Maternity leave is not vacation

I made a bit of a mistake today. I read the comments on a post, and not just any post – one on Valleywag. It’s not a complete mistake, though – it reminds me about some things I’ve been thinking through about maternity leave, having taken one quite recently myself.

The gist of the comment was a view I’ve heard several times: hiring pregnant women is bad for business. They are a liability and stick all the other schmucks with their entire workload while they take off and suck the company’s coffers dry. Paying somebody to go have a work-free vacation is a terrible business decision and an investment with no return. And so on, and so forth.

Maternity leave in the USA is a tough topic. I’m not going to pretend I can analyze it or know all the facts ever, or that I have any sort of polarized and/or political opinion, but here’s what I do know. We’re one of four countries on this planet who don’t have any national paid maternity leave. Federally, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of job safety to an employee at a qualified company (50+ employees, and other things) caring for a newborn (among some other situations and provisions). On a state level, there can be legislation going further than that. In New Jersey, you can file for up to 10 weeks of disability pay (4 before birth, 6 after) – however, in my understanding, you may not draw a paycheck during that time, meaning that you must pay the full premium of any employer insurance plan, as the employer cannot contribute anything toward it when you are not receiving pay.

When you hear about paid maternity leave in the US, generally the weight of it is borne by the employer (I say generally, but have to admit that I’m not versed enough to know what other situations might be). In a country where things like insurance and benefits are largely reliant on businesses and employers, it seems expected, but is also understandably difficult to implement, especially for smaller businesses where FMLA doesn’t apply to begin with. Certainly it take conscious effort on the part of the employer to provide paid leave if they so choose, and generally you find that businesses that provide it are either running at quite a large scale and/or have declared that parenting is a central part of their values.

How can it possibly be a good business decision? Well, if your evaluation methods of a good business decision rely solely on short-term raw numbers, then to you it probably won’t ever be one. But, there can be tangible benefits, both to you and to everybody, when looking at the bigger picture – a larger talent pool in being able to include those who appreciate what the company values (whether or not they personally would benefit), the ability to retain a great employee whose overall value now and into the future to the company far outweighs the raw cost of pay while on leave, general employee morale and thus productivity, and giving future generations (of employees!) more tools to having a happy, healthy life. Add to that the costs associated with on-boarding and training a completely new employee, especially at upper levels, and you will likely find that things balance out just fine, if not favorably.

If you have your workload directly and unexpectedly impacted by somebody (not just pregnant women or another parent) taking leave, your concern should be with your management, not the one taking that leave. Yes, of course any change in the workplace is going to have some effect, but most of the time, we are not on an episode of that “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” show – there is some warning and therefore time to plan and make adjustments. Good management will absorb most of the impact, make appropriate changes, and keep you informed about any direct changes. If you’re in management and unwilling to handle such impacts, then I wonder why you are at the higher levels in the first place. People leave jobs permanently, not just temporarily, for any number of reasons, so having a single point of failure is asking for future troubles anyway.

It’s also a great opportunity to step up and show that you are willing and able to take on a challenge and advance your job and your skills, whether or not that’s on a management level. It’s also a good time to evaluate what that employee who wants to take leave really wants to do. In my case, I had already been working toward creating a position as an internal employee (as opposed to being directly client-facing), so going on leave provided a natural yet clearly delineated timeline in which to introduce new faces to the clients I was working with and take the training wheels off completely at a given date.

I do think that there are steps a parent or parent-to-be can take to put themselves in a better position. Seeking employment at a company with good and clear benefits, finding a position that has some redundancy in personnel and thus flexibility, having a couple of contingency plans in the case that something doesn’t work out, etc. I do know that not every job one might want and/or is qualified for can fit into these overly generalized buckets, and there are factors in life that often limit possibilities and put your work situation out of your control. But, given that as an employee you play a part in a company’s success, it’s not unreasonable to hope that you take your own impact into consideration and play a proactive role in making leave a possibility, paid or not.

Even if you still don’t believe in the value of maternity leave yourself, you should be able to recognize that somebody gave birth to you and have a little respect for that, and not make statements about how terrible it is that it’s not lawful to discriminate against a pregnant woman and fire her, or not hire somebody at all just because she happens to be fertile (which you shouldn’t definitively know about in the first place). I believe in the value of maternity and parental leave, but Equal Employment Opportunity is law, and for good reason. When I see such disrespect, I feel sad that somebody’s life could be so devoid of positive female role models, and hope that women of all kinds (non-parents, working moms, and stay-at-home moms alike) can seek to fill that void.

As for those who like to tell pregnant women that they’re so lucky to go on a work-free vacation – well, growing a person and then pushing it out (or having it cut out, if that’s how things go) isn’t exactly my idea of a rocking good time. If you’re a nursing mom, then you get the added bonus of being on call as a 24/7 food machine, and for at least the first several weeks, we’re talking near-constant switching from side to side. Wanting to have and raise children is an interesting parallel to providing a benefit like maternity leave – maybe not super easy or intuitive when you think about the details of the process, but a no-brainer when you look at the overall outcome.

2 responses to “Maternity leave is not vacation”

  1. There’s been some interesting discussion (especially with the release of the Affordable Care Act) about how Americans tend to only see wage-hour work as “Real Work” and ignore other things that add value, cost energy, and contribute to society.

    The problem is only further compounded by our societal understanding of paid work as the highest measure of cultural value (thus the annoying tendency in politics to equate “hard work” with “real Americans”). The result is that Americans have a terrible work/life balance and that the only way our society judges good work is by quantity.

    The problem is easily seen with maternity leave, but tends to cause all sorts of issues everywhere in the US business world. You make some great points here. In general, I think the larger solution is to stop understanding employees in work-hours and instead as what value they add to a company; and how they can add the most value, which isn’t always by sitting in an office.

  2. Great post, Helen! I recently took Government Paid Partner Leave when our little one was born. It’s nowhere near as long as Maternity Leave, but it helps with those first few weeks.

    I’m pretty lucky to live in a country where we do have national paid maternity and partner leave. I hope the US can see value in it’s employees beyond their quantity of work hours, as Aram said, and one day you guys can have these benefits too.

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