American Maternity Leave is a Joke

February 9th, 2015, was my first day at a great job that I couldn’t believe I’d landed.  I loved the company culture, had great benefits, a good boss, and I was excited for my future there.  Less than three weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.  Less than three weeks after that, I found out it was twins.  Less than six months after that, I no longer worked in that great job at the fun company.

I started researching my maternity leave options shortly after I found I’d require it.  My company had a relatively generous maternity leave policy (for this country).  I could go on short-term disability for 6 weeks and would get 100% of my salary during that time.  My company also had to abide by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  FMLA basically requires an employer (of a certain size – I believe 50 or more employees, but don’t quote me on that) to hold an employee’s job for 12 weeks while he or she takes leave (unpaid) to recover from an illness or to care for a sick family member.

However, I did not qualify for FMLA protection because I did not meet all the employee requirements, which meant that I could technically be fired for taking more than the time covered by short-term disability or vacation.  Luckily my bosses were not assholes and agreed I could take the full 12 weeks (although it would be partially unpaid) and they would hold my job for me.

Call me an entitled Millennial, but I do not consider FMLA to be “employee protection” at all.  I mean, every time I’ve been recruited for a job, the employer generally talks of hiring the very best of the best, of their employees being their biggest assets, of work-life balance, etc.  I show up on time and work hard every day.  I graduated with highest honors from college, I have an MBA, and a CPA license…but thanks for not firing me while I recover from giving birth. ‘Preciate it!

I refuse to believe that it’s a bad business decision to offer longer paid maternity leave.  There are so many things I’d like to say to the people who run companies in this country.  If they were all in one room, I’d ask them if they honestly believe that 12 weeks unpaid is the best they can do.  I’d tell them that my water broke in my office because I was trying to save all my vacation days for after the babies were born.  I’d ask if they seriously believe that someone can do their best work on 4 hours of interrupted sleep. I’d ask if I could bring my twins to work for the first year so I could choose to exclusively breastfeed (not pump – breastfeed).  I’d ask them if I get extra sick days when my 12-week old twins catch the Flu at daycare.  I’d ask them if they think I can be productive when I am crying at my desk from being forced to leave my infants before I’m ready.  I’d tell them that if they believe an employee would abuse a generous maternity leave policy, they should never have hired her because that employee lacks integrity.  I’d challenge them to stop discussing maternity leave in terms of unpaid weeks and to instead let the mother decide what is best, and I’d dare them to pay her for it.

I understand that babies go to day care all the time and turn out just fine.  I understand that other babies have a stay-at-home parent and turn out terribly.  I truly understand this.  However, I now understand how damaging it would have been for me to return to work before I was ready.  Twelve weeks would not have been enough time.  Personally, I think 6 months would have been more realistic for me.  For another woman, 6 weeks may be enough, but for another, 12 months would be right.  I think the loyalty an employer would receive in return for allowing a woman to determine the length of her own maternity leave (up to, say, 12 months) would pay dividends back to the company.  Besides employee loyalty, the positive PR for the company would also be valuable.

In my case, my husband accepted a great job in our hometown, so I quit my job and I am staying home with my twins indefinitely.  Truthfully, I can’t say that better maternity leave policies would have changed our ultimate decision, but they certainly would have made it a tougher choice.  Perhaps my husband wouldn’t have been applying in a different state if I could have taken longer paid leave.  It’s hard to say, but I know now that only 12 weeks at home with my babies would have broken my heart.

I didn’t understand a woman’s hard-wired need to physically be with her baby until I became a mom.  I wish I’d had more empathy for my coworkers who were pregnant or who were parents to young children before now.   I also didn’t understand what a joke unpaid leave is.  Taking more than a couple weeks unpaid is not a choice for most people; they are forced to return to work for the paycheck and the health insurance.  Paid leave not legally required, but it needs to happen anyway.  Yes, paternity leave should also be “a thing,” but for now, let’s at least take better care of our moms.  It’s time we started taking care of our mothers by allowing them really decide how to best take care of their babies.

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