What We Need: Paid Maternity Leave

One of my biggest beefs with the feminist scholarship of my college years (the mid 90’s) was how detached it felt from the everyday lives of the women I knew. A lot of the feminist theory we studied then was about reclaiming language. Like spelling women with a y, so “men” isn’t part of the word anymore, so women stop being defined in relation to men. My reaction then, as now, is “I mean, that’s all fine and dandy, but is that REALLY what women need most? Like, shouldn’t we be doing something about domestic violence and equal pay?” Not that there haven’t always been plenty of feminists pushing for equal pay and combatting domestic violence, including the ones working on theory, but the feminist movement seemed to be mired in the weeds of stuff that wasn’t important to me. No offense, feminists theorists of the 90’s, but I got bigger fish to fry than how we spell things, and no amount of your theorizing was able to convince me that changes in spelling would bring about a feminist utopia.

I feel like maybe that’s why less and less women identified as feminists in the 90’s. From the outside, it can look like a movement that is about minutiae, not about what is important to women. We argue about whether this musician or that film are “feminist” but we don’t seem to be making much traction on the big stuff. In fact, it can feel like we are moving backwards at times.

I feel really impatient about women’s rights. It makes me completely insane that the glass ceiling is still a thing. I am so sick of celebrating the first woman this, or the first lesbian that, or the first Latina whatever. And if I have to see one more video montage of women pioneering their fields, followed by a tagline like “Keep on dreaming” or whatever, I’m going to vomit. “Hooray, we aren’t barred from having jobs anymore, we must rejoice!” BLEEAARRGGGHHHH. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is a lot older than me, and I’m no spring chicken anymore. We should be past the pioneer phase of change by now. We should have equal pay by now. We should have adequate funding for domestic violence survivors’ services by now. We should have paid maternity leave by now. That we still are begging for this stuff in 2014 makes me completely insane.

I think part of the problem is that we as women are distracted. We’re distracted with the Mommy Wars. We’re distracted with how to spell words. We’re distracted with the argument about whether Beyonce is a real feminist. Meanwhile, we lose our access to birth control pills, and we watch our mothers, daughters, and sisters hide bruises because they’re in even bigger risk of being murdered by their abuser if they leave him.

Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t have patience for the distractions anymore. The distractions are killing women. It’s time we moved past them. It’s time we stopped arguing WITH each other and did something FOR each other. There are plenty of things to disagree about, but there are even more things that bring us together.

So, I’m gonna start with one issue here today that I hope we can agree on: paid maternity leave. Did you know that the US is one of only FOUR countries in the entire world that don’t have at least some kind national law requiring paid maternity leave? That’s right, we’re in a club with Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Liberia. The next time someone complains about strong US labor laws pushing companies to move jobs to Mexico, I’m gonna point out that in Mexico, women are entitled to 12 weeks of 100% paid maternity leave. Also, when someone complains about how complicated it must be to reassign work when women are gone from the office for three months, I’m gonna point out that EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD except us 4 have managed to figure it out. I think US employers are at least as smart as the ones in Uruguay, don’t you? Also, has nobody ever heard of a damn temp? Seriously?

But what really moves me isn’t arguing with people who say no. It’s stories from women about why it’s important. When I came back to work when The Girl was 8 weeks old (I took a few weeks off before she was born, and was completely out of money, and not entitled to more leave even if I had the money to pay the bills while I was taking unpaid leave), I was still so sleep deprived, it is fair to say I wasn’t doing my best work. Imagine how much worse that was when The Boy was in the NICU and I went back to work right away, so I could save the sick leave I had saved up for when he came home from the hospital. Was I focused on my job? Not really, no.

Now imagine you are a woman living in poverty, where every spare dime you have is going to have to go to child care so you can go back to work immediately after birth because your employer is too small to be covered by the FMLA and you have no right to even unpaid maternity leave. How is this good for families? For babies? Or frankly, for employers? Are stressed out, overtired employees really a benefit to a company? Wouldn’t it be better if we let those families bond and those women get some rest before throwing them back into the workplace?

If this is an issue you care about, what can you do to help move our country to join the vast majority of the world that has paid maternity leave laws? Well, you can write to your members of Congress, repeatedly, and tell them to support the FAMILY Act. Also, you can also get involved with groups like MomsRising.org and the National Partnership for Women and Families. And you can also tell your friends and families the facts about the US’s shameful lack of paid maternity leave and ask THEM to write to Congress and get involved. That’s basically how it works to advocate for stuff–you connect with like-minded people, and you ask for what you need from those with the power to grant it. And you keep asking, no matter how many times they say no, until you get it.

I’m going to do several of these posts on topics I feel passionate about–things that women can do to help each other to improve our lives. I hope it will make all of you feel empowered and connected. And I know it will make me feel like at least I am doing something positive and practical to help women. If you have an issue you’d like me to write about, share it in the comments!