June 21, 2012

We’re Not Sick or on Break; We’re Having a Baby

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mother's hand and baby's hand

Credit: Nathan Gibbs/nathangibbs on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

ELBA, Alabama (WOMENSENEWS)--As I look ahead to giving birth for the first time, I find myself, strangely, thinking about the new parents of Papua New Guinea.

And those of Swaziland.

And the United States.

For all of the differences in all our millions of lives we have one thing in common: Out of 181 countries studied by Harvard and McGill, we are the only three countries with no paid parental leave.

I currently work for an organization that is listed as, not one of, but the No. 1 business in the country for providing optimal employee benefits. So I was shocked to discover I had no paid parental leave.

Yes, I can take 12 weeks off, which I understand is way more than many parents get. But it's all unpaid.

A human resources manager says I can combine my sick leave and vacation leave for the time I will need to take off. Since so many workers go without paid sick days or even vacations, I hate to gripe. But pregnancy and infant care aren't sicknesses. Nor are they vacations. They're draining and important times for couples to get their families off to a good start.

My partner's employer takes a different approach. His job allows him to take unpaid leave for family bonding. Bravo! But he must use a sick day to be with me during delivery and then immediately send the human resources office documentation that proves the birth really did occur on that day.

Unaffordable Option

Even with proper financial planning, few parents can afford to take unpaid leave. So parents who are lucky enough to have sick leave and paid vacation, like me, wind up using it all up. All my sick days will be spent on my pregnancy. Then all my vacation days will be spent after delivery in "diaper city."

But even this kind of patchwork won't hold together unless everything goes just right.

One young woman I know went into labor six weeks early. She'd been counting on those six weeks to accrue a bit of leave. Instead she delivered her premature child on Thursday and had to be back to work that following Monday morning while her baby was still in the hospital.

That kind of story is repeated all over the country. And even when things go as planned during the pregnancy and delivery, millions of men and women must return to their paid work too soon after their child is born, simply because they can't afford to take time off to care for them.

Public health officials encourage us to provide exclusive breastfeeding for six months, but that's all but impossible when mothers are expected to report back to duty within days. Before they get a solid breastfeeding routine established many women go through all kinds of adjustments. If new mothers are expected to be right back at work the whole breastfeeding project can easily fall apart.

Wider Health Push

Any serious public health push on breastfeeding should include lobbying for at least a few weeks of paid leave. At that point, a woman has a fighting chance of breastfeeding in her off hours and using lactation breaks at work.

Employers have plenty of reasons to offer paid leave. For one, children who have the benefit of breastfeeding will, in general, enjoy health benefits, as will the mother. And that means employees will spend less time in the pediatrician's office and less time being stressed out and distracted at work.

The Family Medical Leave Act does protect an employee's job security for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But the 16 percent of U.S. companies that do offer paid leave have much lower turnover than those where the leave is unpaid.

There's something really wrong when people who generate a profit for their employers and pay taxes can't expect some decent set-aside time off to care for their families.

There's also something wrong when a highly industrialized nation such as the United States shares a category with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, two of the least developed countries in the world.

I know I'm only talking about this now because it's about to affect me personally. But it's time for everyone to take up this cause, which would serve the entire national "family." Parents with newborns need your help. We'll be too overwhelmed and time stressed, under our current system, to lobby for ourselves.

Christina Caldwell is an independent journalist reporting on issues that affect women worldwide.

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  • NRubinstein

    Yup! Been there, done that. I was the sole earner for our family back in 1989, and worked at a furniture store. I stayed until the day I went into labor, then was back at work within 5 days. The owner’s daughter was pregnant at the same time, and she got to take several months off, at exactly the same time. No one even blinked. I remember suffering through having my milk come in at work and having to call home to get someone to bring me dry clothing, while I waited at my desk, wrapped in a sweater to hide my ‘problem’.

    My daughter, who is a single mom now, was working a minimum-wage part-time job when she was pregnant, and ended up getting help from the county, and stayed home for the first 4 months of her daughter’s life. She managed to live on about $410 a month (her rent was $425), and was able to get 12 diapers at a time by going to the Christian pantry and watching a 1-hour video every day about becoming a Christian. In spite of this meager existance, she probably gave her daughter a better start by being at home with her. Frankly, I don’t know how she could have afforded appropriate childcare on minimum wage, so maybe she made the better choice?

    • jen555555

      I’m a single 37 year old woman expecting in 6 weeks (a little girl). I have 2 teenage sons, so this was a huge surprise for me. Welcome, but surprising. :)
      The day I told my full time job (of 2 years) of the wonderful news, things changed drastically.
      My job, which was pretty laid back until now, became very stressful and full of animosity. My boss turned on me (we’re about the same age!) and she started talking behind my back with the big boss and anyone else that would listen. All unbeknownst to me.
      The next thing I knew, there was a meeting planned and I was told that everything I was doing was wrong (even though it had been right for the past 2 years, as I had great evaluations). I was given until (conveniently) the day I leave for maternity leave to get things ‘right’ or we would re-evaluate that day.
      I can no longer work through lunch to make up dr. appts, which I could always do before (and everyone else still can). I have less than 1 week of vacation, and a few hours of sick leave, which I will undoubtedly use most of it up in appointments over the next few weeks.
      I was also told that I am ‘allowed’ to take up to 12 weeks off (FMLA)(unpaid, of course), but (these are her exact words…) Anyone who takes over 6 weeks off is just being selfish.
      With that said, I also have to figure out how to pay for my health insurance premiums while I’m on leave, since I’ll be in ‘no-pay’ status, all while being on UNPAID leave.
      Sorry to vent, however, this problem is all too well-known in the United States and I don’t see any end to it in sight. Oh, and the exact same thing happened to the woman who held this position before me. She left, I came in.
      The problem is that I can see what’s happening, however, I can’t prove any of it, so I’m stuck. Going to a job interview while you’re 8 months pregnant, is a mute point (and my job knows that. They know I’m stuck). But that’s a whole other topic… Trying to get a job while pregnant and showing.
      Thanks for reading.