America’s Flawed Approach to Maternity Leave


I was fairly new to my job when I got pregnant the second time around. Two of my male coworkers were having babies while I was silently in my first trimester and I watched in horror as they took off one day to be with their wives. One day. Let that sink in. The first wife had a C-section and her husband was there for the big event, but wasn’t by her side when the baby came home. The second came in to work hours after the baby was born but said he wasn’t really there to work. Whatever.

Then when my belly started to pop, a young, single guy asked me how many days I was taking off for maternity leave. Days. Let that soak in. I told him 12 weeks and his jaw dropped. I then got to explain to him how I picked 12 weeks because it’s the maximum amount of time covered by the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). If I want more than that, my employer could let me go… And that it’s 12 weeks unpaid, so I would be cobbling together short term disability (which covers a fraction of your check for only a portion of the 12 weeks) and vacation time in order to get paid. Because I need to get paid or I wouldn’t have the job in the first place. I told him how most daycares won’t even accept a child until 6 weeks, so many working moms have to scramble to fill the gap for at least that long. How, even at 12 weeks, I’d be coming back sleep deprived and pumping every few hours and how my child would probably get sick at daycare every few weeks, requiring me to take off at least a day. Oh but wait. I’ve used up all my leave… I think I succeeded in scaring him.

When I worked at NASA, we had close relationships with our international counterparts. That was my first exposure to the European-style paid maternity leave. I couldn’t believe that other countries offered 6 months or 1 year paid leave. At first, I thought the stories I was hearing were the exceptions; I slowly came to realize that we are the exception.

My sister recently posted this story on Facebook. Go read it, I’ll wait here.

I can’t really wrap my head around a movement to offer paid maternity leave. Facebook is wonderful for keeping in touch with friends and it’s also “wonderful” because they share their political views with you. My friends are apparently all anti-welfare and I can just see how paid maternity leave would be lumped into that category. They’d say “either women should stay home or they should rush themselves back to work to do their job”.

The link my sister posted goes into some economic benefits but I went off and did a little more research. Here are a few interesting points to consider:

  1. North Korea apparently offers 11 weeks of paid maternity leave. Yup.
  2. Taking additional leave is associated with improved maternal function. Mom is more energetic and less anxious. Do y’all really want to be around the sleepy, on-edge new mom that drug herself back to work just to get paid?
  3. Taking less leave is  associated with impaired motor and social development in children less than two years old.
  4. Longer maternity leaves equal higher breastfeeding rates. Breastmilk provides antibodies to help children get over illnesses more quickly. Since a parent usually has to take off work (paid) for a sick child, it seems to me that we are just robbing Peter to pay Paul.
  5. Apparently children will grow taller if mom takes off longer. This should totally be our top motivator. America could be, like, land of the giants and we’d never have to worry about losing the Olympics in basketball again.
  6. Somehow, extended maternity leaves even affect high school graduation rates.

From some of the above, I’m gathering that an increased maternity leave (which only happens when women can afford to stay home) has lifelong impacts. But let’s remember that increased leave only happens when moms can afford it.

If you are a stay-at-home mom advocate, you should still support paid maternity leave. Why? Item #3 above is probably your very reason for staying home with your children, right? To give them the best start in life. Not every woman that goes back to work wants to go back to work. I know I don’t. The mommy wars have made us believe that every woman has a choice and that the position you see her in (working mom vs. stay at home mom) is all she’s ever dreamed of. That’s not how it is at all. I’m living proof.

So I would support legislation for paid maternity leave. Absolutely. But only because I’m quite sure corporate America (save for some places like Google) are never going to make any changes that they don’t have to. After all, these corporations are the same folks who pay women less just because they are a woman. They aren’t jumping up and down to even give you 12 weeks off, but they do it because it’s the law.

Oh, America. I love you so. I love capitalism. But sometimes I don’t think you love women very much.

6 thoughts on “America’s Flawed Approach to Maternity Leave

  1. I hear your heart, Kirsten. I took the full 12 weeks with both of my children and was paid for ½ of it, which was better than none, but still hard to adjust at the time. And I would definitely support more paid maternity leave like other countries. Those facts are really eye-opening, aren’t they? Of course a mother wants to be home with her child and of course she can’t afford to lose her job to make it happen when she has to have her job. It’s cruddy. And maybe somebody somewhere will wake up to this fact here someday…


    • Meredith, I had to give it to God (as I’m sure you did, too). I need the paycheck but I wanted allowed, so I took off 12 weeks on faith. I’m hopeful more corporations will see the benefits and make decisions to support their new moms (and dads).


  2. I have heard of all the awesome maternity leave benefits available around the globe. It is such a sad fact America has not come on board with these!!


  3. I bet that guy at work regretted asking you the question. 🙂 Way to educate him though! His future wife should thank you for that!
    It’s also sad to hear about those 2 male coworkers that took very little time off after their babies were born. Those first weeks with a newborn can be tough, and support for the new mom is so important.


    • Agreed, Ai – those guys should have taken a bit more time to support their wives. And I think dads need some chance to bond, too. I think my coworker was riled up after we talked – ready to start a rally or petition or something to drive some change 🙂


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