What Do You Mean There’s No Paid Maternity Leave?

Women in America are taught to save – for a car, for emergencies, homes, and retirement.  What we end up learning the hard way is the need to save for maternity leave.  Thinking about having kids one day?  Ask about your employer’s maternity leave policy now!  It might happen that there isn’t one.

I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about how to succeed in a career as a woman, how to climb the ladder, be a boss without being bitchy, and learning when it’s time to move on.  Women often end up staying in unsatisfying jobs, often because they have earned the right to maternity leave, flexible schedules and the ability to take time off to be with family.  A few years ago I was shocked to read about the number of women who didn’t have maternity leave.  Even more shocked to learn more recently how many of my friends don’t have this seemingly basic benefit.

Learning at 30 that you will need to use your vacation time, sick time and likely go on disability seems crazy.  What’s more is how many women have to do this all the time.  A bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives almost a year ago that would require 4 weeks off for federal employees.  It didn’t go anywhere.  Many European countries have laws requiring paid maternity leave, so why don’t we?  Are we anti-family, or anti-time off?  Women make up 47% of the workforce, so what gives?

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, approximately 178 countries have a national law guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, while more than 50 include paid time off for new fathers.

According to the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, anyone employed for at least 12 months by a business with a payroll of at least 50 employees may take 12 unpaid weeks and not lose their jobs, including federal employees.  This cuts out half the workforce, while others it does apply to cannot afford to take it. Only 16% of employers offered paid maternity leave in 2008, down from 27% in 1998.  Bottom line: The U.S. is one of four countries that doesn’t offer paid leave to new mothers.  Our esteemed list includes Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho.

The lowest income families are the ones who hurt the most.  They often cannot afford to take unpaid leave.  However Think Progress has found in recent years, data shows that less educated women “are nearly four times more likely than college graduates to be denied paid maternity.  More women now than just a few years ago are actually foregoing a paycheck to take the time off.  For any family taking unpaid time off can create huge financial issues.  For those making minimum wage and just getting by, it can be devastating. No wonder having a baby is a leading cause of “poverty spells” in the U.S.!

Much flak has been given young women in their 20s and 30s for waiting so long to have children. How dare we put our careers and financial stability ahead of procreation!  I have friends who have spent time the last couple years trying to change jobs in order to be in a place they want to stay for awhile, where they can rack up the necessary time with the company to be able to take maternity leave, only to find it doesn’t exist.  It changes our feeling of being financially secure, and ready for children.  My question is how do we change this at the company level?  How do we lobby our employers to say we want this benefit, it’s the right thing to do, and it will likely help keep employees like us around for years to come?

Better yet, how do we make this happen at the federal level?

Originally appeared on Fem2.0

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