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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.