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Maternity Leave in America — It’s Time to Do Better Than This

Maternity Leave in America - It's Time To Do Better NashvilleMomsBlog

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.

maternity leave planning

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.

FMLA forms

Here it is: my official permission, as an American, to take unpaid maternity leave and keep my job.

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)!

Maternity Leave Baby

Your baby is here! now get back to work!
Image credit:

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.


7 Responses to Maternity Leave in America — It’s Time to Do Better Than This

  1. Caitland Orlicz April 11, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    Very well put. I also just wanted to add that FMLA only covers companies with 50+ employees. I work at a place where FMLA doesn’t help me as we only have 8 employees. My company is kind enough to offer 60 days maternity leave (without pay of course), but our jobs are in jeopardy if we want more than 60 days.

  2. tiffany t April 14, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    My company offers Aflac short term disability and I used that for maternity “paid” leave

  3. Judith April 15, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    We really need to do something , to create campaign, start a movement or something, this can not be happening in 2015 and knowing that all developed countries and even the third world countries offered at least 3 month of maternity leave paid, I’m from Mexico and that’s what we have by law, also the taxes aren’t taken from those pay checks, so we received full paycheck on maternity leave. I didn’t know about this until I had to deliver my baby, I just move to the states 3 years ago because of work and I had no idea that this country is so behind on this. Fortunately my employer offers 6 or 8 weeks of 100 % paid leave and the I took unpaid leave and I had to pay the premiums of my insurance. I was in shock when I knew that there is not law about this, then friends explained me that some women don’t even have 100% of their salary, I can not understand how this got to this point and the woman allow it.

  4. Shauna November 7, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

    Any other 1st world country would be horrified to be “granted” the same family leave as the US. I was shocked when I moved here, and even more shocked at the lack of outrage….kudos for you for shedding light on this issue. It’s sad to see a country that leads in so many causes, grossly lag the rest of the world in this one!


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