By, Jenny Nigro
I’m ashamed to admit that I took up the paid family leave torch pretty late in life for no other reason than being completely ignorant to the issue until just a few years ago. I had heard of people going on “maternity leave,” (mostly teachers who were pregnant growing up) and assumed that this was a built-in paid benefit in most workplaces, a la sick/bereavement/vacation. As it is with their lack of other paid benefits, I figured that the only exclusions to this rule were women who worked in the service industry or under the table.
Imagine my surprise, then, a friend at my old job (yes, it was this recent) told me about her experience going on maternity leave for her second baby. Her husband had been wrongfully terminated from his job during her pregnancy. Shortly after, she was put on bed rest and was facing a serious financial hardship at the prospect of being out of work while her husband was unemployed. I asked why she couldn’t have used a combination of sick and vacation time to last until her maternity leave time kicked in, which is when she told me that she had only ever received disability during her leave with her first baby, which hadn’t even kicked in until after she had gone back to work. They had relied solely on her husband’s pay throughout her first month and a half with her son, now with an additional member of the family to feed and clothe. They no longer had this to fall back on.
We had even worked at a non-profit, which are known to make up for their low pay scales by offering decent benefit packages to employees. I had just assumed that maternity leave was a paid benefit at our job (not that I was considering starting a family…hence why I didn’t have to think about these things). But still, the only reason she saw any money at all for her time at home with her baby was because she had qualified for disability. “Maternity leave” turned out to be just a facet of FMLA, which is what people use if they need to take care of a sick family member. Welcoming a baby to a family doesn’t mean that there is an illness that needs to be tended to. It means that there is a settling in period at home, away from work duties that needs to happen for the emotional/physical health and safety of Baby and parents.
As if we didn’t have our work cut out for us with the issue of paid maternal leave here in the US, now we are watching our international contemporaries grant legislation related to paid paternal leave. The UK recently drafted a policy that would extend family leave following the birth or adoption of a baby to 50 weeks, with 39 of those subsidized. Additionally, after the first two weeks, mothers in two-earner families can transfer some of their remaining weeks to the father.
Stephanie Coontz recently posted an article to her website, which she had published in The Guardian, in which she talks about this legislation and paid family leave. See article here. To sum up what she says on the matter, here is the Cliff Notes version:
-men would be reticent to take advantage of this benefit for fear of violating traditional gender roles and the consequent harassment that may occur at the hands of their peers
-once some dads take this family leave options, others are likely to follow suit
-the best way to encourage more dads to opt in would be to set up a use-it-or lose-it quota system rel
-taking family leave time is likely to change men’s behavior around the home for years after their leave
-households run better when dads have more of a hand in family responsibilities
– acts that destabilize traditional gender roles, including paternal leave, have been shown to not undermine the institution of marriage, as some family discourse would have you think, but instead, strengthen familial bonds
There is certainly a lot of food for thought in Coontz’ arguments/research, but it still begs the question: should we be advocating for men’s paid leave or focusing our energies on paid maternal leave to start?