In Santa Fe, N.M., Linda Strauss McIlroy, a first-time mother, is trying to get used to the thought of soon putting her 2-month-old boy in day care so she can get back to work.
“It’s hard for me to imagine leaving him,” she says. “Just not being with him all day, leaving him with a virtual stranger. And then that’s it till, you know, I retire. It’s kind of crazy to think about it.”
Across the border in Vancouver, British Columbia, Suzanne Dobson is back at work after 14 months of paid maternity leave.
“It was great,” she says. “I was still making pretty good money for being at home.”
Across the ocean, in Sweden, Magnus Larsson is looking forward to splitting 16 months of parental leave at 80 percent pay with his girlfriend. They are expecting their first baby in a week.
With little public debate, the United States has chosen a radically different approach to maternity leave than the rest of the developed world. The United States and Australia are the only industrialized countries that don’t provide paid leave for new mothers nationally, though there are exceptions in some U.S. states.
Australian mothers have it better, however, with one year of job-protected leave. The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of job-protected leave, but it only covers those who work for larger companies.
To put it another way, out of 168 nations in a Harvard University study last year, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
How did it end up this way?
“To me it’s a puzzle. I can give you all the arguments that have been used, but that still doesn’t really solve the puzzle,” says Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development and education at Columbia University.
According to Brooks-Gunn, some countries, like France, expanded maternity leave after World War II to fight falling birthrates and encourage childbearing. That argument has been missing in the United States, where immigration has ensured population growth.
Jane Waldfogel, also a professor at Columbia, says another part of the puzzle is that the European and American feminist movements had differing goals.
In Europe, feminists emphasized special treatment for mothers, including maternity leave and child care.
“The American feminist movement didn’t want to hear anything about mothers,” Waldfogel says. “They wanted equal rights for women and didn’t emphasize special treatment.”
The U.S. feminist movement has moved away from this viewpoint, but that hasn’t led to a change in maternity rules. One reason is that U.S. women are used to having about three months off and consider it the norm, Waldfogel says.
For many, of course, that norm feels alien. To Strauss McIlroy in Santa Fe, those three months certainly feel inadequate.
“I thought, being kind of a career woman, that I might be one of those who’d be kind of looking forward to going back, that I’d be all babied out,” she says. “But I’m really very apprehensive about it.”
In Canada, Dobson’s feelings about her son, Gavin, and the country’s maternity leave rules are a better fit.
“I don’t think I would have been ready to hand him over to anyone at six months,” Dobson says. “At 12 months, he’s a little person, and he can kind of tell you what he wants and doesn’t want.”
Changes shot down
There have been several attempts at introducing paid maternity leave in the United States. The Clinton administration wanted to allow states to use unemployment funds for maternity leaves, but that was shot down by the Bush administration after opposition from business groups concerned with increased contribution to state unemployment funds.
A bill introduced in the House by Reps. Pete Stark and George Miller, both D-Calif., would establish a fund that would replace 55 percent of pay for workers on FMLA leave. Contributions to the fund would come from employers.
“There are a couple of central problems when we look at paid leave legislation. The first is: who’s paying for it?” asks Michael Eastman, director of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. employers already pay $21 billion a year in direct costs related to the FMLA, Eastman says, in addition to indirect costs like additional overtime for those who fill in for workers on leave.
Waldfogel agrees that it’s too much to ask employers to shoulder the cost of introducing paid maternity leave.
“As long as what we have in mind ... is asking employers to both hold the job open and pay the salary, we’re going to get tremendous resistance from employers,” she says.
California went a different route, and last year introduced family leave with around 50 percent pay for six weeks, paid from a fund that employees, not employers, pay into.
“Once they did that, there were no longer any objections from employers,” Waldfogel says.
Five states — California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island — and Puerto Rico require employers to have temporary disability programs, which pay benefits if the pregnancy is defined as a disability by a doctor. A few others have infant care programs that pay subsidies to low-income families for up to two years.
In New York City, Kelsey Goss, a public-school teacher, is trying to build her tutoring business so she and her husband can stay afloat financially when she goes on unpaid maternity leave in October.
“When I tell people that as a teacher I get zero paid maternity leave, they’re stunned,” she says. “In a job like that, that’s about taking care of kids, those are the benefits?”
How does she think her benefits compare with Europe?
“I don’t even want to know,” she says.