The Huge Thing Holding Women Back From Equality We Should Be Talking About

Photo: Courtesy of Liuba Grechen Shirley.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, her husband Christopher, and daughter Mila.
When we think about the things holding women back from full equality in this country, maternity leave might not be the first thing to come to mind. But for me, and thousands of other women like me, it is the reason we have to work harder to be able to earn, succeed, and claim our power like men can.

Two years ago, I was working as the director of operations of a research institute at a major university while finishing my MBA in the evenings. When I got pregnant, I assumed combining motherhood with my professional life would be easy. I also assumed I would have access to paid maternity leave.

While I had worked full-time for over two years, I was originally hired as a consultant and had only been an official employee for 23 months — one month shy of qualifying for six weeks paid leave. In this, I was far from alone: just another one of the 88% of women in the U.S. who don’t have access to paid maternity leave.
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When I got pregnant, I assumed combining motherhood with my professional life would be easy. I also assumed I would have access to paid maternity leave.

I was, however, entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). I was lucky. Approximately 60% of employees — those who work full-time for at least one year for a company with at least 50 staff members — are eligible for unpaid leave. The remaining 40% are not guaranteed any time off, paid or unpaid. Not even one single day to give birth.

I worked for a professor who travelled frequently and whom I rarely saw in person. Many of our staff members were located at campuses abroad, and much of our work was done via Skype. I had worked remotely from rural Ghana many times before, and could have easily worked from my apartment. When I first discussed flexible working and telecommuting, my boss was open to the idea. As my due date neared, he changed his mind.
Photo: Courtesy of Liuba Grechen Shirley.
The author and her family after giving birth to Nicholas.
I started to visit day care centers in Manhattan, and was shocked to learn that monthly rates were anywhere from $1,900 to $2,900. In fact, in 28 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for an infant in day care is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

Fees for two children in day care are higher than the average annual rent in every state. I added my name to a number of waitlists, and was eventually offered a part-time place at one center. My boss still would not consider a flexible work schedule, and my daughter, now 2 years old, is still waiting on that full-time list.

I worked until my water broke, trying to save the little paid sick and vacation time that I had. After 23 hours of labor, my daughter was born via an emergency c-section. I took my baby home and was grateful that I at least had the time to recover. Giving birth is a physically grueling event, and too many women are forced to go back to work while they’re still bleeding, have stitches, and can barely walk.

I worked until my water broke, trying to save the little paid sick and vacation time that I had.

Over the next 12 weeks, I had regular panic attacks at the thought of handing my baby over to strangers. At three months, she wasn’t sleeping through the night, had only had one round of vaccines, was nursing every hour, and still very much needed me. As much as I loved my job, I chose to resign.

In that, too, I was far from alone. For the first time since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, the share of mothers who choose to stay at home rather than return to work after their children are born has been increasing — it has now reached 29%. While 71 countries provide paid paternity leave, there are only two countries that don’t offer any paid federal maternity leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea.

Like many women who find themselves stifled by this country's inflexible work options, I wanted to work. But I couldn’t justify leaving my infant. So, when my daughter was a year old, I finished my MBA, left the city, and moved my family to Long Island, so we could be closer to my mom, who was able to help out.
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Photo: Courtesy of Liuba Grechen Shirley.
The author at her MBA graduation, with her daughter Mila.
We knew we wanted to have another baby but still wouldn’t be able to afford to spend $5,000 a month on day care. I also still wouldn’t be ready to leave our second baby at just 12 weeks. I was terrified that I was giving up my career that I worked so hard to build; terrified that I wouldn’t be able to find consulting work from home, that there would be a break in my résumé. I was worried that I would eventually be "mommy-tracked," viewed only as someone’s mommy, rather than as a serious professional.

While staying home with our daughter — and now infant son — was the best decision I could have made, I still lost out financially. I was lucky enough to find consulting work from home in my field, and I can run down from my office to nurse my babies anytime my mother calls, but I lost retirement contributions, paid sick and vacation leave, as well as the social aspect of grabbing a cup of coffee with a colleague without a demanding, sticky little human hanging off my body.

I was terrified that I was giving up my career that I worked so hard to build; that there would be a break in my résumé.

Our country’s antiquated parental leave policy dates back to when men were the sole breadwinners who could easily support a family while women stayed home to care for the children. It ignores the fact that today two incomes are usually needed to make ends meet, that many women enjoy their careers, and that even when working full-time, women spend twice as much time as men do on child care.

Studies have repeatedly shown that paternity leave helps fathers bond with their infants and take more responsibility in child care. It also promotes gender equality and helps keep women connected to the workforce and contributing to the economy.

It’s time for the U.S. to catch up to the rest of the world, and provide paid parental leave — for both mothers and fathers. Our children deserve the best starts in life, and parents shouldn’t be forced to choose between caring for their infants and financially providing for them.
Photo: Courtesy of Liuba Grechen Shirley.
The author's daughter, Mila, and son, Nicholas.
Liuba Grechen Shirley is an independent consultant and a parental leave advocate. The views expressed here are her own.
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