A tale of two maternity leaves

(Darlena Cunha)
(Darlena Cunha)

I had what’s considered a great maternity leave here in the States. My employer gave me the option of six weeks off at full pay, or 12 weeks off at half pay. When my twins came a month and a half early, and we had to stay in the hospital for ten days, I chose the 12 weeks. The tiny things would need all the time with their mom they could get.

It was 2008 and my husband had just lost his job two weeks before the birth, so on the one hand, we were both home for the girls, who needed twice weekly weight gain and jaundice visits from home care, when we weren’t carting them back and forth to the pediatrician. On the other hand, with half my paycheck and none of his, our income had been slashed 70 percent, just in time for two extra mouths to feed.

I spent my days frustrated, tired and achy, trying to recover from a C-section and trying to teach the girls how to nurse. They never learned. My husband looked for work from sun up to sun down. Nothing really hammers home the inability to provide for a family like the instant arrival of that family.

I had thought 12 weeks would be plenty of time. I was wrong. When I went back to work, my girls weighed five, maybe six, pounds. They were hardly in newborn clothing. They still had trouble eating and digesting, and we still had multiple doctors’ visits to get to. Simply put, they weren’t ready to be without me, and I wasn’t ready to be without them. They needed round-the-clock care. But how could I complain? Twelve whole weeks I wasn’t at my job, and they still gave me a bit of a paycheck? I was truly one of the lucky ones. (And that still wasn’t enough to keep us off of government assistance at that hard time.)

Ask any mother in the United States what her maternity leave was like, and you’re likely to get answers like this:
“I had my oldest during my first year of teaching,” said Emilie Blanton, a high school teacher in Jefferson County, KY. “I didn’t qualify for FMLA because I hadn’t been working there for 12 consecutive months yet. I had 10 sick days and three personal days. I had to take a financial hit for the rest of the time off. Since I wasn’t on paid leave, I had to pay COBRA and it was over $2,000 for a single month. It was awful.”

“The maternity leave here is only paid if you chose to pay into the optional short term disability insurance,” said Jen Mayer, who works at Intel Corporation. “This is not made clear when you sign up for insurance, so many women who work here have found themselves without pay. My leave was six weeks both times.”

Some pregnant women do get a short stay home from their jobs at half or even full pay, usually topping out at 12 weeks. But that’s up to the business, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 11 percent of workers get paid family leave.

Other mothers-to-be wrangle their human resources department and the state in which they live for short-term disability. This pays a percentage of the woman’s salary for a period of time that varies by state and job. In some states it is a mandated part of a worker’s benefits package; in others, workers must sign up to pay into the system to be able to use it later. Many women use these benefits for maternity leave. Because apparently, having a child is legally considered a disability.

Some pregnant women stack their sick days and vacation days together in a hodgepodge attempt to get some decent time off. Others use unpaid Family Medical Leave Act time, that is, if they’re eligible. The 12 weeks of unpaid leave that guarantees job security upon a woman’s return to the workforce is only available to women who have worked at least 12 consecutive months or 1,250 hours, within that time. They also have to work within 75 miles of their home for a company with 50 or more employees. This excludes about 40 percent of the workforce, according to a 2012 survey by the Department of Labor. And even amid those eligible, some pass on the time because they can’t afford it.

Rebecca Carparros works for the Federal Government. “I have to work, and I was only able to stay home with my first daughter five weeks,” she said. “For my second, I managed to get six weeks. I could have used FMLA and gotten eight weeks, but I can’t afford weeks off unpaid.”

Contrast this with dual-citizen Tiffiny Rossi’s experience in Finland. She had a baby in April 2013, and is still on maternity leave. In fact, her paid leave will last for 22 months, until January 2015.

To apply for her country’s maternity leave, she had to fill out a simple online form. She then started seeing a well-clinic nurse and at 20 weeks along, the nurse verified her pregnancy and gave her a form to fill out a send to The Social Insurance Institution of Finland, or Kela. The Institution sent her a care package at about 25 weeks that included clothes, toys and baby care items.

All women in Finland get about four months maternity leave, paid by Kela, starting one to two months before the baby is born, then continuing until the child is three months old. Fathers also get paternity leave, paid by Kela, for a maximum of 54 days. When the child turns four months old, paid parental leave kicks in until the baby is nine months. This leave can be taken either by the mother or the father, but not at the same time. After parental leave is over, a mother or father can remain on home child care leave until the child is 3 years old. The stipend is small compared to the maternity/parental leave, but it is the same for all, no matter their income. During this three year period, the parents’ jobs are completely safe. Their employer is required to save a place for them. The country’s taxpayers do not appear to be suffering under this burden.

While the United States prides itself on its family values, it is one of only three industrialized nations not offering maternity care. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Oman. In a poll conducted by The National Partnership for Women and Families in 2012, 86 percent of Americans wanted some kind of paid parental leave, including 73 percent of Republican voters. Still, a bill that proposes paid family and sick leave for employees penned by congressional Democrats has not one Republican supporter in Congress.

Detractors state that small businesses would suffer if they had to offer time off to their workers, but according to a 2011 survey by a nonpartisan D.C. research center, a majority of 300 businesses in California (one of three states providing paid maternity leave to employees) reported positive or neutral effects from the paid leave plan, more than five years since its institution.

There is a middle ground between going socialist, as seems to be the fear, and providing relief to the individuals behind the U.S. business model’s success.

Until we find it, though, people like preschool teacher Nikki Bollman will do anything they can to survive while caring for their newborns, including crowdfunding. Bollman gets six weeks of unpaid leave, and cannot afford it.
“Saving up for this hasn’t been an option, with our budget being inadequate as it is, so I am taking a leap and trying something creative,” she said.

Perhaps a program like the one currently in Congress would be a more dignified way to allow mothers to care for their infants, rather than making Americans beg their fellow citizens for donations. It would cost a whopping .2 percent of your wages, or about $1.50 a week.

You could think of it as an investment in the future of the country.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer for The Washington Post and TIME. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls. She writes for The Washington Post and TIME.
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Anne Theriault · August 12