When I had my son in early 2006, I was working for a boutique consulting firm in Manhattan. Months before his birth, my boss called me into his office to discuss maternity benefits.
“The firm has decided,” he said proudly, “to offer you two weeks paid maternity leave.”
I sat there quietly, a little surprised, and avoiding eye contact. The policy, as stated in the company handbook, was to offer employees who had been with the company 12 months or more a total of four weeks paid leave. Employees who had been with the company less than a year were not entitled to any paid leave. At the time of my son’s expected birth, my tenure with the firm would have been 11 months – just weeks shy of the year required for maternity benefits.
I thought back to the 14-hour days I was regularly putting in at the office (while very much pregnant, no less), the weekend work, and late night / early morning phone calls, and I couldn’t help but feel slighted. Was this all I deserved? Two weeks to rest, recuperate, and bond with my baby before returning, full-force, to the daily grind? Sure, I could take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (thanks to the FMLA), but that wasn’t an option. I could barely get by on the pittance of a salary I did get. There was no way I could support myself and a baby in NYC, income-free. (In the end, I saved up all my vacation time and was able to take a total of four weeks paid leave before returning to work.)
Back then, I was angry at my firm for its lack of benefits, but in the two years since having my son (and subsequently finding a new job), I’ve had more time to reflect and realized that my initial anger was misplaced. My firm was doing what it was supposed to – running an efficient business and making money. It was our government – and perhaps, more broadly, our societal values – that deserved my ire. Why do we expect women to pop out babies and then return to work almost immediately with no time to heal and no time to bond with their children? The sad truth is, the American workforce is very much still a man’s world. The rules and regulations are geared toward men with a few crumbs thrown at women so that we don’t cry foul. But we should be crying foul! We’ve readjusted our expectations and our views of what is normal and good to the point where four weeks of paid maternity leave sounds generous.
It is not generous, though. Nor is it conducive to building a healthy society where individuals feel respected and valued, where people place as much emphasis on family as they do on career. It’s hard enough to balance the demands of work and parenting, and our policies toward parents certainly do not make it any easier. The message being sent is that those who are devoted and attentive parents wishing to spend time with their children are not as “serious” about their careers. That message is ridiculous. Why must we choose?
It is not like this elsewhere in the world. In fact, compared to other nations, the United States in embarrassingly stingy when it comes to providing parental benefits. In the Philippines, women receive over 8 weeks, fully paid; in Israel, it is 14 weeks. France gives new parents 16 weeks; Sweden, a whopping 16 months (at 80% pay). And the good old USA? We guarantee a grand total of zero weeks paid leave. The 12 weeks provided under the FMLA are unpaid.
The takeaway here is that, for as progressive a country as we like to think we are, the United States still has miles to go in terms of standing up for its citizens who choose to have both a career and children. We need to remove the conflict of work vs. family in this country and equip our people to not just be good employees, but to be good mothers and fathers as well.
(For a full comparison of parental leave around the world, please visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_leave)