US: Parenting in a country with no paid maternity leave

The US is the only industrialised country that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave after childbirth.

Abi Leonard speaks about her most recent pregnancy experience in Bloomington, Indiana. Leonard is a mother of two [James Brosher/Al Jazeera]
Abi Leonard speaks about her most recent pregnancy experience in Bloomington, Indiana. Leonard is a mother of two [James Brosher/Al Jazeera]

Indiana, US – I meet Abi Leonard in a public park on one of the first days of spring in Indiana. She stands tall and assured, her purple cat-eye glasses framing sharp blue eyes. “There’s a woodpecker!” she says, pointing to a nearby utility pole, but by the time I look, he’s flown away. 

She smiles, and comments on all the animals who’ve come out into the warmer spring weather. It’s hard to imagine, but five years ago, Leonard was 10 weeks postpartum, with an open wound that had already required three operations. And, because she was running out of maternity leave, Leonard was already back at work.

“And I was one of the lucky ones,” she tells me, “because my employer gave me 12 weeks’ leave at 60 percent of my pay.” Leonard had worked until the day she went into labour and then given birth to her first-born via caesarean section. 

The day after that surgery, doctors discovered that an allergy to surgical glue had caused Leonard to develop a hematoma. She had to undergo a second surgery, and then, after developing an infection, a third surgery, at the same site. 

“I had to go back to work,” Leonard says now, “because I was getting close to the end of my 12 weeks. My first day back, I sat down in my office chair and my incision popped right open. The skin was just overworked.” 

‘I realised how little time I had to bond’

The United States is alone among industrialised countries in being the only one without a national law providing parents with paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a newborn. 

In fact, the United States is one of only three countries on earth that provides no maternity leave whatsoever. Compare it with the United Kingdom, which offers 40 weeks, Bangladesh, which offers 16, its neighbour to the immediate north, Canada, which offers 15, or Iceland, which offers three months.

Three American states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have implemented paid family leave programmes, with much success for working families and little impact on employers. 

But like Abi Leonard, many American mothers are without adequate support at this critical point in their reproductive and professional lives. Some are able to cobble together a combination of “sick days” allotted by their employer with the 12 weeks of unpaid leave allocated to them by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which protects employees who have worked for at least one year at a company with 50 or more employees; others go back to work almost immediately after giving birth or leave the workforce altogether. 

READ MORE: How soon is too soon to return to work after giving birth?

Leonard had to keep working despite her precarious medical condition, and would keep working until her son was five years old, at which point, four months after the birth of her second child, she left the workforce to do graduate work in International Studies.

“I realised, with my first, how little time I had to bond,” she says. “When I went to work, he’d just started laughing and being expressive. On a medical level, it would have been nice to have time for my body to heal. On a psychological level, it would have been nice to have a chance to establish connection.” 

‘I was working the whole six weeks’ 

Birgit Newman plays with two-year-old son Landon. Newman is an associate director of graduate career services at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business [James Brosher/Al Jazeera] 

Birgit Newman, who moved to the United States from Germany, where parents are allowed to take up to three years of unpaid leave, had heard of the lack of maternity leave in the United States. “But it was better here than the rumours alleged, so it was a pleasant surprise.”

After giving birth to her first son, she left her job as an IT consultant and struck out on her own. 

“I knew I couldn’t work part time,” she says, “and I knew I didn’t want to have a child and work full time including travel. So I went out on my own, but I wasn’t prepared for all the salesmanship that was involved in that, and the financial insecurity was difficult.” 

Like many of the women I spoke with, Newman was in a place of increased choice when she had her second child. “With Landon, I had an insurance policy that paid me 80 percent of my income. It was such a different experience to have the freedom and security at the same time. It was tremendously helpful.”

Ashlyn Nelson, a professor of public policy at Indiana University, also considers herself fortunate: “I had my first child in a year that was great from a personal standpoint. I was still a postdoctoral student, so I wasn’t on the job market, and even though I didn’t have a great salary, I had health insurance.” Still, she says, “it was not ideal from a professional standpoint. I was trying to get my research off the ground and I wasn’t professionally established enough to be able to draw appropriate boundaries.” 

Like Abi Leonard, Ashlyn Nelson is poised and confident; sitting in a chair holding her sleeping baby while she speaks, she seems like the kind of woman who could tower over any situation. 

But she describes the difficulty of her experience as a working mother of a newborn: “I had a conference call scheduled when I was in labour. There I was with an epidural already in my back, dilated to six centimetres, trying to put together an NSF [National Science Foundation] proposal.

“The doctor finally came in and asked me to put my phone away because they were going to break my water. It seemed crazy, I’m sure, but given the incentive structure offered to working mothers, I was behaving entirely rationally.

“The first week after my daughter was born, I was living off oxytocin and endorphins. After that, I was living off anger and fumes. I couldn’t afford to take more than the six weeks and I was actually working the whole six weeks.” 

Nelson’s infant daughter wriggles to wakefulness, and Nelson offers her the breast. “With this one, it’s a little better because I’m in a different place professionally. But most working mums go back to work before they’re ready. They’re not being as productive as they could be at work; they’re just appearing in a space. And there’s so much policy that’s based on these outliers, these women who have triplets and go back to work at the end of the week. We’re not all Superwoman. Most of us need sleep in order to function, and we need to physically recover from the process of giving birth.”  

Ashlyn Nelson holds her four-week-old daughter, Suvi. Nelson is an economist and associate professor at Indiana University-Bloomington [James Brosher/Al Jazeera]  

‘Protect men and women’ 

The Family and Medical Leave Act was not enacted until 1993; before that, the United States did not provide any rights to maternity or family leave. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Molly McDonald, the chief executive and creator of Touch-A-Day Baby Welcoming E-Course for New Parents. “I spent time in the Middle East, where the tradition is that the new mother goes back to her family of origin for 40 days, where they’re taken care of, cooked for and tended to. Here in the United States, mums are going back to the gym, preparing meals, cleaning their house, making their baby book, knitting blankets. And then going right back to work.” 

McDonald points to the ways in which American policy, or lack thereof, harms newborns as much as it harms their mothers. “As a culture we don’t fully understand what potential harm we’re creating by interrupting children’s biological processes with their parents.”

READ MORE: Paternity leave blues

A mother’s milk supply doesn’t even establish itself fully for the first nine weeks. I see parents having to separate from their children before they’ve even learned how to communicate with them. Socially, cognitively, physically, we are setting up our children for difficulty. If we had leave in place, and told women ‘your job is to take care of this little being who’s going to be the future of this country’, we could build one compassionate being at a time and change the shape of our humanity.”

Rebecca Warren is a mother of three and executive director of the Monroe County Humane Association in Bloomington, Indiana. Her answer to a lack of family leave policy? She takes her family to work with her.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve had small employers who have been understanding and willing to work with me,” she says, as the shelter’s resident cat follows her and her baby, Zach, from room to room in her office suite. “There are so many larger companies where that’s just not the case. I’d love family leave policy to come out of a place where it’s the responsible and respectful thing to do, rather than it’s being forced on employers.”

Rebecca Warren with son, Zach, and the office cat, Peanut. Warren,  executive director of the Monroe County Humane Association, brings her Zach to work each day [James Brosher/Al Jazeera] 

Warren calls her office “the proactive, fluffier arm of animal advocacy. We educate people who have pets and provide opportunities for people in difficult situations to keep their pets. We provide people with therapy animals.” 

A typical day, she says, will see her bringing Zach to work for six to seven hours; he nurses, he naps, he plays in his Pack and Play. “For my own wellbeing and sense of balance,” she says, “I needed to be able to bring my infants to work. This is where a lot of women head into postpartum depression, in the gap between what they need to do for balance and what they need to do to keep a job.” 

Warren points to the other societal costs of the lack of family leave policy in the United States: “We raise children who grow up without boundaries,” she says. “They are going to daycare and then school in order to receive love instead of learning. And parents pay a tonne for daycare. You have to come back to work just to afford daycare.”

READ MORE: Would you crowd fund your maternity leave?

Indeed, in the United States, it is more common than not for a family to pay more for childcare than it does for housing. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies puts the average cost of centre-based daycare at $11,666 a year, but this is just an average: in some states, childcare costs more than in-state college tuition. Monthly child care costs in the nation’s capital, for example, average a whopping $1,472 a month.

Lots of children are in foster care because their mothers are poor .... If a woman's child is sick, does she go to work, leave her child alone, and prayer that there's no social worker there when she gets back? Does she leave the child with her cousin's shady boyfriend? Does she take the child to work and risk getting fired?

Lindsay Pappas

“We would have paid more for infant daycare than we did for my graduate school tuition,” says Lindsay Pappas, a mother of four who has chosen to postpone her re-entry into the workforce.

Pappas, who holds her son, Augustus, as she speaks, was a graduate student in Indiana University’s School of Education when she learned she was pregnant. Like all of the women I spoke to, Pappas says she was fortunate: the university granted her a semester of unpaid leave. Halfway through her leave, as her family expanded first through birth and then through foster parenting, she decided she wasn’t ready to leave her four children to teach all day, so she decided to postpone her student teaching and, consequently, her entry into the profession.

“It’s made me realise the kinds of privilege I have, that my family can even entertain the idea of me taking a year of unpaid leave. For the vast majority of American families, it’s not possible. Part of it is hard math. We have four children, so we couldn’t have afforded child care. 

“When people hear the words ‘unpaid leave,’ that sounds to them like ‘at least you’ll still have your job when you’re ready to return’. But you have to pay your mortgage, your electric bill, your car insurance. Those things don’t stop just because you had a baby. It’s such a luxury to have one parent be a stay-at-home-parent.”

Pappas stands up to entertain Augustus, who is teething, by carrying him around the house. 

“As a foster-care parent, I’m much more tuned in to the ways in which American leave policy disadvantages low income families. We should protect men and women before they’re forced to make hard choices.

“Lots of children are in foster care because their mothers are poor and have had to make such choices.

“If a woman’s child is sick, does she stay home from work so that her lights are turned off? Does she go to work, leave her child alone, and pray that there’s no social worker there when she gets back? Does she leave the child with her cousin’s shady boyfriend? Does she take the child to work and risk getting fired?

“We don’t want to give low-income families access to family leave, or birth control, or anything they might need to make good decisions or even informed ones. What we’re saying is, ‘If you can’t provide for your children, you shouldn’t be having sex.'”

Abi Leonard agrees. “Our country doesn’t see children as an economic benefit. Having children has become a luxury – most people simply don’t have the resources. Our society is basically telling women that the only people who deserve to have babies are the ones who can have a perfectly planned pregnancy and spend $600 on a stroller. It’s telling poor and working-class women that they don’t deserve to have babies because they can’t financially sustain the cost of motherhood. But how, then, will America maintain its population?”

A typical day, Rebecca says, will see her bringing Zach to work for six to seven hours; he nurses, he naps, he plays in his Pack and Play [James Brosher/Al Jazeera]  

‘There will never be a perfect time to have kids’ 

The federal guarantee of a family-leave plan, unfortunately, has never been an issue that gained much traction in election cycles, and the 2016 presidential election is no exception. 

Both Democratic candidates have spoken all too briefly about their federal family leave proposals, with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders saying that they would recommend 12 weeks of paid leave for families who need to care for newborns. Among the Republican candidates for president, only Marco Rubio had floated a proposal: he wants to offer small tax breaks to companies that offer paid leave.

In the meantime, American parents will wait. They will get creative. They will make difficult choices. As Lindsay Pappas says: “There’s never a perfect time to have kids. You either wait and start your career later in life or you pursue a career, take time off to have kids, and then go back to a work world that has outpaced you. Or you end up stigmatised for putting your kids in daycare when they’re six weeks old. There doesn’t seem to be a way to win, exactly.” 

But American parents who find themselves on the cliff of new parenthood without adequate leave will keep writing themselves elaborate financial and emotional good-parenting flowcharts. And then they’ll put down their pencils, and hope for the best.

Lindsay Pappas poses for a portrait with her eight-month-old son, Gus. Pappas and her husband are both graduate students at Indiana University and have four children [James Brosher/Al Jazeera]   
Source: Al Jazeera


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