The first time I took maternity leave, I only got three months. Eight weeks of it was paid. I was told to be grateful. I was grateful. But when it came time to go back to work, my infant couldn’t even hold her head up. She was still so small, so helpless, and I was still nursing her 12 times a day. The idea of putting on my heels, squeezing back into my old skirts and leaving her in day care that we paid $2,000 a month for seemed absolutely impossible at the time. And so I made the choice so many mothers have to make in the U.S., where our lack of paid maternity leave (and insanely expensive child care) leaves many mothers underemployed, not by choice, but by absolute emotional and financial necessity. I quit.
We are reaching a crisis.
Last month the president unveiled a plan to try to get at least six weeks of paid leave for federal employees, but unless there is a marked change in the way people approach the leave, we women in the U.S. are not holding our collective breath. Let’s face it: Maternity leave in the United States is an incredibly depressing story. We all know the statistics. The United States shares a dubious distinction with Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and Lesotho as being one of the few nations in the world without a paid maternity leave, leaving American women often forced to choose between the ability to work and the ability to care for their children.
We have the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and it’s something. That offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection while we take it. But for many women, three months without pay is not an option they can afford.
With no mandatory leave, mothers tell stories of leaving their 2-week-old infants with caregivers and most day care programs start children around 6 weeks of age — a far cry from the 1-year-old minimum in Scandinavian countries with more reasonable leave. Norway, for instance, has a system of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave that can total 56 weeks. Nine weeks are for Mom (three weeks before birth and six weeks directly after) and 10 weeks are for dad. Yes, seriously. They may divide the rest as they choose.
We Americans can only imagine. Our maternity leave policies hurt families in so many ways, says Dr. Jolene Brighten of Oakland, California. “The U.S. sets its maternity leave based on the estimated time it will take for the uterus to recover from childbirth,” she says. “This narrow perspective overlooks the fact that childbirth and being a new mother is very demanding both physically and emotionally.”
Indeed, having had three children myself, I can attest to the fact that a mother feels very differently both physically and emotionally at even six months compared to three. It’s simply not enough time. And, of course, that is assuming a woman can even afford to take three months unpaid. “?I see many women in my practice who have their milk supply decrease after ?returning to work and some women who are unable to continue nursing their? infants,” Dr. Brighten says. “One of the major causes of this is the stress that working outside the home creates.”?
So we mothers are told to nurse because “breast is best,” but all of our policies when it comes to family are working against this process. Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, things are different. ??Johanna Syrén, a mother of three from Sweden, says she stayed home with her twins for six months and then her husband had six more months alone after that. “Here we get like an amount of days that we can spread out over a year or even more,” she says. “I still have days left to use in summertime instead of vacation so it’s pretty good! Also, day care doesn’t cost anything here so there are almost no stay at home moms after the maternity leave. Most women have a career.”
In Hungary, there is an option for a three-year maternity leave. Reka Csemy is still home with her son who will be 1 in February. For the first two years, Csemy will be paid what she describes as “an acceptable amount.” After that, the pay goes down, but the job is still protected (if the mother wants) and social security is still paid. “I am planning to stay at home for the entire three years,” she says. “I left my job before the maternity leave because I moved to the town where my husband lives. So I don’t know where I will start working after that.”
Compare that to the U.S., where mothers cobble together their sick leave and vacation days to create some semblance of pay during their time away from work.
Emma Michel, a teacher from Colorado, took three months after her son was born last year and her husband was able to take one. Even so, sending her baby to day care, even at 4 months, was hard.
“I derive a lot of self-worth from working, so in that sense I am glad to be back,” Michel says. “But I find myself desperately scrolling through photos of Nolan on my phone sometimes, missing him.”
I know, for me, the idea of putting my child in day care at 3 months was terrifying. By 1 year? I probably could have done it. And saved my career to boot. Sadly, that’s just not an option for American women.
A single mom in the U.S. can expect very little support from the government. For Danica Panza, a single mom in Austria, she was still able to take a full 20 months off to be with her second child. She was getting about $700 a month during her time off, which was enough to live on and to be with her children.
American moms just don’t have the same options.
In fact, the choices are so abysmal, that about 43 percent of American moms choose to leave the workforce after having a baby. Forget leaning in, these moms are knocked off their feet entirely.
It’s not only about maternity leave, of course. In many other countries, day care is high-quality and heavily subsidized or free. It makes going back to work a no-brainer. And there are other perks that support families as well. In France, for instance, a baby nurse is part of the birthing process. What that means is that a person, well-trained in child care, comes to your home after the birth and helps you. Can you even imagine?
In Finland, parents get a “baby box” of clothing and supplies and a box the baby can sleep in.
And in many countries, parents who choose to go back to work (and many do) are allowed flexibility almost every bottom-line driven company in the U.S. would balk at considering.
As a country, we tout our family values. We make a big game out of pretending to support motherhood, but then abandon the women who choose to pursue it. Our boot-strapping, every-woman-for-herself values leave many moms struggling for air at precisely the time we should be throwing them a lifeline.
Until things change, the U.S. will continue to lag behind. Hey, but at least we have something in common with Lesotho, a landlocked country in Africa where 40 percent of the country lives below the poverty line. A problematic friend, to be sure, but one of the few we have in this regard.