Kids or Career? American Women Are Still Forced to Choose

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)

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12 Replies to “Kids or Career? American Women Are Still Forced to Choose”

  1. This is a great post! It’s really true.

    As the mom of two kids, I understand exactly where you are coming from. Our children have to come first. Employers could make this a lot easier.

    I’ve heard of a few places that offer childcare right there in the building . This is a great idea to me. At least mom could spend her lunch breaks with her child.

    Thanks for sharing such a heartfelt post.

  2. It is truly disheartening to read about your post. Not only do women need a good rest after birth, they also need the special bonding with their new borns. Having to make a choice between family and work, most would have chosen family over work.

    Bonding with children is specially important as the times they spent as children are probably the most important in their life and it has an indirect effect on their adulthood.

    In the new world environment, parents just have to explore new ways to create that special bonding.

  3. Erica, my wife is lucky enough to work at a job that was very good regarding maternity leave; she was able to stay with our daughter for four months. She did blow through all of her vacation time but it was well worth it. I wish everyone could get the time off for baby bonding.

  4. Erica – yes it is indeed stingy. I cant get over the fact you only get two weeks holiday leave as well. I had 12 weeks paid leave years ago when I had my daughter and that hasnt changed over the years. It is a real issue in Australia at the moment as well. The Nordic countries appear to offer generous entitlements to women. My daughter was 6 months old when I went back to work and I was horrified at doing that but as it happens it all turned out. Then the whole childcare saga – it is a nightmare as well. Something does need to be done because women are disadvantaged at every turn. Great post!

  5. Amazing, isn’t it? I’m scared to have a child in America – my husband and I haven’t tried for a baby because we can’t afford the stress with our jobs and pay right now.

    I’m planning on learning something useful like medical transcription to keep me gainfully employed while I work at home – my eventual goal!

  6. Yep, this is a great post. It’s also still annoying that it’s women who have to do the choosing. I know quite a few fathers take time off work to tend to their children, but there is still the underlying thought that moms should do this primarily.

  7. This doesn’t bother me as much as others apparently. Why are women the ones who have to choose? Because we’re the ones who have the babies, we’re the ones who bond. Men care, love their kids and all that, but it’s not anything like a mother usually. And businesses exist to make money, that’s the whole point. I don’t agree with the sense of entitlement. When ways are figured out to make good business sense of it, that’s when we see arrangements that help working mothers.

  8. @Tia– I disagree with there being a sense of entitlement at all. Really? An employee, a dedicated one at that, can’t expect to get a few days off if they are ill? If you are a single parent, should you be fired for having to take days off to care for your family? So it’s OK that a woman is expected to pop out some kids and then miraculously be ready for more work? Wow.

    True companies ARE there to make money, but completely disregarding the human side of things is precisely why our current society is that way it is: people are overworked, over stressed, under paid and getting sicker by the minute.

    Should handicapped people NOT be able to access buildings because everyone else can walk? Why consider them? The same goes for Moms… nothing will change until we make it happen. Things are not OK.

  9. Am quite appalled by your experience. Yeah, I guess in that respect the SSS maternity benefits in the philippines is better huh.

  10. I know this won’t be a popular response but a different view of the subject.

    I own a small boutique in a very small town. I started it when my Dad was very ill and it gave my stepmom a much needed diversion.

    It’s been open 2.5 years now. We (my stepmom and myself) work very hard at keeping it going.

    I have one full time (70 yr old) lady working for me. I still put over $1200 per month of my personal money to keep the doors open.

    My dad passed away 2 yrs ago. It’s pretty much the only thing my stepmom looks forward to. If I had a young girl that I had to pay over a months maternity leave, I would fold.

    I guess my point is,
    If there was a law to this effect, I would have to make sure my employe’s were not of child bearing age.

    That’s not the answer either…

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