One issue that led me to start this blog is America’s lack of paid family leave (people without kids – don’t tune out yet! This issue concerns anyone who knows any parents or children…in other words, all of us). By now, I think most of us know that America is one of four countries in the world that do not offer paid family leave – the others being Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and Liberia. What I don’t know, and what I aim to find out, is how to change this.
So now comes the sticky-icky part of my idea – I actually have to follow through. So hhhaaaaarrrrrd – mainly because I know there are many wonderful people out there already fighting this battle, and I am not sure how to get involved (which is my theory about why so many of us don’t get involved – the bystander apathy argument. My other theory is that the main people affected by America’s shitty leave policy are new moms – and they are too bloody tired to care).
In Washington State, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance program (or FLI) exists in state law, but will not be implemented until 2015, due to the recession. FLI will allow women five weeks’ paid leave at a rate of $250 a week (yes, you read that right). I think we can do better. So while I figure out how to jump into this whirlwind, I’d like to tell my own story. (Don’t worry – I leave out the labor part.)
Four years ago, when I was six months pregnant, I was teaching high school English and running the school newspaper. George was due in April, and I assumed I would take time off until September and resume teaching. I went to talk to HR about my maternity leave and was informed that, since I worked part-time (3 out of 5 classes a day), I did not qualify for FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows you to take 3 months off, unpaid). I also had only accrued 15 sick days. Which meant that I would receive the requisite six weeks off, with only three of those weeks ‘paid’ (they weren’t really paid – they were days in which I was ‘sick’ – meaning I could not be sick again that year as I had exhausted my leave. Cause, y’know, newborn babies never get sick).
I tried to restrain my exclamations of horror – it wasn’t the HR woman’s fault, after all – but I didn’t know who else to talk to. My friends in England, in France, in Australia and in parts of Asia were taking a full year off, and receiving full pay (or a percentage of their salary). Friends in America laughed at me, saying things like, “How could you not know this?”
So I did the only thing I could do. I had George, and I took six weeks off. I received 15 days’ ‘sick leave’ pay. Six weeks later, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I would be fired if I did not return. I hired an 18-year old former student to watch George and went back to work. My doctor, meanwhile, DID NOT okay my return – my body was still healing. I was also breastfeeding, and had to pump during a 30 minute lunch period in a break room where, on three occasions, fellow teachers wanting to get lunch out of the fridge walked in on me pumping. So embarrassing. I was also suffering from as yet undiagnosed post-partum depression, which meant that my cute little teenage students had to witness their teacher crying through virtually every lesson for a month. Beyond embarrassing. Summer break, and some fun medication, saved me from drowning in a pool of milk and tears and crushing anxiety.
The first three months of my son’s life were, without a doubt, the hardest time of my life – and I have a supportive husband, a job and enough money to hire someone to help me. If I struggled, surely there are others enduring far worse hardships who are far less able to make the changes needed.
So let’s get to that. Here’s how I propose to fix this problem:
All parents should receive six months’ paid leave, to be divided however they see fit. In the case of single parents, they should receive the full six months’ leave because DAMN that’s one hard job. Paid leave would be given for the first child only. Then, if people wish to have more children, they receive six weeks’ paid leave, and save up for additional time off.
How do we pay for it? Um, I don’t know. But I do know that in order to further humanity, women must have children. And in order to keep those children alive, most of us must work. But we should not have to endure the consequences of our biology by being unfairly discriminated against in the workplace. Having a baby is not a sickness or a disability. We are creating life, and sustaining it with milk from our bodies. Most countries understand this and grant time to new parents to allow this life-giving to take place. Places like Germany or Sweden, where women are given 47 weeks fully-paid leave. It is time for America to join the developed world: Check out A Better Balance for more information.