In 2013, I was preparing to have my first child while running my business, Geben Communication. As my three employees and I prepped for my upcoming maternity leave, the unexpected happened: My son was born five weeks early, and we spent the next 13 days in the NICU, more than 120 miles from home. I spent every day and night at the hospital with him, never once worrying about job security. I was the CEO of my own company. I could take as much time as I needed, because I knew I’d get paid, and I knew my tight-knit team would take care of our clients. In the past year, Netflix, Facebook, Etsy, and other tech companies have received much-deserved praise for their generous maternity and paternity policies. But, these progressive HR benefits should be more than a glamorous Silicon Valley perk. Access to paid leave shouldn’t be luck of the draw — it should be a right for all new parents. My foray into motherhood as a working woman was abnormal. Only 12% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, and among low-wage workers, that number shrinks to a paltry 4%. The people who need paid leave the most have virtually zero access. Employees, even those not expecting children, need to start asking their companies about their policies. More importantly, if the company doesn’t have a policy in place, ask why not. We need more people to become advocates and initiate the paid-leave conversation at their companies while also urging elected leaders to establish a national standard. Elizabeth Brown, a member of Columbus City Council, created a Change.org petition calling on both political parties to incorporate paid leave into their platforms. The petition became part of MTV’s Elect This campaign and ultimately garnered more than 50,000 signatures. However, this isn’t just a policy issue for Brown. It started as a personal matter. She assumed she’d be able to take paid time off when her first child was born last fall (prior to Elizabeth joining City Council); however, her employer at the time had no paid-leave policy. While Elizabeth and her husband could make things work with the help of family, many new parents don’t have those types of resources or support available. The absence of a national paid-leave standard creates dire situations for too many families. Progressive workplace policies are directly linked to women’s ability to excel in their careers and achieve financial self-sufficiency. That’s why I’m encouraging employees, entrepreneurs, and politicians to reconsider paid leave. New parents face enough stresses adjusting to life with a baby. They shouldn’t also have to cope with the financial burden that comes with taking time off work without pay. The importance of supporting new parents is something father and entrepreneur Aaron Blank learned the hard way. Six months after joining The Fearey Group, a Seattle-based public relations agency, Aaron and his wife had their first child. He took one week off — unpaid. Looking back, he says, “The worst decision of my life was not being there for that first month or two. Work is not as important as your family.” This firsthand experience catapulted him into action. Now that he is CEO of the company, he provides on-site child care to help working parents who find themselves in a bind, and he’s in the process of analyzing and revamping his firm’s paid parental-leave policy. Earlier this year, I introduced our Geben Loves Families policy to provide employees of all genders up to 10 weeks of paid parental leave, plus a two-week transition period. New parents can take up to 10 weeks off and receive 100% of their paycheck. During their first two weeks back to work, they can split time between home and the office. Paid leave is good for families and good for business. Not sure how to lobby management for paid leave? Talk about the competitive advantage it provides when recruiting top talent. Share how paid leave can improve employee retention. Since introducing Geben’s policy, I’ve already seen the benefits. One of our employees recently took time off to have her second child. When we discussed her return to work, she shared with me how different this maternity leave was from her first. She enjoyed time with her baby and three-year-old because her family didn’t have to worry about money. Knowing she didn’t have to hurry back alleviated a lot of the stress she’d felt with her firstborn. Another new employee was attracted to my company, in part, because of this policy; she already had a one-year-old and had struggled returning to work after a much shorter leave that resulted in too-early daycare as well as health problems for herself and the baby. As we embark on this much-needed, long-overdue national discussion about paid leave, let’s do so in the context of modern families and workplaces. Paid-leave policies shouldn't be limited to new birth mothers only; they should include dads, adoptive parents, non-birth moms in same-sex partnerships — all parents. In particular, excluding new dads from receiving the same level of benefits as their female colleagues reinforces the antiquated gender norm that says mothers must be the primary caregivers while fathers’ careers are more important. If we believe in equal pay, we should also believe in equal benefits. Just as women deserve to earn as much as men, new dads deserve equal time to bond with their children and to adjust to the new realities of parenthood. No parent should have to choose between leaving their baby too soon and making ends meet. Right now, individuals have to lead the charge on this issue until we can collectively solve the problem. As parents, coworkers, and advocates, we need to let our companies and political leaders know this issue needs to be fixed. Parental leave is a necessity, not a perk.
Heather Whaling is founder/president of Geben Communication, a nationally recognized boutique PR firm based in Columbus, OH. Recently named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year, Heather serves on the board of The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and is a trustee for Kiva Columbus, where she helps female founders access much-needed capital. Heather is also the mother of a three-year-old son. Connect with Heather on Twitter or Instagram.