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The State of Maternity Leave

Karen Hirsh's first maternity leave, five years ago, went as smoothly as she'd hoped. She tied up loose ends, which her boss appreciated, and a coworker handled all of her ongoing projects during her 15 weeks (6 of them paid) away from the office. "I felt so supported in my transition to being a first-time mom," says the Wayne, New Jersey, pharmaceutical executive.

Four days into Hirsh's second, 12-week leave almost two years later (half of which was paid), the colleague who was to take on the bulk of her work left unexpectedly, which meant Hirsh had to scramble to run things from home. "I worked twelve to fifteen hours a week -- that's a lot when you're exhausted and not sleeping," she says.

Her third leave, in 2000, was the hardest. She was still with the same company but had a new boss who didn't assign anyone to cover her accounts. The result: She felt compelled to work 20 to 25 hours each week at home during her time off, and she cut her leave short, returning after two months instead of three.

In many ways, Hirsh's experiences mirror the findings of Parenting magazine's recent national survey on parental leave. The 3,120 readers who responded -- 98 percent of them moms -- paint a picture of vast inconsistency. Some of you were paid during your leave; some weren't. Some of you were even fired for taking time off to be with your newborn. Many described supportive, satisfying experiences, but more recalled unpleasant or even hostile ones.

Since the U.S. lacks a uniform approach to parental leave, most women's options are shaped by three factors:

  • the mind-set of the supervisor
  • the climate of the organization
  • the type of work performed.

"There are a lot of people who have no rights at all, and many who do get maternity leave can't afford to take the time off," says Ellen Bravo, director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. "Plus, a company may have a good policy on paper, but in reality, an employee may feel pressure not to take what she's allowed."

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