The Maternity Games

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by Kristen Womack

It's been a big year for maternity leave. In the United States, status quo for maternity leave is weak and strangely complicated. A mother can take 12 weeks unpaid leave without losing her job—protected under FMLA, Family and Medical Leave Act. But only if the company employs over 50 people and the expecting mother has worked there for over a year. Any pay is left to disability insurance, with coverage anywhere from 40 to 80 percent. This does not apply to adoptive mothers. And any paternity leave is usually taken as personal time off or vacation—maybe two weeks.

We live in the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. Most employers aren’t interested in footing the bill either. But just a few months ago, companies said enough is enough and they decided to do better, offering their employees real parental leave benefits.

It all started with Netflix when they announced in August that they would be offering 52 weeks paid maternity leave. Shortly after that, others followed, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which increased their previous 3 months paid leave to 52 weeks. Then Adobe - 26 weeks for maternity leave and 16 weeks paternity leave. And Microsoft - 20 weeks paid maternity leave and 12 weeks paternity leave. Next Facebook, Google, Spotify and Yahoo all increased their paid leave. Since Netflix announced their new parental leave policy in August, this has been a big topic in tech news. And within the last couple of weeks Amazon also joined this group that is breaking away from the pack of companies that are totally fine with the status quo.

This conversation is happening primarily among large companies, since startups tend to be younger and male dominated and haven’t been faced with the issue yet. However, there are a few companies like Runscope that are playing the long game. They established a policy of 16 weeks of paid leave well before they ever had an expecting employee. But this is rare. Most start ups talk about this only when a woman they employ becomes pregnant.

Several researchers recently started tracking leave policies, since the information has been fairly difficult to find. First Georgene Huang and Romy Newman started Fairygodboss this past March, which has been deemed the Yelp of maternity leave benefits. It's a resource center tracking the maternity leave benefits of thousands of companies. And in April Dave Dash wrote a powerful piece about his paternity leave, then started a repository tracking parental leave policies. Anyone is able to contribute to either of these datasets, creating transparency on this topic.

I’ve been following this space since my own personal experience taking maternity leave three years ago when my first child made his debut. When I became a mother, I didn’t know how my maternity leave time and pay would work until a day before my child arrived. Yes, the day before he was born. It was stressful, scary, and completely unnecessary.

I took a new job when I was 7 months pregnant. Thankfully, I started the last day of June because the waiting period for my benefits was three calendar months, so benefits would begin September 1st and not a day sooner. My expectant due date was August 25th. It was a long shot, but it was a chance. More of a chance than starting in July and having benefits kick in October 1st. Fortunately for my family, my son was 8 days late—arriving just after the 1st of September when my benefits were active. My maternity leave was 12 weeks, paid at 80% for 6 weeks and I was able to use my 4 weeks of PTO to supplement what wasn't covered by disability insurance. If my son had been born just 43 hours earlier I would have had 4 weeks of PTO to last the full 12 weeks. It was incredibly stressful. Having that experience has made me passionate for this cause.

Everyone is born into this world. Everyone. And it’s important that we give each new life the best opportunity possible of being born into the world with the least amount of stress. Having a baby is one of the most magical, beautiful, trying and demanding experiences on a woman’s body and mind. It's also an incredible time of bonding—for birth and adoptive parents alike. Let's be civilized and honor this time.

When we start to recognize that maternity leave and paternity leave shapes those first days, weeks and months with your newest family member, we will see stronger families and communities, less anxiety, depression and poverty.

A letter to representatives at may have said it best: “Infants are humans at their most vulnerable, and the blueprint for one's lifelong physical, emotional, social, and intellectual capacities develop at this age. Forcing parents to put their infants into childcare as early as we do is not good for society.” But this isn't just opinion; there is medical research and empirical evidence published by Dr. Gabor Mate showing the linkage between infant and childhood stress on outcomes to individuals and society--ranging from disease to addiction. If we want a better world, we should take this seriously.

Dave Dash also believes that better leave policies lead to better bonding with children. "Even if you don’t have children and never intend to, my children will be a part of your world and it’s best that I help raise them correctly so their contributions are positive."

Parental leave is not just good for producing healthier, more well-adjusted adults, it also helps women stay in the workforce. This is good for business, and there is proof. Sue Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, said, "When we increased paid leave at Google to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers left fell by 50%."

Let's say you're following my argument that paid maternity leave is good for babies, good for society, and good for business. What's standing in the way?

Our government is slow to tackle this problem and culturally we are divided on if people even really deserve health insurance, much less support to families when a new baby enters the world. Data shows that nearly 1 in 4 employed mothers return to work within two weeks of childbirth and we aren't talking about this enough to really make change.

Then there is this trend among startups offering “unlimited time off” as one of their touted benefits. But, maternity leave? Oh...uh, we haven’t figured it out yet. But you have unlimited PTO, so you just put in a request for three months of personal leave when your child arrives. Oh, no? You can’t. Huh. Well, that doesn’t sound unlimited. This trend of unlimited vacation is hurting parental leave. When you work for a company that offers a set amount of PTO or vacation, then you have the ability to save your PTO to supplement the disability pay or use it during the waiting period. And some vacation is better than nothing until things get better.

And until this year, companies have been slow to offer paid maternity and paternity leave as a benefit. It's basically a volley between government and employer of whose responsibility it is to have a holistic support system for new humans that join us. It’s time to overhaul parental leave policy and join the rest of the developed world in giving a shit about babies and families.

This is what an overhaul looks like. First, we applaud the leaders in this space for having the courage to take this seriously and for using their power and clout to make this a topic that news reporters are covering. Then we need to honestly take a look at our own companies, as owners, founders, employees, customers and put the pressure there. Have the difficult conversations. Support companies that care about society. Let's reduce the cost while also giving people born in America a better chance at life— and humankind at advancing our world.

Then we need to agree that 12 weeks paid, job protected, is the absolute necessity and 6 months paid, job protected, is ideal. Anything more is outstanding. This should cover both parents, birth or adoption. This could be paid by employers or by the government. However, since we know that a bill like this getting through a divided America will be incredibly tough, I think it's up to the companies that are going to make it through the next 20 years to take on, if not for society, then for their business to attract the talent it needs to compete. Any company that isn't serious about this topic is likely to see it hurt their bottom line. We are on the brink of a talent shortage, especially in technology, and if you are a company that wants to attract top talent you are going to have to step up.

While we are moving forward with this as an employee benefit, we absolutely need to keep the pressure on our government. It cost taxpayers more money to support unproductive and struggling members of our society, let's reduce the cost while also giving people born in America a better chance at life starting with the care and bonding they are provided at birth. Support mothers so they can support children born in the United States.

And finally, it's more than just paid leave and protecting someone's job, it's about integrating them back into the workplace and supporting new parents.

Here are a few things we can do to help move us all in the right direction. Start by adding your company’s data to the Fairygodboss Resource Center and the community GitHub repository with this form. Then contact your representatives from the For Karl website. And if you have a personal experience, write about it and share it with others on Medium. Have a better idea than mine? Write about it. Have this conversation. Every step away from the status quo is a step in the right direction.

Now it's your turn. What's your experience with maternity leave? Did you get parental leave as a family? Tell us your story or rant in the comments below.


Kristen Womack is a mother, feminist, runner, yogi, product leader and volunteer in Minneapolis. She is the Director of Product at LeadPages and is the Co-Ambassador of Twin Cities Geekettes, Co-Founder of Hack the Gap MN, Board Member of Mpls MadWomen and Co-Organizer of Product Tank Twin Cities.