Did you know that the U.S. is one of only two countries in the developed world to NOT provide paid maternity leave to its citizens? Americans often believe that maternity leave is the responsibility of employers, but The National Women’s Law Center reports that only 12 percent of U.S. employers actually offer some sort of maternity leave benefit. Despite the fact that doctors advise women to take it easy for at least six weeks after delivery (even longer if a C-section or other complications arise), in the eyes of the law, maternity leave is not considered a disability or medical condition that requires temporary financial assistance.
When I had my first daughter, I took off eight weeks from my job and it was all paid. I was first forced to use all of my vacation, sick and personal time and then anything after that up to six weeks was covered in full by my employer. I was able to take the additional two weeks at 60 percent of my normal pay (and could have taken even more if I’d asked). I left that job before I had my second child but had I stayed, those benefits would have looked drastically different. As a cost cutting measure, maternity benefits changed the year after I had my first daughter. The second time around, anything after my vacation, sick and personal time was used would have been paid at 60 percent of my salary (up to six months) — but only IF I had opted to pay into a short-term disability plan during my annual benefits enrollment period. I tell this story to illustrate a point. Of all the ways to save money in a company, why slash the family benefits first? Well that’s an easy answer. Culturally, it’s acceptable.
So how as a nation have we arrived at this point — behind nearly every other country when it comes to maternity/paternity/family leave laws? If you listen, really listen, to the conversations that Americans are having with each other in regards to the importance of families, it’s easy to see why we don’t have government-paid maternity leave — and why no one seems to care very much.
In America, having a baby is viewed the sole responsibility of the family. It’s considered irresponsible to have a child if you don’t know exactly how you will feed, clothe and pay for extracurricular activities for the next 18 years first — or if you don’t have a home big enough to fit a new baby that comes with a fenced-in yard, great school district and garage that fits a minivan. There are plenty of great reasons to wait for having children, but the one I hear the most from people is purely financial.
“We want to buy a house first.”
“We want to pay off our college loans first.”
“We want to get a promotion/better job first.”
Here’s a little secret: you will never have enough money to start a family or raise one. At some point in the child-rearing years, a job will be lost or a natural disaster will cost thousands in damages to your home, or the stock market will drop drastically and you will lose a lot of the money you’ve stashed away in mutual funds for your child’s Ivy League education. This is not to say that people should not think ahead to how they will feed, clothe and otherwise care for children — but I’m simply pointing out that there is not a perfect time, or place, or life situation to have children. This belief that people should “know better” financially when they are having baby, and therefore be able to save enough to cover a maternity leave (along with any medical bills related to the birth), is really a stretch.
At its mildest, those who believe the government should add maternity leave benefits say it just makes financial sense and that in the long run, it will lead to healthier babies and mothers, and a stronger economy. At the other end are those who argue that not having paid maternity leave discriminates against women, forcing them to lose out on pay for a condition that men will never face.
There is an argument for paid paternity leave too, but that’s for another post. The Obama Administration has come out recently and said that it plans to tackle this issue soon — but with two years left in the term, it’s tough to say if anything can materialize. At the very least, I hope it sparks a conversation at the government level about how to better support families during a time when they need it the most.
What was your maternity leave experience like? Were you paid for the time off?
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