Maternity Leave: Why American Mothers Have It So Bad

Cheryl Lock

Maternity Leave: Why U.S. Policies Are So BadColombia has it.
Slovenia has it.
Even Ethiopia has it.

It is guaranteed paid maternity leave, and in America, the situation is disappointing. 

Bearing in mind President Obama’s State of the Union address a couple weeks ago, today we’ll give our “state of maternity leave” address.

Chances are, you’ve been there. You’re elated to learn that you’re pregnant, but just as quickly your mind fills with questions about whether and how you can take the necessary time off from work.

We’re not going to lie. The situation is pretty bad, especially for women who are less educated. The Census found that only 18% of women with less than a high school diploma get some paid leave, while more than 64% of those with at least a college degree did.

So really … what’s up with our policies—or lack thereof?

What We Get

Although the number of companies offering paid maternity leave appears to be on the rise, the U.S. remains one of the few countries (among developed ones, at least) that still does not have a national policy on maternity leave. What we have is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables workers with new babies or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Whether you get any paid leave is up to your company–this only means that they can’t give your job away while you’re out. There are exclusions, too: You must have worked at the company for a year or more and put in at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before leave.

What’s Your Maternity Leave Story?

Did you get a lot of time off, or were you left scrambling for sick and vacation days to take enough leave? How did you make it work?

And even then, the act excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees, so it covers only about half the work force, leaving countless women to take a lesser amount of unpaid time off, or only what they’ve managed to save up in sick or vacation days.

How We Compare to the Rest of the World

According to this report, among the 21 high-income nations studied, the U.S. had one of the least generous leave policies available. You might expect places like Finland, France and Norway to have better policies than America–but when places like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Estonia have more generous policies than the U.S. (which, according to the Human Rights Watch report “Failing its Families,” they do) you really start to wonder what’s going on.

And it’s not just moms who are suffering. While at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, more than 50 nations, including most Western countries, also have policies in place that guarantee paid leave for new fathers.

Those at the bottom of the rung—the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea—of course, do not.

With such little paid time off available to the majority of the population, it only makes sense that more and more women are returning to work earlier than before. From 2005-2007, 64% of women were working within a year of giving birth, compared with 39% in 1976-1980 and 17% in 1961-1965. And, according to recently released Census information, one in 10 mothers, more than half a million women each year, go back to their jobs in four weeks or less.

Why More Maternity Leave Equals Healthier Babies

It’s not just a matter of wanting more time off of work for time’s sake—we have scientific proof on our side showing that maternity leave is important for both our health and the health of our babies.

Based on evidence from new research, we can now blame the short amount of time mothers have with their newborns for developmental delays, sickness and even death. According to studies, a 10-week extension in paid leave led to a 20% dip in infant deaths—with an even bigger drop for babies between 2 and 12 months. The study authors believe a few factors play into the findings:

  1. American babies whose mothers were back at work within 12 weeks were less likely to get doctors’ visits and immunization, and were less likely to be breast-fed (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months).
  2. Infants whose mothers went back to work earlier than 12 weeks were likelier to have more behavioral problems and lower cognitive test scores at age 4. The authors speculated this might stem from the superior care babies receive from parents as opposed to other caregivers.

It’s not just babies who benefit from the increased time with mom. Some studies have tied the lack of time off with depression on the part of the mother, while other studies have shown that an increase of even one week of time off decreased the number and frequency of symptoms of depression.

So what’s the answer? The optimal amount of time off, according to the author of the first study of its kind, is paid leave of about 40 weeks.

What You Can Do

As we mention in this comparison of maternity leaves around the world, there are a couple of things you can do when it comes to maternity leave. The first is to know your rights and understand how much time you are due at your job. If you are considering having another child in the near future, think about how much time off would make you feel comfortable (assuming you’re heading back to work after), and compare it with how much time off you’ll actually be allowed.

Start planning early to stack up days off—like using a combo of accrued sick or vacation days, personal days, short-term disability and unpaid leave. Note that we do recommend, if it’s at all possible, that you leave a five-day sick or vacation day cushion for when you return to work, for little things that are bound to pop up.

The second thing you can do is take action. Groups like Momsrising help advocate for policy change, and Working Mother is gathering signatures for their Paid Parental Leave Petition. Join the cause here

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  • Pat Katepoo

    Women who work for small employers (<50 employees) can ASK for paid leave. They just might get it. I've seen it happen many times among those willing to ask with an ambitious paid-time-off goal. The most common is getting four weeks of paid leave, even though there was NO policy. The sad state of US maternity leave is why I started to teach women these strategies.

  • Silicosys4

    Maternity leave is doing a lot to ruin a woman’s chances of equality in the workplace. Why as a manager would I hire a woman over a man, or even give her an equal chance at being hired? I know that there is a good chance she is going to get pregnant, and I’ll lose 3-4 months productivity, have someone else doing her job for no extra pay, and the quality of BOTH positions will suffer, and my budget will suffer for having to pay a woman to sit at home suckling a baby. No, I will only hire women if I absolutely HAVE to, to maintain the illusion of equality in our hiring practices, and I’ll make sure I put her in non-essential positions that can stand to be vacated for long periods of time.

    • Guest

      this is why I have said that pay and promotion paths will never be equal until men are required to take paternity leave… this situation would be fully reversed- men can have more children than women can (multiple partners) thus you would have to look down on hiring men if they were required to take paternity leave.  
      That being said, friends who are hiring managers in countries with year long leave policies have said that it is a great time to use to evaluate a potential new staffer- 3 months means covering the work in-house- one year of leave requires getting additional coverage.

    • Bob

      You are a douchbag!

    • Kylie

      You are the reason women aren’t considered equal. If you pushed a tiny bowling ball out of your ass that depended on you and your spouse for everything it needs in life you would be more sensitive to how important it is to have maternity leave. And personally from seeing my husband feel very left out while I was home with the bundle of joy(and poop) especially since I’m in a kinder company that gives me 17 weeks then the usual 4-6, he talked his boss into giving him 3 weeks “paternal leave” because he was so distraught that he never got time with our baby. I felt bad for him and I was very grateful that his boss made a new temporary policy for him because of how sad he was, which even then 3 weeks isn’t a lot. That’s 20 weeks. 4 months old and he’s off in someone else’s arms all day long helpless. That shouldn’t be ok. And if people like you would stop contributing to the sexism against women in the work place maybe the country would realize how important it is to invest time in our precious infants lives. You make me disgusted at your views and your blatant sexism and I hope you never get married cause they’re in for a very unequal relationship.

    • Katarzyna Cywinska-Behrendt

      You have a huge problem with yourself man

  • Guest

    As a relatively new Canadian mom, the thought of having to leave my young infant soooo early to return to work boggles my mind. We get one year off (can be split between partners), with partial payment (55% of our salary covered by Employment Insurance) for the entire year. My son will be one in two weeks, and I will be returning to work. I am so thankful that I was able to be home with him for the entire year to share in all of the precious moments and milestones that occured. Even at a year, it breaks my heart to have to leave him – I couldn’t imagine leaving him at six or even twelve weeks of age to return to work.

  • Bubbs15

    This is a great article. Articulated everything I’ve been trying to say since realising the maternity cover at my current work place. Absolutely shocking. Are there any updates to this? Anything that I can follow / keep up with? I’ve signed the petition but am really keen to add fuel and help make changes.