garage because she was worried about the cost of parking adding to her growing stack of bills that were waiting for her at home. So she parked three blocks away and was in tears by the time she reached her OB’s office.
To make a long story short, the OB put Selena on a fetal monitor, found out she really was in labor, and then tried unsuccessfully with several different medications to stop the early labor. Selena’s baby boy, Connor, was born six weeks early the next morning.
Their baby was rushed out of the room and up to the Neonatal Intensive Care unit, Selena’s husband rushed up with him, and Selena found herself alone in a hospital bed realizing that she was going to go home well before her baby. She had a tough decision to make.
After their son stabilized, Selena’s husband James came back down to her room. They had another difficult talk about finances and Selena’s leave from work. They couldn’t afford for her to take more time off than originally planned, but both wanted Selena to have the most time possible to bond with her son. With her son stable in the hospital, but not knowing how long until he could come home, the choice was between Selena taking time off when he was in the hospital or waiting to take time off when the baby was released from the hospital and could come home. “There was no way we could afford for me to take off more than we planned,” recalls Selena.
They made a difficult decision: They decided it would be best if she waited to take time off until the baby came home. So after Selena had the baby on Thursday, she was released from the hospital Friday, and was back at her desk on Monday morning. “It was the hardest two and a half weeks of my life,” she says recalling the ache of being away from her newborn son and the rigorous family schedule at that time.
Her days ran on a complex timetable: She’d get up, drop her older son Anthony off at daycare by 8 A.M., and then she’d go to work, taking regular breaks to pump breast milk for her newborn son. Around 1 P.M. she’d leave work early to go visit her son in the hospital before having to pick up her older son, Anthony, at daycare. Often the family would then go back to the hospital again in the evening after dinner so her husband could spend time with their newborn son as well. “I was in tears every day.”
During those weeks her supervisor and co-workers were very understanding. Selena shares how they handled her situation, “Thankfully my supervisor sent out an e-mail that said, ‘The person that looks like Selena really isn’t her, and she really isn’t here.’ ” This was done so people wouldn’t give Selena new or difficult projects during that time, “I just did easy, busy work like filing and data entry to clock in hours—all those projects you need to do but never have time to complete. That way if I left the next day, I wouldn’t leave any loose ends and I was prepared to leave at a moments notice.”
While Selena’s workplace of about fifteen staff accommodated her needs in every way open to them, they couldn’t afford to offer Selena what she needed most, paid family leave. The fact that in order to make ends meet Selena still had to go to work every day after the premature birth of her son is a dramatic example of the need for a broad paid family leave policy. Selena needed time to focus on her own recovery and that of her family without the worry of financial ruin.
It’s not just Selena’s family that would see such benefits from paid family leave. “Studies show that parental leave results in better prenatal and postnatal care, more intense parental bonding over a child’s lifetime, and lower accident rates in the first year of life. Parental leave policies also increase the likelihood that children will be immunized and, as a result, are associated with lower death rates for infants,” notes a 2005 report published by the National Partnership for Women and Families. There is a strong correlation between parental leave entitlements and thriving children—one study found that a year of job-protected paid leave is tied to 25 percent fewer post-neonatal deaths, and those benefits continued forward in the child’s life with 11 percent fewer deaths of children between one and five years old. Twenty-five percent fewer deaths is a pretty strong argument.
Finally, after more than two weeks in the hospital, Connor was strong enough to go home. Selena delighted in taking her planned time off—partly using accrued paid sick and vacation time, and partly with unpaid leave. Then, like more than half of all mothers of children under one-year-old, and 72 percent of all American mothers, Selena went to work.