America's Archaic Maternity Leave Policies

I have something for you to read. It's Rebecca Traister's article "Labor Pains", from The New Republic in early February.

I know this article is long. I know it looks and sounds a little serious.

But if you are a mother, if you ever plan to be a mother, if you're married to a current or potential mother, if you have friends who are mothers, if you have co-workers who are mothers, if you interact with mothers in any way, shape, or form, then please read this article.

This article explains exactly how I feel about being a career-minded woman who wants children. It explains the built-in discrimination against female workers because the United States originally created a labor system around the white male worker and hasn't ever updated it.

I swear I'm not being a crazy feminist right now (whatever that means). Read the article and you'll see the facts. It's not even like the government was trying to "keep the women down" or anything like that. It's simply that the system was built for a society that worked one way, and now we have evolved into a society that works another way - specifically, a society where women work just as much as men do. So women bearing or adopting children are caught in the thick of it. Here's an excerpt from Traister that explains how we ended up in this situation:
In 1970, the average woman had her first child at 21.4; by 2012, it was almost 26, an age by which many young adults are at least a few years deep into jobs or careers. Around 15 percent of first births are now to women over the age of 35, compared with just 1 percent back in 1970. Women across all classes are now participating in the labor market like never before, and far too few are able to spare a cent. Women comprise about 47 percent of the workforce in the United States and two-thirds of the low-wage workforce. In 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 64 percent of mothers with children under six worked. In 40 percent of households with children, women are now the sole or primary breadwinners.

The confluence of all these factors means that women are now having babies smack in the middle of their peak earning periods and that their earnings are crucial to the economic stability of their families. And there is no denying that motherhood makes an economic and practical dent in the shape and solidity of their careers. University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig has found that, on average, an American woman’s earnings decrease by 4 percent for every child that she bears, a figure that sounds even more brutal when compared to the fact that after men have kids, their earnings increase, on average, by 6 percent. Researchers have also found that fathers are more likely to be hired and to be regarded as more competent employees than mothers.
See? It's good stuff. Traister goes on to talk about how even just thinking or planning for a baby can disrupt a woman's career because of the lack of protection provided by the government. If you decide to switch companies and then you suddenly get pregnant, your employer doesn't have to hold your job for you, much less pay you for your leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only works if you've been employed by a company for a year. And even then, it doesn't guarantee any pay - just that the company will hold your job for you for three months.

So if you are at all considering trying to get pregnant, it seems foolhardy to go for that promotion or better opportunity at another company, no matter how much you want or deserve it. I know this is true because my friends and I have had to deal with it. It's particularly grueling when you're trying to get pregnant and it's taking a while - not only does the failure of infertility haunt you, but you also feel like you're in career quicksand. As Traister says, "those prime childbearing years - mid-twenties to early forties - overlap precisely with prime professional years."

But then when I read on, I feel silly for even complaining about my work situation. I work for a company that honors and matches my disability benefits, meaning I will get full pay for about eight weeks around the birth of my son (and then an additional six weeks of half-pay because I live in California). According to this article, 88% of American women do not get paid for a single day or a single hour after they give birth. Which is absolutely horrifying. You should see the chart Traister has that compares the U.S.'s guaranteed paid maternity time to other countries. Russia seriously puts us to shame.

One more excerpt, that sums up the result of this lack of government support:
For the majority of new parents, whose penniless postpartum months (or weeks, or days, or whatever they can afford to take without pay, which is often nothing) are simply the result of the way things are in a country that venerates motherhood but in practice accords it zero economic value, the situation is far more dire. It makes parenting a privileged pursuit, takes women out of the workforce, and ultimately affirms public and professional life as being built for men.
Overall, I'm not sure what to do about the situation. It's very frustrating. But I am glad Rebecca Traister was able, between facts and her personal narrative, to put into words how I had been feeling about the vague discrimination I've experienced since we started trying for a baby. Exposing and clarifying the problem is half the battle, isn't it? Knowledge is power and all that good stuff.

I can only hope people read this article, and they become inspired to enact change in whatever way they can. Whether it's something small like viewing their pregnant co-workers in a different light or something much bigger, like petitioning their congressman for better maternity leave rights.

Additional reading:

  • Claire Suddath at Bloomberg published a great article in January that covers a lot of the same issues as Traister's. It also details a bill currently sitting in Congress that would reshape the U.S.'s maternity leave to look more like Canada's. Definitely worth the read.
  • Obama's administration is trying to make a change. Check out this great PSA from the Labor Department.
  • Also check out their hashtag, #LeadonLeave, on Twitter! You'll find lots of other interesting things to read. 
  • Speaking of, follow Rebecca Traister on Twitter - @rtraister.