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!

9 thoughts on “What We Need: Paid Maternity Leave

  1. I have also been fired for being pregnant. I was very sick the whole time. I left my desk often to go throw up and then came back and continued my work! One of my coworkers was jealous of my pregnancy and started a rumor that I was faking it. Despite being in the bathroom at the same time as me when I was being sick, my boss had me “laid off”. I worked for a temp agency and when they found out I was pregnant they let me know I had 6 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. And then when they got complaints about how sick I was they called again to tell me that all the time I spent in the bathroom throwing up was going to count against my maternity leave. I was very curious who was going to stand outside the stall while I vomited and time me to keep track of THR minutes. Didn’t matter because they laid me off from my temp assignment shortly after. However, I also never got a call to be reassigned to a new job. I suppose I technically still work there…. Some actual laws about maternity leave would be nice. I was extremely insulted and hurt when they called to tell me that every time I got up to vomit at work (despite staying for my 8 hour shift and getting all my work done) would count against my UNPAID maternity leave.

  2. I was fired for being pregnant. We are still a little further back than paid maternity leave, like there’s still straight discrimination against women going on. I also got in a lot of trouble, threatened getting fired, for missing work to testify against my rapist. Men are so understanding let me tell you. Had I been a man testifying against a robbery, I’m sure there’d been no questioning the court order.

    But beyond the women’s rights issues, I think society in general is very anti-parent. Fathers don’t have much rights as fathers, and many of them do have an active role in caring for their babies and children. If we gave them more rights as fathers, it would make things easier on us mothers.
    Michelle recently posted…Shower Confessions of the Not so Hot and SteamyMy Profile

  3. Iran has better maternity leave laws. That’s right…the member of the Bush appointed Axis of Evil is nicer to its working moms that the US – and that’s a country that is actually ruled primarily by Sharia Law…figure it out US of A!

  4. I’m an American Expat living in Berlin, and I LOVE the bennies you receive from the German government. I have a six-month-old, and I feel as if the time that I get to spend with her is priceless! I am granted (as is EVERYONE that pays into the German tax pool) up to 12 months of maternity leave (which I can share with my husband). I will get nine months, and we took three together. There is no greater feeling than to be home with your child instead of letting someone else enjoy the smiles and the walks and the food exploration. My daughter changes every day, and I can actually witness it. American women should also have this opportunity. I believe it would make for a happier society in general. Americans are too work-focused. There needs to be some balance. Oh, and while you’re at it…give your employees some VACATION! I get 25 days a year (and that’s the country’s minimum required paid vacation). There are definitely bonuses to living abroad…

  5. YES! This times a million! And it’s not just because I’m pregnant and facing this dilemma myself, I have felt this way about this issue for years. Watching my family and friends having to go through this same issue time and time again. If we as a country tout about being so progressive, how come we lack the ability to give our own citizens some basic rights that other countries, both larger and smaller than us alike, provide without issue. It’s the most ridiculous paradigm we’ve created for ourself.
    Selena recently posted…Bumpdate: 37 WeeksMy Profile

  6. I love that you take on these issues!

    I’ve had the same thoughts that you share here: Why are we “celebrating” what should have already been? Why are we still making a big deal about women in politics, as business leaders, who are forging a great path?? Why does that stand out? You and I both know why, and I don’t like it. For as far as we’ve come (and I just threw up in my mouth just typing that), we’re still seen as the lesser sex. Less strong, less capable, less valuable. And I’m over it.

    It’s 2014 for Chrissake. It’s time we get with it!
    Real Life Parenting recently posted…If I Had a Million Dollars …My Profile

  7. I was just thinking about this the other day because of an article I read on MSN about how women’s right to pump in the work place were being violated. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if women just got the same benefits as a person who is collecting unemployment for being layed off or fired. We shell out millions of dollars for the unemployed and impoverished. Why can’t women receive some help to? In my personal opinion women should receive employment benefits for a year after the birth of their child. They should also be garanteed to have their job back after this leave. I know that sounds crazy but it wouldn’t be to hard to hire s someone from a temp agency or a contractor to fulfil her duties while she is giving her child the best start she can. It is unreasonable to make a woman choose between paying her bills and doing what’s right for her and her child’s health

    1. That’s not crazy at all. Its actually exactly how parental and maternity/paternity leave works in canada. Its done through ei benefits. How much you get per week depends on how many hours you have in to ei benefits. You and your spouse can either take 8 weeks of paid parental leave or you can split it and take 4 weeks each. Then you or your spouse can take 48 weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave for a total of a years worth of leave.

      Your company has to give you your previous position back, unless that position no longer exists. In that they have to give you a position of the same wage, benefits and hours that you previously held.

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