Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Mother of a Problem

As much as I am a news junkie, my brain just doesn't have the capacity for too much of the national chatter lately. But last week's Ann Romney vs. Hilary Rosen smackdown over stay-at-home motherhood caught my attention.

Mom and the bosses
I'm not particularly interested in discussing the nuances of stay-at-home parenting work vs. at-the-office work. It's an old debate. But every time the subject of motherhood enters the news, I listen, especially when we're talking about valuing motherhood (and fatherhood) as an important part of our society.

I always hope the conversation trickles toward a topic that is pathetically neglected in the United States: the support we as a nation offer new parents.

Let's play a game: You're a grocery store clerk. You're married to a construction worker. You don't make a ton of money, but you're not desperate economically. You find out you're pregnant. As you prepare for the birth, your plans include what you will do for maternity leave when the baby comes.

If you live in Sweden, your government guarantees 480 days of leave -- that's one year, four-ish months. Two months of it is guaranteed for your husband. You'll receive 80 percent of your regular pay for the first 390 days of your leave, then a flat rate. You start imagining a world of playdates and snuggling, of being there to see your baby smile and crawl and walk, without a thought of how you're going to pay for it.

But Sweden's the usual suspect, right? You pay taxes out the nose for benefits like this, which Americans don't stomach well. But how about a country that's a little closer cousin to the USA?

If you live in the U.K., your employer must offer you up to one year of leave. Your employer will give you 90 percent of your regular pay for the first six weeks and a flat rate for weeks 7-39 (and it doesn't matter that you work for a small business, because public money will reimburse them for most of it). Weeks 40-52 are unpaid, but available. You're relieved to know you're guaranteed a few weeks to recover physically and emotionally from your birth. You and your husband decide you can afford an additional four months off -- enough time to establish breastfeeding, get in some form of sleep routine, and relax with your new little critter before you head back to work.

Doesn't sound too bad, but Britain is still a pretty wealthy country. It can't be so good everywhere, right?

In Serbia you'll get a year off, 100 percent paid by the government, as long as Baby is your first or second kid.

In Poland you get five months, 100 percent paid. In Kazahkstan you'll get a little more than four months, 100 percent paid. In Indonesia you'll get three months, 100 percent paid. In Venezuela you get 18 weeks, 100 percent paid. In Algeria you'll get 14 weeks, 100 percent paid.

In Somalia you get up to 14 weeks at 50 percent of your pay.

In Afghanistan you get 90 days at 100 percent of your pay.

And what about here at home?

In the United States, your employer must give you up to 12 weeks off under the Family and Medical Leave Act*. They can pay you but don't have to, and most don't. The government, federally and in the vast majority of states, offers you nothing.

You save up some vacation time, but it's tricky -- you only have two weeks to work with. You have one week of sick leave and you use it up on morning sickness and doctor's appointments. You scrimp and save, but the birth itself is going to cost so much -- a few thousand dollars, even with your insurance, and you make just enough not to qualify for Medicaid. Your husband can pick up some overtime, but you want him at home to help you navigate new motherhood and bond with his child. Your parents would love to help, but they're not rolling in the dough either.

Your baby is due in just a month, and you still haven't figured out how to get more than four weeks off. What if you have a C-section and have to recover? What if the baby's colicky and you never sleep? Your boss is sweet and supportive, but reminds you that you need your FMLA paperwork in, and soon, so you have to decide.

So what do you do? (Going in the bathroom and crying is an option, but it won't get you far.)

And what do we as Americans do about this? It seems we're pretty content. I can't believe we are.

This isn't a question of taxes or state's rights or big government or whatever. It's a question of what we really value.

We say we value families, that healthy children are the path to a healthy future, that good parenting is the bedrock of our society. The vast majority of people do consider parenthood a job, whether one performed full-time or in conjunction with others.

So if we consider parenting so important -- as Ann Romney said, good ol' Mitt often told her that her job was more important than his -- why are we content to have one of the poorest family leave policies on the planet?

I lean toward supporting a federal  program. For better or worse, the government is the existing system able to pay for and administer policies like family leave. (And yes, I'm saying I'd pay more in taxes to support a federal program. Happily.)

Most countries listed above go the federal route, though some (like Somalia and Afghanistan) put the burden on employers -- which I can't imagine would fly well in our land of small businesses. Heck, if you're really against the government getting involved, we could always create a network of nonprofits that help people afford to stay home with their children.

And if you're  against improving our parental leave policies, tell me why. Let's get this debate started -- because the rest of the world is laughing at us for failing to.


* - as pointed out by astute reader cadylee, this only applies if you work for a company big enough to have to abide by FMLA at all.
Facts and figures in this blog come from the incredible interactive NPR map found here.


  1. That's epic depressing. Lindsay and I were lucky that I had enough sick time and time off that I was able to sort out a whole month. She took 3 off but got her pay docked. I wish we did have some sort of decent family leave. I don't think it's an intrusion by the government to provide for the welfare of its citizens. Especially when we here "for the children" so often. Oh no not a bit higher taxes or our taxes directed towards the welfare of children instead of building drones and bombs. The fact that any parent should have to worry about that is disgusting. Literally makes my stomach turn. I often joked that we should just have accidentally been in Canada when Clara was born. I have decent insurance and so did Lindsay at the time so we were lucky to not have to freak out too much, that on top of a newborn is a monumental burden.

    1. Epic depressing is a good way to put it. We've got to be better than this, right?

  2. If you work at a small business (I believe 40 or fewer employees) your employer is required to give you zero time off, even unpaid.

    1. Yes! I had forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder -- I'm adding a little note.

  3. Yuck. This does not make me feel optimistic about when I have kids.

    1. Fight for the better, dude :) Then you can be optimistic!

  4. You are absolutely correct! As a federal employee I was allowed 12 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act but was required to use my sick leave for those 12 weeks in order to get paid...and had I not had the sick leave hours I wouldn't have even been paid! Our system and support of maternity leave is pathetic.

    1. You'd think at least our federal employees would have some better offer! But it's just totally nonexistent. With Henry I took six weeks off, four of them unpaid. It was awful.

  5. Tara, this was so awesome I had to share on facebook and twitter. As a SAHM I haven't had to worry about maternity leave as I already don't get paid to stay home, but it does hurt husbands too. If Collin wants to be with me during labor or to help me after, he has to use his vacation days. As he only gets one week of vacation it doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. We need to start taking better care of each other as a nation.

    1. Yes -- it definitely hurts husbands! Most of the countries that have such robust policies allow the time off to be shared between mother and father, and some even require a certain amount for the father. And thanks for the shares!

  6. LOVED READING THIS! It is amazing to see this in writing! So many people dont have any clue how the government is actually working in other countries. With me not working, the strain is HORRIBLE. I bake from home but recently our gas got shut off because of a rediculous situation with our neighbors (so I cannot use our stove!)
    My husband works so hard and trys to give us as much as possible but we are having to live as frugal as possible. (Check out the Leppke Family site on FB) We are trying to learn ways to make it easier on all of us with cheaper living ways... but buying diapers, milk, food, and so much... wow!

  7. Thank you Tara. When I had my kids, I had to go back to work six days after Mindy was born, and then just decided to work from home with the other two. But working from home is no picnic, either. I was writing checks in the hospital in labor with Steven, and I was back at my computer within HOURS after Lisa was born.

    And don't get me started on the policies surrounding the issues when employees get disabled. This is another CAN OF WORMS that we had to deal with.

    Basically, in the United States, we don't value our people. Period. Whether they are babies, or those at the end of life.


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