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!

Sleeping Baby and Mother.
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?

Photograph by Stefan Schuhart/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

After a very rough pregnancy that included prenatal depression, borderline hyperemesis gravidarum (what’s up to my sister-in-puke Kate Middleton), and a few fetal health scares that turned out to be benign, I was thrilled when our daughter was born. Ninety percent of my happiness was for typically delightful reasons: She was a healthy, hearty baby girl who became the shining center of our little family immediately. But the other 10 percent of me was just so relieved that she was finally out.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

I was also really nervous about experiencing postpartum depression, but I feel more vibrant and like myself than I have since I became pregnant in the first place. Though my big girl clocked in at 9-plus pounds at birth, I was blessed with an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, and my physical recovery was lightning fast. I was back at the gym (with my doctor’s permission) two weeks after the kid was born.

I’m also back at work four days a week with a 1-month-old. I’m a freelancer—there’s no paid maternity leave for me—so the decision to return to my desk is in part a financial one. But I’m actually excited about it. I missed the intellectual engagement of work, and as much as I adore my little one, newborns spend so much time asleep that I don’t feel like I am missing important milestones while our wonderful sitter watches her. I’m still the one getting up with her at four in the morning, spending those wee hours feeding her, changing her, getting the early glimmers of smiles.

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I can only imagine the dismissive, cruel comments fomenting in the minds of some of you as you read this—about how I’m selfishly abandoning my helpless infant for my own “self-fulfillment,” and how I couldn’t possibly feel up to working this soon, or how I shouldn’t say that my postpartum period was relatively “easy” because it makes other women feel “inadequate.” I know people will think and say these things because they’re what people thought and said about Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who only took a two-week maternity leave and dared to say her newborn was less difficult than she expected.

But if I’ve learned anything from my pregnancy and postpartum period so far, it’s that everyone’s experience is wildly different and impossible to predict (and foolhardy, not to mention cruel, to judge). You could have a really blissful pregnancy and then a complicated labor that leaves you laid up for weeks; you could have a so-so pregnancy and then a mediocre labor and need some time off for both; you could barf for nine months straight and then feel marvelous the second you give birth; you could have a terrific job and not want to return to it; you could have a job you hate but still can’t wait to get back. 

The problem is not with women’s disparate, unique experiences. The problem is with the rigidity of maternity leave, which instills in us the mindset that the only time new moms should not be working is in the immediate aftermath of a child’s birth. For 12 weeks, minimum. I have a radical proposal for how to fix this: Allow women to take a set amount of time off in chunks, as needed, from the time they become pregnant up until a year after the baby is born.

I know, I know: This seems like an astronomical, possibly insane ask when you are already up against an American maternity leave policy that is among the worst in the industrialized world (we are only entitled to 12 weeks, unpaid, and only if you’ve worked at a company more than a year and the company has more than 50 employees). But it could be the policy that benefits new parents, babies, and employers the most, by letting women have a break when they’re at their least productive—and encouraging new moms to spend time with their kids when, within that first year, they need it most. (The maternity leave provision in the Family and Medical Leave Act actually allows for “12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period” once the baby is born, but the norm, both in the minds of new moms and their employers, is clearly to take those 12 weeks up front.)

Let’s take pregnancy. A 2012 study of pregnant women in Norway, which has very generous sick leave policies, showed that 75 percent of women took some leave during their pregnancies. The average leave was a whopping two months long. Ostensibly, American women are mostly working through these nauseous, exhausted, painful days because they have no choice—though I’m sure not at their peak capacity. But the Norwegian study showed that women with more flexible schedules took seven fewer sick days than women with rigid schedules. It follows, then, that if women are allowed to take time off when they’re feeling really wretched, they’ll be in better shape to work the rest of the time. My only choice, when dealing with prenatal depression, nonstop vomit, and a full-time job, was to take unprotected, unpaid leave or go on short-term disability, which would have paid me about 5 percent of my salary. So instead, I quit.

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. 

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.