How Lack of Maternity Leave Hurts Working Women

I’m 32 going on 33 and my biological clock is tick-tock ticking. If I’m going to have at least one child, it’s most likely going to occur within the next 1-3 years of my life. I have significant savings so I can afford to take time off to have a kid, but that doesn’t make the whole lack of maternity leave situation any less stressful.

The US is still the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. In fact, the US is one of just two countries in the world that doesn’t ensure any paid time off for new moms, according to a report from the International Labor Organization. The other: Papua New Guinea.

I’m “lucky” because in my state – California – pay up to 55% of wages during your highest-paid calendar quarter in the prior year (up to $1129 per week as of 2016) for, I believe, up to six weeks. California law also requires employers to allow a woman to take off 12 weeks unpaid if, and only if, their company has at least 50 employees (within 75 miles) AND you have worked for your employer for a least one year (AND 1250 hours during the last 12 months.)

San Francisco, recently passed legislation to require employers to pay six weeks of fully paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers at companies with more than 20 employees. Employers have to pay the 45% gap between the 55% covered from state disability. Employees have to pay the full benefit if they leave within 90 days of returning from leave, but still that’s the best deal in the country. The new rules are effective January 1, 2017 for companies with more than 50 employees. In other words, I should continue to work in San Francisco because taking a job outside of the city, unless it’s at a company that offers paid maternity benefits, would be a ridiculously dumb move (not to mention put me at risk for not qualifying for maternity leave if I have a kid before I’m there for a year.)

As any parent knows, six weeks is not a lot of time to bond with a child and recover from giving birth. But at least it’s something. And you still have six more weeks unpaid once this coverage is up should you want/need it.

In comparison, for example, in France, women are guaranteed 100 percent of their pay for 16 weeks (six weeks before the birth and 10 weeks after.) In Australia there is parental leave for 18 weeks that can be split between mother and father. And your job is protected for up to a year after the birth of a child.

While I could feasibly afford to take time off, it really doesn’t make sense to do this unpaid. This puts me in a precarious situation. At this point in my life when I want to actively start trying to get pregnant in the next few months, I have to consider when/whether I should leave my current job. If my current job is at risk (which I believe it is) within the next 1-6 months, I would be better off leaving for a more stable position now providing a full 12 months at my next role before I have a child (so I’ll be covered under the disability laws.) However, if I was not considering having a child in the next year or two, I would not have to make this type of decision immediately.

Furthermore, I have to save up my PTO for my pregnancy. I am also fortunate in that my company provides 15 days a year of PTO that can accrue up to 22. At this point I have a challenge because I would like to take a honeymoon (~10 days PTO) but I also know it would be silly to spend my PTO down now when I will need it for time off when I am pregnant should any complications arise, and certainly post giving birth. All these decisions must be made with a very big “IF” involved – IF I get pregnant – because, of course, I might not be able to, or it might take a very long time.

At this point I expect that I will try to stay in my current job as long as possible. At least being in SF I will be eligible for the 6 weeks of FT pay with benefits. I will plan to return to work after 6 weeks and hope my company at that time will value my contributions enough to allow me to work remotely for a few days a week. I am not sure what happens after this, only that I need to stay at the company for at least 90 days post return from pregnancy leave. I cannot give up my salary as we can’t really afford to live on just my husband’s salary.

My income after tax = ~$9k / month (plus partially paid benefits)
My husband’s income after tax = ~$3.5k? / month (no benefits)

Our rent is $2.5k / month for our one bedroom apartment and health insurance for both of us is $500 (it will be more once we have a kid.) We also need to pay for food and clothes and baby things. It just doesn’t make sense / is not financially feasible for me not to work beyond the paid disability leave. I do plan to breast feed if I can for at least a year or two, so I have no idea how this all works in a startup where I will be the first person to ever have been pregnant and where the accommodations will be only as accommodating as the company wants them to be based on their value of my contributions and potential future contributions. And it will be at least a year from now which is a very long time in startup years, so I don’t know what anything will look like then. There are a lot of unknowns.

The best I can do now (and that I’m fortunate enough to be able to do) is put away as much cash as possible each month and try to live frugally to save up for having a kid one day because who knows what will happen then.

This doesn’t account for the cost to actually have the kid. Even with insurance, which, after my employer pays a sizable amount, costs us $6000 a year. Then there is our deductible and co-pays, which are substantial. In short, despite that I’m incredibly lucky right now, I’m also incredibly fucked as a working woman in America.

I keep reading stories of women who think they’ll go back to work full time after they have kids, only to realize that sleeping 3 hours a night and working 10 hours a day plus a long commute does not compute. I look at my current job which, to be successful, requires leaving the house at 8am and returning at 8pm. I think about a move closer to my work which would require the expense of relocation plus about $1k or more in increased monthly rent, all with no guarantee that I’d actually keep the job anyway. I think about my friends who had horrible first trimesters, who were seriously ill through the entire time and could barely function. I think about my therapist who tells me not to worry about the future, and then I worry about the future.

And I think of a family member who is 50, divorced, and struggling with an out-of-control teenage child who is a pathological liar. While the child’s psychology may not be caused by the stressful situation she grew up in, it surely didn’t help. I want to think that women can work full time and leave their children all day, I see this one case of a mother who went back to work quickly after the birth of both her children, and, in part, the resulting psychological effects (their father worked from home and eventually built a successful consulting business, the mother went to work in the city and traveled frequently for her job.) I’m not saying that every working mother has sociopathic children – just that, as someone I had dinner with yesterday said, what’s the point of having children if you never get to see them?

The real reality is that we’ll just have to dip deep into our savings to afford one kid and the second, well, I don’t know exactly how that will work either (but right now I’m just focused on #1.) I am very confused right now if I should try very assertively to get a job at a larger company that provides paid maternity benefits and purposefully not get pregnant until I know I’ll have been there 12 months before I give birth, OR, if I should just double down on my current role and hope to god I don’t get fired before I have a kid (and then just figure out what to do after that somehow.) – I was scheduled to speak with the CEO of a 6-person company today for a job opportunity but now I realize that would be the worst possible option (even though their office is 20 minutes from my apartment versus 1.5 hrs) – I won’t be covered by any maternity leave and the six founders are all dudes who won’t think about maternity leave for years if ever.

Now seems to be the time to either move to another state and get a stable big company job that pays less but provides maternity pay and some security OR attempt to get a job at a bigger company in the area here that has maternity pay OR stay at my current role and hope I can hack it for at least 18 months through a pregnancy. How do I make this work? And should I worry about this now, before I get pregnant? If I may not be able to get pregnant or it may take years –why even think about it at the moment? I still feel like the $500k networth goal – once I reach that – will be a certain measure of stability and peace of mind – and that’s do-able if I stay in my current role for 18 months. I really think the 18 months in my current job is the best possible goal at this time. I’ll get 6 weeks fully paid leave with benefits. I’ll keep earning $9k/mo after tax, which is a lot, and more than I’ll get anywhere else. And I’ll just save and save and save. Maybe after my second child I’ll start consulting and work less (and make less) and hopefully by then my husband will have a job with benefits. I wish I could talk about this stuff with him but we aren’t really trying to have a kid quite yet so he doesn’t want to discuss it. I’m sure once we get serious about it then he’ll be open to discussing the options but by then it will already be too late for me (to make a change and be covered by FLMA/disability.)

I just feel like I should be more decisive vs passive at this point in my life – and set myself up for the best “post pregnancy” situation possible. But I also know I’m the type that will just stick to the status quo until it becomes completely unbearable and/or I get fired. I’m not good at change. I guess I’ll just figure it out when I have to figure it out – and until then save up as much as possible.

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7 thoughts on “How Lack of Maternity Leave Hurts Working Women”

  1. “I wish I could talk about this stuff with him but we aren’t really trying to have a kid quite yet so he doesn’t want to discuss it. I’m sure once we get serious about it then he’ll be open to discussing the options but by then it will already be too late for me (to make a change and be covered by FLMA/disability.)”

    Uhhhhhhh no, if this is swaying your life choices and stressing you and has joint decision making involved, you get to talk to your husband about it NOW. At the very least, your husband should be willing to listen and talk over options if only to be emotionally supportive to you (not to mention this really affects him too).

  2. Have you taken significant action to getting a job at a larger company? It seems to me that if American culture is unfriendly to the concept of maternity leave (and it is) then startups are especially bad in that regard. With most startups you don’t even know if the startup is going to be around nine months from now–it is kind of hard trying to plan having a kid around that framework!

    1. In the various periods of my life when I was without a job in the last few years I applied to many roles at larger companies. 99.9% of the time I didn’t even get an interview. In one larger company (that is public but doing very poorly and was on the pink sheets) I ended up getting offered a role as an internal communications person – which sounded awful and would pay about $50k less than a competing offer I had at a startup at the time. Generally I find startups more stable because I know about how we’re doing (being on the leadership team has benefits that I have more visibility into our fiscal health) and, sans my own getting laid off, I like the startup stability over big company blindness. That said, if I could find a job at a big company that paid decently and that was good for my experience and abilities, I’d take it. But how? My resume screams startup employee. I’m sure I could do more networking and try to get in to a big company — but it would be very hard. I do well when the company is desperate for someone who can do a whole lot of everything fairly well (startup) vs a big company looking for someone who is really great at something to specialize.

      1. I hear you–I seemed to also get steered into startups early in my career and it has been difficult to be considered at large companies since then. Plus large companies seem to move slower in the hiring process so the timing of their offers are often too slow to compete with competing startup offers. But I’ve definitely also observed that the culture in larger companies is more friendly people trying to start families. Of course the easiest way to move from a startup to a large company is if the startup gets acquired by the large company and its people come with the deal.

        1. Yes, that’s very true. I can see one day my current company being acquired by a larger company, but it will take many years before that happens and usually the department I work in gets let go before an acquisition as there is redundancy. I’ve applied for so many jobs at larger firms and the hiring process DOES take forever when I actually get an interview and often they aren’t even really hiring for a role they just are constantly interviewing just in case someone leaves or they have to expand. It’s hard to go through these processes when you are employed full time as well. Meanwhile, startups typically need a hire “yesterday” so they move so much faster and if they’re spending time on hiring you can bet there’s a real need for that role.

  3. It’s a bit f-ed up that I am jealous of your paid leave. Here the max is just over $500 pre tax per week (unless you work somewhere that pays more than what’s required by law, I don’t know of any such companies). Your actual earnings have no bearing on what you’re entitled to. That wouldn’t even cover my housing.

    No matter how difficult, do try to start having those conversations. We wound up having a dumb fight about this when I started researching the costs of stuff for a kid, paid leave, costs of childcare, and asked him to weigh in (he felt I was trying to plan too much, stressing unnecessarily) and surprisingly thought I wouldn’t want to take very much time off. (Which may very well be true, but you never know how you may end up feeling after the kid and what if there are health issues?! Money = options) Also surprised me because in the past he has talked along the lines of ‘… if I did X and made X then you could stay home and wouldn’t have to work.’

    I also think about people I know who have had health issues to varying degrees in pregnancy and it terrifies me. They all had partners who pulled their own weight financially. In pretty much all those cases, their partners were the breadwinners.
    NZ Muse recently posted..CYA: Revisiting my insurance coverage

    1. Don’t quote me on the coverage here — it’s all very confusing and I’m not sure what the limit is. I do know that SF has this new thing that is just starting in 2017 where the companies have to cover the remaining 45% not covered by disability but to be honest I’m not sure if that’s of your total salary or a percentage of it. It is prob a good deal for 6 weeks but that’s it and 6 weeks isn’t that much time to recover. Also, our husbands sound similar. Mine just doesn’t like to plan. But this sort of stuff takes planning. Ugh.

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