The U.S. Census Bureau released some new data on maternity leave in the U.S. earlier this month. The report has been pretty well covered by media outlets across the spectrum (including this one) with many headlines optimistically announcing that “half of moms now get paid maternity leave!”
Unfortunately, I don’t really see this as something worth bragging about.
A quick visit over to the Wikipedia page on parental leave demonstrates how bad American families have it. When you break out the numbers by race and education, the story gets even worse. This story from the PBS News Hour pulls a particularly telling quote from the report itself:
At least 178 countries have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. More than 100 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), among the world's most developed countries, provide on average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay.
Why are we so far behind, America? (FYI: The U.S. offers zero.)
During my first pregnancy, back in 2009, I was working full-time for a health policy organization. I was extremely fortunate to have a decent salary, great benefits, and 8 weeks of paid maternity leave. I worked until I went into labor (which my daughter was so kind to get started just before my Monday morning commute) and planned to return to my job around 4 months postpartum, using some vacation time and taking several weeks unpaid to make it work. Circumstances changed while on leave, however, and before I knew it, I was a full-time stay-at-home-mom.
Fortunately for my family, this wasn’t a bad option for us. While we had to pull our purse strings tight to make it work, we were grateful that that was enough and I was absolutely thrilled to have that extra time with my new daughter. I spent those months gearing up a new business and by the time she was a year old, I was actively attending births as a doula. And when she was 15 months old, a related part-time opportunity fell into my lap and suddenly I was officially back in the workforce and my daughter was off to daycare.
This time around, I’m still doing birth work in a freelance capacity so there is no paid maternity leave, no paid time off, and because of the physical nature of my work, I’ll be cutting back significantly starting next month (no more on-call time, however limited) and quitting the office side of things completely by the time I’m 36 weeks along. And I have no set plans to return, instead taking things week-by-week and month-by-month and seeing if/how I can work this unpredictable lifestyle back into my family life in a reasonable way.
Again, though, I feel incredibly lucky. This pregnancy and expansion of our family means that I have to put my professional passions on hold for a short while and we'll be losing some income (and none of this was an easy decision to make), but the very fact that this is a manageable situation for our family puts us in a very privileged place. In a country where more and more families absolutely rely on two incomes to make ends meet, I am counting my blessings – and seething in anger for all those not as fortunate.
As a friend recently commented, “it's sad that in a country that purports to have strong family values, the very forming of a family should be so short-changed.”
How has pregnancy and early parenting affected your professional life? Did you leave a job you loved? Return to a job you hated? Would you be interested in moving to Canada with me if I ever find myself pregnant for a third time?