Why Maternity Leave In The United States Really Sucks

by Joelle Wisler
Originally Published: 
u.s. maternity leave

When I had my first child, I worked for a small physical therapy company and my maternity leave was exactly zero days. I knew that this was the case when I got pregnant. But about three months into my pregnancy, I asked my boss if I would even be guaranteed my job back if I decided to take 12 (unpaid) weeks off and…she laughed. Like, literally laughed.

Needless to say, I quit that job the day I went into labor. So, in addition to caring for my very first newborn, I had to deal with the financial burden of having to rely on just my husband’s income for three months, and oh, I also had to find a new job. Yay America! I didn’t even have the energy to experience postpartum anxiety at that crazy time, so I waited until my baby was almost a year old to go through all that. It was like, sorry, hormones, you are going to have to hang in there until I can mentally deal with mentally falling apart.

In the United States, if you are a woman who works for a company with fewer than 50 employees, it is completely up to your employer whether or not you get paid during maternity leave, and they don’t even have to guarantee that your job is safe when you want to return — because pushing a human out of your body and then keeping said newborn human alive for three months with your body is not stressful enough.

The United States likes to pride itself on being the best at everything, yet we are light-years from being the best at taking care of new parents. According to a report by The International Labour Organization (ILO), in 178 countries, paid maternity leave for working mothers is guaranteed, and 54 countries provide paid leave for new fathers. However, the United States doesn’t require companies to provide paid maternity leave. In fact, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 allows women up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only half of women are eligible and many can’t afford to stop working, according to the study.

Let’s look at Canada. Depending on the length of employment, Canadian mothers can have up to 52 (!) weeks off after the birth of their baby, and their employers are required to give them their jobs back when they return. This is mandated by the government. Along with this, new mothers (or fathers) are paid, by the government, for 15 weeks. Can you even imagine that happening in the United States? Can you imagine what a difference this would make in those crucial months after a child is born? I cannot.

But I am going to imagine that this was my reality for just one moment. Indulge me, please.

1. Instead of quitting my job, because I wasn’t guaranteed to get it back after maternity leave anyway, I would have gone into labor much less stressed out. Less stress for me = less stress for my baby.

2. I would have had 15 paid weeks with my baby, bonding, figuring each other out, getting into a routine, making a life as a new family.

3. I wouldn’t have had to find a new job, thus eliminating another huge life change, creating a more stable environment for my entire family.

4. At 12 weeks old, my baby wasn’t even close to sleeping through the night. He thought nighttime was party time. I am not a huge crier, but I cried each morning for months after I went back to work because I had never been so tired in my life.

5. At 12 weeks, I was given three 15-minute pumping breaks during a 10-hour day. My fledgling milk supply went from not-so-great to almost nonexistent in a matter of weeks. Leaving my puny bottles of breast milk with my son as I dropped him off at daycare just added more layers to the guilt tower that I was building around me.

6. I wouldn’t have had the constant worry that my overwhelming fatigue was keeping me from performing my very physical job the way that I should.

7. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to watch almost 80% of my paycheck go to daycare and wonder why I was killing myself for just a few hundred dollars each month.

8. And maybe I wouldn’t have dealt with the amount of postpartum anxiety that I dealt with when my son was a year old because I was happier and calmer.

I went back to work at 12 weeks because we wanted to eat. Was I ready to go back? No. Was I even sleeping? No. Was I as effective at my job as I had been? Absolutely not.

What the hell America?

The ILO also said that an effective maternity leave “contributes to the health and well-being of mothers and their babies and thus to the achievement of major development goals, including the reduction of child and maternal mortality and improvement of their health” (United Nations, 2009).

This is saying that maternity leave can literally be linked to life and death. Think about that when you go to the voting booth in November, because as the ILO also said, “Equality for women represents progress for all. ”


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