How To Fix Maternity Leave

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 10 2013 3:09 PM

How To Fix Maternity Leave

Twelve weeks off right after the baby is born is not the only way, America!

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Now what about what’s good for the babies? Certainly the first few weeks after birth are a period when it benefits both mom and baby to have exclusive time together. But aren’t babies also well-served by more parental attention when they are more aware of it? As the mother of a newborn, I can tell you that my little one’s activities consist of an endless cycle of eating, pooping, and sleeping. Mostly sleeping, something she does on and off for about 16 hours a day. (Yes, I’m lucky—be happy for me, for now. The girl could decide she hates sleeping at any time.)

I emailed Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, to ask her if she agreed that it could be just as beneficial, if not more so, to spend month five with your baby as month two. “As far as I'm aware,” she replied, “each phase of the first year is equally important with regard to parental involvement and child development.” The one exception to this, Murphy Paul says, is breast-feeding, which many women stop doing when they return to work. However, as our own Hanna Rosin famously pointed out, the benefits of breast-feeding have been overrated.

OK, so my genius flex maternity leave plan is good for moms and good for babies, but what’s in it for employers? Wouldn’t flex leave be an even worse nightmare for companies than regular maternity leave, since it’s less predictable? Maybe not: If new moms are happy, they’re more likely to stay at a company, saving their employers the costs of training new employees and losing intellectual capital from a continuous smart mom brain drain. According to research by economist Heather Boushey and policy analyst Sarah Jane Glynn, it costs workplaces 20 percent of an employee’s salary to replace her. And there is evidence that highly skilled new moms will leave for more family-friendly pastures if they’re unhappy. When Google only gave their employees three months of paid maternity leave at a partial salary, new moms left the organization at twice the rate of other employees. Then Google increased maternity leave to five months at full salary, and as the New York Times reports, attrition decreased by half.  Additionally, if a woman isn’t taking, say, more than a full month off at a time, she could stay engaged in projects that she’s working on, rather than handing them off to someone else entirely. 

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Logistics would probably be fairly idiosyncratic. A sick pregnant lady can’t really give advance notice when she’s going to need a break (though no sick employee can do that, regardless of what’s in their womb). But employers could create a system in which a month after a woman gives birth, she could make a leave plan for the next 11 months so that her co-workers could prepare for her shorter absences, making those absences no more jarring than someone taking a longish vacation.

There’s evidence that other countries make this kind of system run smoothly. A 2010 review of maternity leave laws throughout the world by the International Labour Organization explains that many nations, like Norway, allow parents to take part-time leave for up to two years after a child is born. In Belgium, for example, “an employee can choose to take leave for a continuous period of three months, or by reducing her/his working time by half during six months, or by one-fifth during 15 months if he/she works full time,” the ILO report explains. Most countries with flexible maternity leave policies also have much more generous sick leave policies, so the pregnancy period is covered even though not explicitly by maternity leave laws.

Of course, this kind of flexibility is all a hazy fantasy in the United States, where instead of 13 months of leave—like in Sweden—we’re lucky to get a pumping closet. And, yes, for now this plan could only apply to white-collar jobs in America, as most women in low-income jobs don’t have any maternity leave at all—a much graver problem that requires a major federal solution that is way more necessary than some privileged ladies getting a more flexible deal. But that doesn’t mean individual employers can’t start acknowledging that not every new set of parents needs a one-size-fits-all leave (and acknowledge that dads should get in on this kind of leave plan as well).

In some ways, I am lucky to have a career where I can be self-employed—I could go freelance when I was too sick to be at a new job every day, and I can go back to work earlier than I had planned because I feel ready to do it. I’m also more engaged with my daughter when I get a break from the monotony of newborn care. Now, if only the kid would sleep through the night and magazines would offer me $3 a word, everything would be golden.

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