Everyone can look back and pinpoint a moment in their life when a situation, solution, or problem fell into sharp relief.
For me, one such moment was when I returned to work 3 months after becoming a parent. I was sitting in the office supply closet, typing a sales email, whilst dialing into a conference call. Whilst also using a breast pump with limited success. Isolated from my workplace peers and doing three things poorly, I knew one thing for sure: something wasn't right.
Actually, nothing about this was right. As much as I couldn't have imagined not returning to work when my leave ended, in being there I was doing my family, my company, and my clients a disservice (not to mention myself). And as the lot of new parents in the US goes, I was one of the lucky ones. But more on that later.
My story is illustrative, but it's far from rare.
Good for Business
In the US, short maternity leave is the norm - and that's when it's available at all. A quarter of all mothers in the US return to work about a week after giving birth, and just 5% of women in the bottom income quartile get any paid leave at all.
Four-to-six weeks is common, three months is generous, and six is a luxury almost unheard of outside a few large companies. And "generous" is the operative word here, since the company has to both fill the parent's role and find the resources to pay two people for the duration of the leave. (Or overwork other team members to pick up the shortfall.)
Robust family leave increases employee retention. And without longer leave for all, gender equality will persist, which aside from the many other considerations, is disadvantageous to business and family.
Don't take my word for it. YouTube CEO and Google's first ever pregnant employee Susan Wojcicki points out:
Those are the bigger issues at stake. But in that supply closet, I'd have settled for an extra couple of months with baby before returning to work.
Back then, I was an employee. Now, I'm a business-owner, and I can confirm that nobody's winning on the leave front. Here in America, it's lose-lose. Working families are deprived of decent leave just as businesses struggle to offer it and to retain staff.
"An everyone issue."
Some people actively want to go back to work right away, though I know I'm not alone in finding a few weeks or even 3 months inadequate. Amber Skorah's moving Times article makes a much-more human case for increasing paid leave: "Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care — or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?" She has a point.
And even for those who do want to return to paid work quickly, we must ask ourselves how much of that desire is a product of living in a culture where taking decent maternity leave is seen as a personal failing. Where being "back at the office and on email right away" is held up as a goal to be attained.
Because here in the US, we're in a sense being gaslighted. Three months is "generous"- something to be grateful for. In the rest of the developed world 6, 9, or even 12 months is more standard, and in many ways more humane and realistic. As Amy Westervelt over at Huffington Post said "Only women would sign up for this much crap."
But it's not just a women's issue. It's an everyone issue. It's playing out in families and workplaces across the USA.
Sleep-deprived and back at work just a few weeks postpartum, a new-mom friend of mine left her job after falling asleep at her breast pump. A pregnant one told me she was hoping her midwife would find a minor complication with delivery so she'd get eight weeks instead of six and therefore stand a better chance of breastfeeding success than she had with her firstborn. Think about that: here in the US, the system makes parents hope for complications so they can spend more time with their young infants. (Another reality of parenting in the US is that the pressure to breastfeed coincides with this distinct lack of support for new and working parents. A doctor I saw - who had herself given birth five weeks prior - nonchalantly told me that two of the practice receptionists had "dried up" sooner than they'd wanted and had had to stop nursing after they returned to work after just 8 weeks' leave.)
Examples abound. A business contact approached me a couple of weeks ago about a job search, partly since she's thinking of starting a family in the next few years and her creative-agency employer offers just one paid week of maternity leave. One week. Needless to say, there aren't many women in that company's c-suite.
But here's the truly messed up part: as a business-owner, I can kind of see where her boss is coming from. The problem is entrenched. Short leave begets short leave. Individual businesses struggle to offer it, but have little incentive to do so when so few others are. From the parent's point of view, even if your manager will let you take longer and you can financially make the arrangement work, do you really want to be the first one at your company to do so? And since paid paternity leave is a rarity, patterns of women "doing the childcare while men to do the paid work" persist.
A few other people I know have quit their jobs to be with their babies full time - not because they want to be stay-at-home-parents forever (this was the case for only one or two), but because the demands of a weeks-old baby and a premature return to work were proving too much. For mom and for dad. And because working full time while also caring for a newborn is impossible without affordable help, and trust in the people who provide it.
The parents I mention don't shy away from hard work - quite the opposite. Westervelt adds: "I’m leaning so far in I’m falling flat on my face."
I'll say it again: something isn't right.
When lower-income workers have to choose between returning to work a few days postpartum and losing their jobs (and health coverage) altogether; when educated, professional workers are leaving the workforce in droves for a reason that can so easily be remedied; when paternity leave lags so far behind that women are always working the second shift - surely that's an indictment of a country and a culture? And the cost of walking away from work altogether is steep, even when it seems on a par with that of city childcare - amounting not just to lost wages and missed rungs on the career ladder, but to lost 401K contributions and other subtler penalties.
We are better than this.
More from YouTube's Wojcicki:
"When we increased paid leave at Google to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers left fell by 50%. (We also increased paternity leave to 12 weeks from seven, as we know that also has a positive effect on families and our business.) Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready. And it’s much better for Google’s bottom line—to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills and perspective of our employees who are mothers."
So, there's a solution out there. Not an easy one to implement, but a clear one, and one that most other countries seem to have cracked.
Paid family leave. It’s not a "vacation". It’s not “just for the mom”. It’s not a luxury. It’s necessary. It’s good for business. It benefits everyone - parents, nonparents, bosses, and employees. And it helps ensure women are represented at the highest levels of companies, regardless of their reproductive status. Which is also good for business.
We as Americans can and should insist on paid leave for working parents. One more question: what are you doing to help?
Demand more. Write to your representatives. Talk to your colleagues. Raise the bar.
Ellie Hearne is an experienced leadership consultant. She has worked with leaders at Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Marriott - as well as numerous start-ups.