In the U.S., maternity leave isn’t a right

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“So when exactly are you going on leave?” That’s a question I’m getting a lot these days from managers and colleagues. That’s usually followed by: “…and you’re coming back when?”

I don’t have an answer yet. I’m 35 weeks pregnant, and most people, according to my doctor, stop working at about 36 weeks. But I’m squatting in a management job for one more week, and then I have a couple of writing assignments I’d like to complete before pushing off. As for post-baby leave, I’ll have to weigh many factors in deciding when to come back to work, including finances, health and childcare.

But this I recognize: pondering the length of my maternity leave is a luxury. In our country, taking a paid leave from work after delivering a child is not at all a right. No law mandates that an employer must allow a woman paid time off from her job. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees workers at larger companies 12 weeks off, but that time is unpaid. Notes the Economic Policy Institute (bolds mine),

In a selection of 19 countries with comparable per capita income, the United States provides the fewest maternity leave benefits in both length of leave and paid time off (see chart). This is considered separate from any disability insurance for which one may qualify. In fact, the United States falls two weeks short of the International Labor Organization’s basic minimum standard of at least 14 weeks general leave. It is also the only country not to guarantee some amount of leave with income.

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Economic Policy Institute

Maternity leave is a hot topic on a lot of working-mommy blogs, including this one on WSJ.com. But it’s mostly an argument confined to those of us lucky enough to hold professional, salaried positions where the main worry is about how the length of absence will impact our careers. What’s interesting, though, is that even in countries that mandate paid leave, moms (and dads) fuss over the same thing. In the U.K., according to SmallBusiness.co.uk,

Research commissioned by Citrix Online shows that there are still concerns over government plans to extend parental, leave and parents and employers would prefer to introduce flexible working options. Parents also voiced worries over government plans to extend maternity leave from 39 to 52 weeks and give fathers the right to up to 26 weeks paternity leave with statutory pay, if the mother returns to work. Almost half of all dads (46 per cent) and 44 per cent of mums believe that taking extended leave would negatively impact their career.

Your thoughts? What’s an appropriate length for maternity leave? Should the government force all employers to offer some paid leave? How long did you take off, and why?

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