A terrifying look at maternity leave in America

In the weeks following the birth of my first child, physically I was a train wreck. I was delirious from a lack of sleep, my chest ached from round-the-clock breastfeeding and I was epoxied to my side of the bed sheets because I could barely stand thanks to my healing episiotomy (TMI, I know).

But, I was blessedly free from worrying about events going on outside of the walls of my apartment. Why? Generally because I forced myself not to think about the collective horrors of the world, but mostly because I didn’t have to worry about job security. I had qualified for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the meager 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave which guaranteed my position be held until I return, with no change in pay rate.

But this time, now that I am pregnant with my second, am I again free from worries? Not so much. Even though I’ve had a successful run with my company on a full-time basis for years, I had to temporarily go down to part time hours in 2015 in a bid to save myself and my family the financial burden of putting my son into daycare while my husband and I worked. (I cast no judgement toward parents who do utilize day care, it just wasn’t the best option for us.) Because of this choice, I no longer qualify for FMLA to have our second child, due this February. My employer is under no legal obligation to hold my job for me, despite my successes with the company and my efforts in helping to build my department into the thriving part of the business it is now. There are no laws protecting me from forfeiting my job in order to take the time off I need to mother my own children.

After the awful realization that I no longer met the odd requirements for this federal medical leave law (have worked 1,250 hours prior to giving birth, a minimum of 50 people employed at your job site, etc.), I asked two of my five supervisors and the head of human resources what my options were. After a quick Q&A meeting, I was met with a lackluster “sorry, but sucks for you” consensus. There’s not much they can do for me in the guise of job security because I just had to go off and have a baby.

I am 34 years old, I have merciless student loans payments due each month, and my husband and I are embarking on having our second child. Life happens. I don’t have the energy, the time or the financial security to start at a new job again from the very bottom. But now that’s exactly what I have to do.

Am I disappointed in my company for not providing at least a modest maternity leave plan for their 500+ employees? Yes.

Am I overly preoccupied with worry about my family’s financial stability during what is supposed to be a joyful time in our lives? Yes.

Am I now going to enter the stressful headspace of fretting over putting out multiple resumes and applying for jobs, instead of solely focusing on my kids? You betcha.

But the bigger question is: Am I disappointed in my country for being the only modernized place on the planet that does not require provisions for its newest and most vulnerable generation and those who are tasked to care for them? Yes. But I am also not surprised by this abysmal failure to provide protection for working parents.

Despite strides some companies have made in the last year, why is it that 88 percent of working mothers in this country still have no access to paid maternity leave? Unless you work for a benevolent employer or come from a rich family (I fall under neither category), there is nothing protecting you from the consequences of forced job loss should you choose to take the minimum appropriate amount of time off to parent your newborn.

And what is the “appropriate” amount of time according to governments around the world? In Portugal, it’s 120-150 days, with your full pay. In Ireland, it’s 130-182 days, with 80 percent pay. In Croatia, it’s 365 days at full pay. In Greece, despite their bleak financial situation, it’s 119 days at half pay, just to name a few. And what’s the “appropriate” amount of time allotted by the U.S. government? If you qualify, it’s 60-84 days at ZERO percent of your pay. Anything outside of that, it’s whatever you can cobble together with a hodge-podge of sick days, vacation days and however many days you can call off without losing your job. Moreover, this measly patchwork of days off doesn’t include an income source. Many parents must go into debt in order to bankroll their new lifestyle of diapers, formula and all other baby-centered accoutrements. Not to mention, still having to pay their rent, utilities, buy groceries, etc.

And then the hospital bills from the birth start rolling in …

The facts are stark and discouraging: the U.S. is one of the worst countries in the world for new parents. It’s an eye-opening embarrassment.

Many powerful U.S. companies have lobbied against federal mandates for maternity leave, claiming it hurts their bottom line. If that is so, why is it that nearly every private company in nearly every other country on Earth is capable of making it economically feasible? It’s clear that American lawmakers have had their heads turned by the lobbying and short-sighted greed of companies who have no loyalty or gratitude to their workforce, and have chosen to side with them instead of passing family-oriented laws which secure the financial safety of the very citizens who elected them to their posts.

Economics 101 shows that when a family unit has little to no money to circulate throughout its community, local businesses suffer, the economy at large suffers and, most importantly, the family unit suffers. It is to the great detriment of the entire country if fledgling families are left financially twisting in the wind as they raise the next crop of American citizens.

Parenthood is gargantuan. It is fraught with fear, hope, love, depression and the anxiety that comes with leaving behind the only life you’ve known and embarking on a new one with no road map to guide you. The stakes are so much higher than they were before. This emotionally loaded time in life should not be forced to bloom in the looming shadow of financial ruin. Especially when that ruin could have easily been deflected by our government, if only it cared about its own future.

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