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Family Leave Shouldn't Just Be For Fortune 500 Workers
Or, The Case For Comprehensive Childcare Support For All
theSkimm has been running a campaign called, “Show Us Your Leave," to highlight companies with impressive (for the U. S. at least) family (parental) leave policies.
Search the #showusyourleave on social media, and you will find such companies as Bank Of America, HSBC, Snapshot, Etsy and more proudly sharing their leave policies.
I appreciate theSkimm’s efforts to shed light on this subject, and for garnering attention for those companies who are taking positive steps toward making work work for working families. I think job seekers, particularly those yet to start a family, benefit greatly from knowing comprehensive family leave is ingrained in a company’s culture. To me, a compassionate leave policy reflects highly on an organizations values and priorities.
As I scrolled through the posts, however, I kept asking myself:
What about people who don’t work for a large corporation?
What about people who work for small businesses or are part of the “gig” economy?
What about those who don’t go to an office with its own, free, cafeteria, pinball machines, and onsite daycare?
What about those whose employer can barely afford to provide basic health benefits, let alone pay for someone to take three months or more to be with their family?
These people make up a growing number of the workforce, and we can no longer pretend the old way of relying on corporations to provide us with decent healthcare is ideal.
A compassionate leave policy, shouldn’t be a “perk” of working for a large company, often forcing women to stick with a job they don’t love. It should be for all — no strings attached.
Before anyone jumps down my throat, this isn’t a call for universal or public healthcare, though I could make the case for it. I could make an equally strong case for open market healthcare that isn’t tied to employers and can be used across state lines.
I also am well aware there is no such thing as “free,” and that, yes, if we were to enact government-funded, universal healthcare policies, such as paid family leave for all, we all would have to pay for it.
However, we, as Americans, pay for a lot of things, and our taxes are (in the ideal cases) investments. We invest in our roads, in our schools, in our technology, and more. We need to invest in our people, and that should include families, particularly mothers*.
The reason why I am focusing on maternity leave, as opposed to more inclusive family leave, is because, I believe, we need to take care of mothers (or child-bearers) before we can address the broader needs of fathers, adoptive parents and other family units. We need to start with providing paid maternity leave that is available without condition for at least six months.
Why six months?
Why do the ones who give birth matter so much?
Because they physically endure the most.
Expelling a human from one's body is an exhausting, demanding and often brutal experience. Yes, it is also beautiful, but so are many hard things.
The toll childbirth takes on the body is reason alone to standardize a minimum amount of leave. There are still many women who have little to know time off after giving birth. Many may not realize even basic, unpaid leave is not mandated by law, and some people have to go back to work a mere six weeks after giving birth.
If however, anyone who has given birth, was allowed six months to care for their child, with the financial support and job security they needed, we would not only create a more supportive workforce for moms, we would make a better one.
Six months, while far from perfect (I think the goal should be a full year of paid leave), is a great starting point. For nursing mothers, the difference between having to return to work after six months, as opposed to the standard three months that is typical for most leave programs (paid or otherwise) is huge.
At three months, many infants are still nursing regularly, have not yet started solids, and have yet to settle into a consistent sleep, wake and eat routine. If you are an exclusively breastfeeding mom, this often means, erratic sleep schedules, out-of-whack hormones, and constant pumping. The latter made even more difficult by insufficient pumping spaces in many offices, as well as pressure to find time to pump in the first place.
By six months, most breastfed babies are starting on solids, and most (not all) are learning to adapt to a steady schedule. Moms who express milk can ease up on their pumping sessions, and some can even cut them out completely.
I know many moms who stopped breastfeeding after three months, because they had to go back to work, and dealing with the difficulty of pumping was not worth the trouble. As someone who did work in an office for a time after my first son was born, and chose to pump. I absolutely get why new mothers wouldn’t want to bother.
Imagine, giving nursing moms an extra three months to continue breastfeeding and providing that valuable milk to their babies?
Of course, many moms don’t exclusively breastfeed, or forgo nursing altogether, and there are other benefits to enabling them to spend more time with their babies. While some may argue the more time spent with a baby, the harder it is to leave, I disagree. I think the more time we give moms to establish that bond between parent and child, the stronger it will be, and the more confidence moms will have to re-enter the workforce.
I know many scoff at the idea of more taxes, and ask, “why should I have to pay for this?” I remind these people, that, a robust maternity leave program isn’t a hand-out, it is an investment in women and families. As we saw with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, women were heavily burdened by the need to balance childcare and their jobs, and were leaving their jobs en masse.
While, I think there is a larger discussion on how to better help families balance keeping a home and participating in the economy, and family leave policies should absolutely evolve to include parents of all genders, adoptive and foster families, and be mindful of situations like special needs parenting, I hope we can, at the very least, get things right by new moms.
And, I think, in order to do that, we have to stop passing the buck to the giant corporations, and expect that it will be enough. It is not enough.
*By using the term mother, I understand not every person gives birth to a child identifies with that, and doesn’t always fall into the traditional understanding of “womanhood.” I respect the gender fluidity that exists amongst those who bear children.