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Just how family oriented is the United States anyway?

Sunday, November 16, 2008 Leave a Comment

In my prenatal yoga class, the teacher asked each of us to talk about our post-baby work plans. Are we going back to work? How much time are we taking off? What are our worries, concerns, struggles?

There were 12 of us in the class, and most were first-time moms. The answers have got me thinking: for a country that had its feminist movement 40 years ago, we women seem to be struggling mightily with how to be a mother and a professional. We still aren't sure we can have it all. And, more importantly, for a country that professes to be so family-oriented, we aren't very supportive of new mothers.

Woman after woman said she was going to go back to work because she had to, either because she's the main breadwinner, or because her job provides the benefits -- even when their paycheck would go directly to daycare costs.

Not a single one said she was going back to work because she loved her job.

No one was getting more than 8 weeks paid time off -- and those were the generous employers. (I refrained from piping in that I was just barely getting the hang of things by 8 weeks...) Want to take more time off? It's either unpaid, or for some, not even an option.

One woman was excited that she had scheduled her C-section, because that provided 6 extra weeks of disability pay. One was planning to break the news that she wanted to go part-time until after the baby was born; she didn't want to risk losing any of her time off. A couple of schoolteachers were dismayed that their babies would be born too early: they would have to go back to work for the last few weeks of the semester, then have the summer off, making those few weeks of daycare were a problem.

One woman said that she had worked too hard to give up her career; nearly everyone agreed that the specter of falling behind in their careers if they took too much time off was not worth the risk.

By the time it got to me, I was having my own existential crisis.

Eight weeks with your new baby? That's not nearly long enough! Neither of us were sleeping more than 5 hours a night, and I was still disrobing to breastfeed every 3 hours back then. Going to the grocery store was a major undertaking. How on earth could anyone go back to the humdrum workaday world at eight weeks?

And I gave up my career that, dammit, I had worked hard to get where I was. Sure, I do a couple of freelance projects a year, but wasn't I falling behind too? I'm not on Twitter, I just joined LinkedIn, and sorry, but I refuse to get on FaceBook or MySpace.

And without my extra income, I'm not contributing to the household at all. My freelance projects pay for babysitters and some new clothes.

Then there's the adult time I miss out on. Spending all day long with a toddler definitely limits the witty banter.

But I didn't say any of that.

What I did say was this: I feel incredibly lucky to be a stay-at-home mom with my kids. Sure, we have to make some sacrifices. My wardrobe isn't what it used to be. But we make it work. I have a supportive network of stay-at-home moms, so I'm never bored. And, most importantly, I find the job of raising my son to be tremendously rewarding.

Later, I wondered why we're all so defensive of our choices. Other places in the world don't make it so hard -- they give parents several months maternity leave, at full pay, so they don't have to worry about money, or health insurance, or losing their job, or falling behind. In most Scandinavian countries, mothers get a full year or more, and fathers get to share some of that. The cost is split between the government and the employer. In Canada, it's something like 50 weeks, or nearly an entire year, paid for by the government.

So it seems like America could do a little bit better. I know I'd rather have my tax dollars go to providing a little maternity leave for mothers than going into the Haliburton defense contractors pockets, or into the Wall Street bailout.

Who do I write to about this?

4 comments »

  • Anonymous said:  

    Just a note that in California, you get 6 months paid leave (not full pay, about half +/-) and the father gets 6 weeks off too (partially paid) as well. So maybe it's CO that needs to get better, not the entire US.

    CA also requires the employer to provide a secure room and breaks for breastfeeding. Is that the law here too? I don't know.

    Finally, I think that a year off with full pay is pretty excessive... how can employers afford that, AND hire a replacement - one that they then cannot fire when you return? It's your choice to have a child, why should the employer have to foot the bill for so long? Yes, it's important that parents are supported, but heck, if I got a year off with full pay, I'd have 20 babies by now!

    JMO.

  • Liz said:  

    Good point, JMO. A year would be a luxury -- I'd probably go back to work just for that benefit. Good to know CA is a little better than CO.

  • Ann said:  

    I'm in Germany... here, paid leave is 14 months of 2/3 your monthly salary (up 1800 euro a month), paid by the government and split (timewise) between father and mother. Companies must hold a woman's job for her for 3 years after the baby.

    The drawback? Well, as far as feminism goes, the german legislation favors protectionism rather than opportunity. If you think a female chancellor is a sign a success, than you have to try being a freshly married woman in her late 20s/early 30s trying to find work in Germany....

    And as far as having 20 babies - Germany has a DECLINING birth rate - something like 1.2 children per family. Those European nations with the highest birth rates (such as the Netherlands), also have the highest rate of paternal involvement with child care. Hmmm.

    Actually, having been both a stay-at-home mom and a working-out of-the-home mom, I personally like some part time out-of-the-home work. I wish the US government did more to support working flexibility for both parents...

  • GayDad said:  

    As a gay father with a partner, I've discovered how difficult it is to balance work/home life as we both have to work full time. We were both back to work 3 weeks after our twins were born. There were days I was so exhausted, I had to call in sick and sleep while the nanny took care of them. One day I almost fell asleep at the wheel driving to work. At 8 months, it's easier, but not easy. Still up usually once per night, then if I can't fall back to sleep fast, I'm tired the next day. My employer says to use unpaid FMLA when I need time off to take care of baby appointments or when the nanny can't be in. In CA, you can legally use sick time to care for a sick child, but not in CO.

    This state and country are not family friendly! In the mean time, I'm looking for a legit work from home job, or if I'm layed off, I'll be a SAHD by default for a while. Oh, and then there's the guilt that I feel for leaving my children every day. But I love them more than anything. Just looking to make things easier.