In the United States, women are not entitled to paid maternity leave. Instead, they have to use their vacation time, which typically amounts to 10 days in most companies, or unpaid leave, for which they are entitled to 12 weeks. Essentially, women in America get two weeks of paid leave after giving birth — if they haven’t already used their time for something else — and then they’re on their own. Unless, of course, they are lucky enough to be surrounded by colleagues who are willing to donate their own paid leave to new mothers, like Angela Hughes from Missouri was.
Hughes works in a registrar’s office within a private college and was at her job less than a year when her daughter was born two months prematurely. She had saved as much vacation time as possible while pregnant, not taking off a single day, but with her daughter born so early, Hughes was under considerable stress. Sensitive to Hughes’ situation, her boss decided to donate 80 hours of her own paid leave to Hughes — and eventually, more colleagues joined it. By the end, Hughes ended up with eight weeks of paid maternity leave thanks to her work family.
The generous gesture enabled Hughes to take a month to recover from her cesarean section without the stress of making money. After her daughter, Bella, was in neonatal intensive care for three months, Hughes took another four weeks to bond with her. Now, Bella is a year old, and Hughes has spoken to Good Morning America about her experience. “It took a weight off of my family’s shoulder,” she said. “Having a baby is a huge adjustment anyway, but having a premature baby — my emotions were all over the place.”
While this story shows just how important good work friends are, it only reminds us of the stark reality of maternity discrimination in the United States. We are the only country among 41 industrialized nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave, with only 35 percent of organizations offering it as a benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2018 Employee Benefits Survey.
Paid maternity leave should not be a luxury, nor should others have to donate what little paid leave they have of their own to women who have just given birth. Donating vacation time is a lovely idea — albeit only an option at 15 percent of employers in the United States — but it should not be the answer to this problem.
The United Kingdom is also facing its own maternity discrimination problems, so it’s clear that globally, women are still overburdened when they choose to start a family. They either don’t have access to suitable maternity leave, or when they do actually take it, their jobs are undermined. Essentially, women are unfairly punished for the one thing that society pressures them to do: start a family.
It’s our policies regarding maternity leave that prove women must give up so much to fulfill the pressures that society places on them. To take on the higher burden of childcare, women not only have to deal with the emotional and physical labor of looking after a child, but they must also sacrifice their monthly salaries and have their careers undermined.
This post was originally written by Georgia Aspinall. For more, check out our sister site, Grazia.