A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology confirms what women have known since the dawn of time—that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. While this spot-on summary of the female experience could conceivably refer to just about anything (ranging from kegeling wrong to doing kegels), in this scenario, we’re talking about taking maternity leave. More specifically, that a look at the attitudes of 200 working men and women in the US and the UK finds that a “woman who took time off was seen as less committed and competent at work” while the woman who didn’t was “judged to be a worse parent, a less desirable partner and a less caring person.” SEEMS REASONABLE.
Speaking of fair—the Pew Research Center reports that of 41 developed nations, the US is the only one doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. To put our antediluvian policies into perspective: Estonia offers more than a year and a half of paid leave to new parents, while 31 of the 41 aforementioned countries have modest plans in place for fathers, with Japan, Korea, Portugal, Norway, Luxembourg and Iceland leading the way, offering a minimum of two months leave for new dads.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the US, where the Department of Labor found that 1 in 4 women return to work within 2 weeks of giving birth. If you’ve yet to firsthand experience the miracle of life and all its glorious indignities (speaking of: see pooping article here), it’s quite common for women to bleed from their vaginas and wear industrial diapers for up to six weeks postpartum. Frankly this is on the lesser end of the symptom spectrum, which includes: leaky breasts, perineum pain, abdominal cramps, difficulty urinating, cracked nipples, postpartum depression, and on. Needless to say, two weeks ain’t gonna cut it.
Amazingly, while the US ranks dead last for parental leave and the majority of mothers return to the office before they’ve even had a change to slather themselves in nipple butter and get a decent night’s sleep, we’re still finding it in our cold, capitalist hearts to judge the fortunate few who’ve received a couple of measly paid weeks leave. Talk about getting the sh*t end of the positive pee stick.
In my personal experience as a woman living, working and expecting in California-—the state considered to be the gold standard of maternity leave for the United States (which, is kind of like saying a Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad is the healthiest thing on the McDonald’s menu)—the system is broken. Without a full legal team in your corner, it’s nearly impossible to decode and navigate. Case in point: After two years of running a successful freelance business, I found myself four months pregnant, craving stability (AKA a reason to put on pants in the morning) and accepting a full-time offer as Editorial Director for a popular fashion brand that sells Pantone perfect mules to a customer base that’s probably 17% aspiring mommy blogger. It felt like a perfect match.
Now, while I didn’t take the job for the promise of paid maternity leave, it was definitely a perk I firmly and directly addressed with Human Resources during the interview process. I was explicitly mislead that I would be getting said perk. Foolish me for not getting this in writing (always get it in writing kids). because as my due date approached and I began coordinating the plan for my departure, it became clear that my employers had no intention of giving me any paid time off. Fine print: I had not been at the company for one year. Under the California Pregnancy Disability Leave Law I was entitled to keep my job with up to four months unpaid leave, however, being a stubborn-ass feminist and not wanting to feel like a disposable resource, I politely gave my two weeks notice.
Women across the United States deal with this every single day, as a vast number of companies remain committed to shelling out the bare minimum. Why wouldn’t they? It’s what they’re legally allowed to get away with. Even those that claim to be feminist. Take for example, recent headlines haunting the fashion world outing female founders whose internal company structures don’t practice the feminist agendas they preach. This fauxminist phenomenon runs so deep that the humorists at McSweeney’s even penned a “Guide for Brands That Have Recently Discovered Women.” It encourages companies patting themselves on the back for “rah-rah-ing women” on their twitter to ask themselves, “Does our family leave policy reflect the real world or was it drafted with giraffes who give birth standing up and then go about their business in mind?”
Thankfully, there’s growing minority of modern thinkers-—including Netflix, Etsy, Spotify, and a slew of tech heavy-hitters-—who are realizing that supporting mothers is not a frivolous expense, but an investment in their future. One such pioneering label is Innerwear brand Richer Poorer. Despite being a startup, the company extends all female employees a full, 12-week paid maternity leave and even offers the dudes a flexible six-week paternity leave policy that is a transition back into full-time.
“Regardless of our size, we are very much a people and family-first business at Richer Poorer,” says co-founder and CEO Iva Pawling. “My Co-Founder Tim and I are both parents, so we hold a lot of value in supporting the other parents on our team, and especially the new, or soon-to-be-new bunch.” While the logistics of being small and having a valuable team member out on extended leave are certainly complicated, Pawling says it’s a choice to make a long-term investment in the business, and one that’s proven to work. “We really have found that the rest of the team picks up the slack in their absence and carries the projects or responsibilities forward.”
Even if you’re lucky enough to work at a company with some kind of paid parental leave, knowing your rights and navigating the loopholes and complexities of the system can feel like it requires PhD. Full disclosure: numerous phone calls and hourlong wait times to determine my own eligibility for government wage replacement since returning to freelance has brought this writer to tears on more than one occasion. (I may have threatened to call the police on one representative. Their crime? Deliberately withholding information). My child is due in a week, and I’m still not totally clear on what, if anything, I’m entitled to, and how exactly to go about claiming it.
That’s where Lauren Wallenstein, Founder of Milk Your Benefits, a consultancy that helps expectant parents maximize their parental leave in the State of California, comes in. Wallenstein explains that expectant mothers often mistakenly believe that they are entitled to at least 12 weeks of leave. This is frequently not the case, due to varying factors including duration of employment, hours worked, employer size, etc. She says that many times confusion around leave is exacerbated because employers are themselves unclear of how to correctly explain and administer benefits due to lack of standardization. I’d venture to say many employers prefer their employees to remain in the dark and disempowered about these decisions.
“Expectant parents need to ask for written policies so that they can interpret the available benefits for themselves,” Wallenstein urges. “Never depend on what a friend or coworker tells you as the information is very often incorrect or is being incorrectly applied to your case. If human resources answers your leave questions, make sure you get them in writing and have HR provide the source documents that formed the basis of those answers. Most importantly, if something doesn’t sound right to you, don’t settle. Milk Your Benefits can help you sift through the paperwork so nothing is left on the table.”
In a Wall Street Journal Op Ed, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki argued that “Paid maternity leave is good for mothers, families and business.” As evidence, she cited that the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50% in 2007 when the company increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. She should know, as she was Google’s first employee to take maternity leave in 1999. This sentiment is echoed by Wallenstein, who says that “forward-thinking employers recognize that paid parental leave benefits act as a retention tool for employees.” Furthermore, she notes, “Parents who receive paid leave and who are physically and emotionally ready to return to work are more likely to feel a sense of loyalty to that employer and are less likely to leave their jobs. When an expectant parent gets the sense that the employer is encouraging a short leave, is being stingy with money, or is being less than helpful explaining benefits, it leaves a powerful and lasting bad taste in their mouth. Because what it suggests is a company ethos that doesn’t value work/life balance.”
Until paid leave is mandated for all, the burden will continue to fall on business owners to implement change, start a dialogue, and set precedents. “The responsibility is on all of our shoulders, men and women alike who are in position of power as employers, to make the right decisions and to become more vocal about the subject of both maternity AND paternity leave,” says Richer Poorer’s Iva Pawling.
If doing what’s right for new parents and ultimately for your business isn’t enough to incentivize employers to step up to the plate, perhaps they’ll be motivated by the desire to avoid ending up as the target of a scathing Glassdoor review. When Donald Trump’s approach to maternity leave is a more progressive than yours, it’s perhaps time that you engage in a healthy dose of soul-searching. And while you’re at it, please remind yourself that before you were all up in the boardroom, you too were snuggled up in a cozy womb.
Jane Helpern is a freelance writer, copywriter, and founder of Jane Says Agency. She enjoys helping brands find their voice, writing about fashion and feminism, and walking-at-an-incline-with-wine™
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