My question was answered exactly the way I expected, but still, it was disappointing—an unwelcome splash of cold water in the face. “So, I didn’t miss something, did I? There’s no new policy offering paid maternity leave, is there?” My human resources manager offered a sympathetic smile, but simply answered, “No.”
Like most working women in the United States, I will be taking my upcoming maternity leave sans paycheck since there is no federal law obligating employers to offer paid time off to new mothers. Appallingly, the United States, which prides itself as a global economic powerhouse, ranks nearly dead last among countries around the world in providing paid maternity leave. And paid paternity leave? Ha! Fuggedaboudit.
I’ve been down this road twice before, so it was no surprise that I would going without a paycheck for the majority of my anticipated 11 week leave, but it’s still a little frightening (especially with my poor budgeting and savings skills). And the icing on the cake? While I am taking my unpaid time off, I will also be responsible for paying the health insurance premium usually covered by my employer. So, I’ll be making less (well, nothing), but have more expenses.
I don’t write this to rebuke my employer. They’re just following the law here (and generally they offer ample paid time off and a flexible schedule). I write this to remind anyone who values the role of working mothers, motherhood in general, and our role in perpetuating the human species, how fundamentally unjust and regressive our country’s laws are regarding motherhood and family life.
As journalist and new mother Rebecca Traister writes in a recent issue of The New Republic, we live in a country “that venerates motherhood but in practice accords it zero economic value.” I know stay at home moms are reminded of this at nearly every turn, but it’s never more clear to working moms than when we take a leave from our paid day jobs to switch into full time, unpaid new mother mode.
If you are unfamiliar with the way maternity leave works for most women in this country, except for the lucky few who work for some benefits-happy employer, here’s the deal: we apply for time off under The Family and Medical Leave Act—currently the only federal leave protection available to American workers who have babies. This does not offer a new mother any paid leave; it simply protects her job for up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave (and only if she has worked at the same company for at least a year).
I, at least, have the advantage of being a long-time employee at my current job and will have nearly four weeks of paid leave saved up to take when the baby comes; but still, those seven weeks of no paycheck (and increased health insurance premiums) loom large. Fortunately, the baby’s birth coincides with my husband’s peak earning season as a landscaper. The downside is that he will be working so much to support his growing family that he will have little time to spend with us. Since he is self-employed, he (of course) only gets paid if he works.
Short of moving to France, which offers about four months of paid maternity leave to new mothers, or even Pakistan or Burundi, which offer 12 weeks each, I’m probably just going to have to get used to living on credit until I start receiving a paycheck again and begin digging our family out of this financial hole we’ll be stuck in for the near future. While I’m home caring for my infant daughter, I’ll no doubt be making ludicrous financial moves like borrowing from our home equity line of credit to pay our mortgage (and horrifying Dave Ramsey in the process)!
Once I return to work, I’ll do the best I can while I re-adjust to the working world in a sleep-deprived fog and re-acquaint myself with my breast pump at my desk. Ah, the glamour of the working mom!
Well, on the bright side, at least I’ll have a job to return to—thanks to that very same Family and Medical Leave Act, which has protected workers’ jobs for over 20 years. However, we as a country (one that claims to value motherhood and families) need to make more than this minimal effort. President Obama advocated for more paid family leave in his State of the Union address in January, but there seems to be no traction in Congress (big surprise!) to actually get this done.
National organizations such as the National Partnership for Women and Families are pushing for more paid family leave, and some states are considering legislation make it happen. In Tennessee, a bill was recently introduced “to study the feasibility of the development or implementation of a paid family and medical leave program,” which is a start.
However, the unfortunate reality remains that the vast majority of American women who want or need to work are faced with steep financial burdens simply because they want to have children. It’s 2015. It’s time to do better than this.