In the past few weeks, I have found myself drawn into online arguments about paid maternity leave. Argument is a strong word because I will not argue with strangers on the Internet. More like discussions where the principals disagree. I decided to lay out my thoughts on the issue.
Years ago I was firmly encamped on the "why should anyone have to pay for my choices?" side of the equation. It seemed pretty straight forward to me. An employer pays you to work and while on maternity leave you are *not* working so why should a paycheck come along with your leave. It wasn't fair to the other employees and gave mothers a benefit that other workers didn't get. I was all about the equality. A funny thing happened along the way. I started working full time and got pregnant.
During my first pregnancy while working full time, I was very stressed out. We had not intended to be pregnant so soon after I started work. I looked at the calendar and realized two things: 1) I could not afford to take any time off during the pregnancy if I wanted to get a paycheck during maternity leave and 2) if I had gotten pregnant a month earlier, I would not be eligible for any maternity leave at all. We barely dodged a bullet on that one. For the remainder of that pregnancy, I doggedly dragged myself to work no matter how bad I felt because I wanted to be able to take as much time as possible after the baby was born, but we could not afford to go unpaid. It was a hard pregnancy, not from a medical standpoint, but from a physical endurance standpoint. Oh the places I threw up... Even still, I only managed to save about six weeks of leave. Luckily that leave happened to fall over Christmas time so the built-in work holidays extended my time to about seven weeks. It is very hard to leave a seven week old baby to go to work, but this was the choice we had made and it was just the way it was.
After that pregnancy we decided that amassing enough maternity leave for the next potential pregnancy would be a top priority. I scrimped and saved days, only taking time when it was absolutely required or over Christmas time. Family vacations were pretty much out. We did manage to take three days to go to Chattanooga for a long weekend once, but that was it. Every possible day went into the bank and by the time I was pregnant again, I had built up enough time to be able to take a handful of days off during the pregnancy and then take nine full weeks off after the baby was born. That pregnancy was a little bit easier because I didn't get quite as sick--is that a boy thing?--and on the very worst days, I had enough time to call in sick. It wasn't very many days, less than a week over the whole pregnancy, but enough so I felt like I could stay home if I was feeling especially horrible every now and again. It is very hard leaving a nine week old baby to go back to work, but this was the choice we made and it was just the way it was. I was generally pleased with my second maternity leave. We made a plan and executed it. I got to stay home for nine weeks this time. I imposed no undue burden on my employer and I was only paid for days that everyone else got paid. Why should my decision to bear children obligate my employer?
Again after that pregnancy we decided that amassing enough maternity leave for the next potential pregnancy was a top priority. Again I scrimped and saved days. Again family vacations were out. With each maternity leave, my leave time was emptied out to zero and I had to start all over again every time. Every day put in the time bank was security for the potential of next time.
It was during this interim between pregnancies that my thoughts about maternity leave began to change. I admit my changing opinions were prompted by my own flagging energy. I was tired. I needed a vacation. I worried about children getting sick, me getting sick, something happening which required time from me. I had exhausted my paid time and almost all of my FMLA time. If something unexpected happened that required more than a day or two off, I would quickly go unpaid which would be catastrophic for our family. With FMLA I only had three weeks of time off left of guaranteed employment which had to last an entire year. If anything major went wrong, we would be totally screwed. It was very stressful.
As I had to deal with this cloud of unease over my head, I watched my non-childbearing coworkers go on leisurely vacations to the Bahamas, take regular extended weekend gambling trips, go on impromptu vacations all over the country, and take whole weeks to visit family far away. None of this was possible for me. I wasn't exactly jealous--well, perhaps--but the inequity of my equality began to clarify itself in my mind. While our employer treated us exactly the same, I was using my time to create and foster the next generation which is exhausting and my coworkers were using their time to relax and recharge their batteries. I was excluded from this renewal because I "chose" to have a baby and then another one and, maybe soon, another one. It was wasn't that I regretted my decision to have babies, but that I realized that having babies is a fundamentally different activity than going on vacation. And given the length of my childbearing years, I could potentially go another decade without a vacation.
I came to the conclusion that there is no fair way to treat maternity in the workplace. You can either make allowance for women to have babies which means that non-childbearing employees will not get as much paid time off as the one who bears a child or you treat pregnant women exactly the same which effectively means they forfeit any potential time off in favor of maternity leave. No wonder most women abandon childbearing after once or twice. It is an exhausting way to live. The question for society to decide is who will bear the brunt of the unfairness: grown adults who would be restricted from a benefit that did not apply or newly delivered mothers and their newborns?
Soon enough I was pregnant again. This pregnancy proceeded in a similar manner to the second working pregnancy. I had enough time to be able to take a handful of days off during the pregnancy, could even take time at the end of the pregnancy to start my leave before I actually delivered, and stayed home until the baby was nine weeks old. I suppose I could have been stricter with myself during the pregnancy and squeezed out another postpartum week, but coming to work day after day after day while pregnant after not having had a vacation for multiple years is a drag. I returned to work and had to start my time bank from scratch again, but a change in leave policies means that finally, after all these years, I can regularly go on vacation again.
Thus far I have whined a lot about my inability to use my vacation time as vacation time because that is the general extent of my problem, assuming all goes well. I am a professional, white-collar employee with paid sick and vacation time who was previously allowed to bank almost as much as I could. Since my income is our family's only income, we could not afford for me to take unpaid time during maternity leave so the consequence is that I go to work everyday, we don't go on vacation, and my leave is never as long as I am technically, legally entitled. This is tiring, but also the best case scenario for the majority of working mothers in the United States. Once my eyes were opened, through my own self-pity, to plight of pregnant women trying to live the ideal that "no one should have any obligation to pay for my choices," I didn't have to look far to find horror stories. I am supremely pampered and privileged compared to other women dependent on their own incomes to survive.
One woman I know had to have an unexpected, surprise emergency C-section ending her first pregnancy when she was rushed directly from a regular prenatal visit into the operating room at the hospital because the extreme discomfort she was experiencing, which she had dismissed as the normal pains of late pregnancy because she didn't know any better, was actually her son's foot hanging out of her cervix at 37 weeks. Her employer at the time was a small company which did not have to comply with FMLA. She did not have paid time off. Two weeks after delivering a baby through major abdominal surgery, she returned to work. Two weeks was as long as she could afford to go unpaid. What choice did she have?
Another woman I know was a coach at a small college for a few minor sports. She had been pregnant when she got the job so FMLA, which guarantees time off after a full year of employment, did not apply to her. Her employer would not make any allowances for her to miss any time during the seasons. It just so happened she was due in the middle of one of the seasons. She looked at her game calendar and her due date. She found a stretch of time around her due date where there were five days between games. She coached a game on one day, scheduled an induction for the next day, delivered the baby, and then returned to her full coaching duties on the fifth day. What choice did she have? Missing a game opened the door for her to be fired and the law did not protect her.
Another woman I know is an immigrant to the US. She had been planning a trip back to her home country for years with her high school class reunion being the occasion. She had saved money and days for years to make it happen. Less than a year before this event was scheduled, she discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant. She had previously had some problems with infertility so this pregnancy was a joyous surprise, but also presented a conundrum. If she took a maternity leave, her time bank would be depleted and she would have to cancel her long-planned trip home. This was a severe disappointment to her. As her pregnancy progressed and she was generally healthy, she decided to shortchange her maternity leave, return to work early, and take her long anticipated trip home. Three weeks after delivering her baby, she returned to work. This is not necessarily the choice I would have made, but her opportunities for going home and seeing family and friends were extremely limited and I understand why she made it.
These stories are not uncommon and they range from mildly vexing to unbelievably cruel. It isn't that I know a whole bunch of unlucky pregnant women. It is that the average working pregnant woman faces these situations. As I take them in, what surprises me the most is the general unawareness that others have about the choices pregnant women have to make. I have been asked at work by coworkers how much extra paid leave I get for maternity. They are shocked when I say there is nothing extra. They have access to the same policies and documents that I do. Why do they think there is extra maternity leave? Consultants coming through the building and ask pregnant women when they are going to start their maternity leave. They are aghast when the standard answer is "when the baby is born." It is explained repeatedly that every day taken before birth is a day missed with the baby later, but they do not seem to comprehend. There seems to be this blind adherence to the widely held image of maternity leave beginning weeks before birth and extending three full months afterwards. This image has no basis in the reality of the lives of most working pregnant women. The reality is that the vast majority of every pregnant woman you see in any type of employment have had to make difficult, calculated, and usually exhausting choices to balance their health, their babies' health, the demands of their employer, and their need for income. Most of the time, the woman's health is deemed the most expendable by the woman herself.
If we, as a society, have decided we want women well represented in the workplace, and we have, we need to come to grips with the fact that women have babies. The act of bearing children is not aberrational but fundamental to human society. There needs to be allowances made for this one unique task that only a minority of the population can complete. An allowance that does not function on the assumption that one employee's periodic gambling habit has the same value as another employee producing a baby. Mothers and babies deserve paid maternity leave.
Every time I make this declaration, someone always clutches his pearls and fears for the Republic. I don't really understand this reaction. We make demands on employers and general society all the time. The standard benefit package required by law includes unemployment insurance, worker's comp insurance, retirement insurance, old age medical insurance, and now, rightly or wrongly, medical insurance. Why couldn't maternity coverage be added to these basic requirements? We have to stop viewing maternity alternatively with suspicion or idealization and begin seeing it as a normal part of a woman's life.
What could this look like in the United States? It could take a variety of forms and I am open to many of them. We could impose a requirement on employers to provide the income or we could impose a tax that would be paid out as a benefit by the government or, most interesting to me, we could require the widespread availability of maternity insurance subsidized by employers. This maternity insurance would look a lot like currently existing short-term disability except it would specially designed for pregnancy and the postpartum period. I don't have a problem with employees having to pay into such insurance as long as the employers are also required to pay into the system. Currently this type of insurance is generally limited to companies who provide access to it instead of it being available to all workers, regardless of company.
I support a limited but guaranteed income for employed women on maternity leave. I do not support or approve of European style maternity leave. In my mind, their overly generous policies go far beyond the basic support necessary for the health and welfare of mothers and babies and have become lifestyle support. Onerous taxes are imposed which force some mothers into employment who never would have chosen it on their own. They also set up a situation where one woman who happened to be employed at the right time can keep a paycheck coming for years while staying home with children and another women living a very similar life, but unemployed at the wrong moment, gets nothing. Long, open-ended paid leaves are not my goal, only that the health and well-being of pregnant mothers and babies are protected around the natal period.
To me the ideal balance of the wants and needs of mothers and babies with the desire to not create extended lifestyle support would be a maternity leave policy that would begin at 38 weeks of pregnancy to allow the mother a little time to prepare for birth and continue until the baby is 12 weeks old. This period of time would allow the mother to completely heal, establish a good supply of milk, and bond with her baby for a short period of time beyond the intense and exhausting newborn phase. Again, this is an ideal. In my mind, anything has to be better than what currently exists which is nothing.
It is time for this country to understand that there is no equality or fairness when dealing with issues around childbirth. The burden will be borne. The question we have to answer is do we choose compassion or do we choose cruelty towards those bearing the burden. Thus far, we have chosen cruelty. I can only hope that someday we change our minds.