Okay, friends, I’m going to tackle a highly controversial topic today, and I’ve been putting it off for years. Lately I’ve heard so many “enlightened” people proudly telling me that they’re pro-woman because they support extended and/or mandatory paid maternity leaves, and I think it’s time to examine the subject. Maternity leave is not inherently pro-woman or pro-child. It’s just a subsidy for a small segment of women, often at the expense of the rest of us.
Maternity Leave Does Nothing for Stay-at-Home Moms
At E2S, we’ve been pretty clear that the best thing for a child is to be raised by her own mom, but maternity leave doesn’t promote that. Maternity leave operates under the assumption that after a few months, mom is chucking her kid into daycare and going back to work. When a mom decides to forgo income and stay home with her kids, our society says that’s a choice she’s made that she gets to live with. But when a mom chooses to leave her kids in the care of another and work for pay, then somehow her employer and/or fellow taxpayers owe it to her to give her a break so that she doesn’t really have to live with the cost of her choice?
The reality is that maternity leave is only a career woman’s subsidy. Now, I’m glad when mothers spend more time bonding with (and breastfeeding, if possible) their newborn babies, and I’m always sad when I hear of moms going right back to work after a week or two, as if that is something to admire. But I was pregnant or nursing for most of the last decade, and I have yet to find an employer willing to pay me not to work for them while I breastfed and bonded with my kids. No homemaker that I know gets a paid maternity leave, nor do I think it’s anyone’s job but my husband’s to ensure my family’s financial well-being while I stay home to raise our children. Similarly, many women who work part-time as music teachers, tutors, babysitters, etc, would never ask their clients to keep paying them for the weeks they take off to have a baby.
Maternity Leave Promotes One Lifestyle Over Another
Why has our society decided that it is okay for the decision to stay at home with our children to require financial sacrifice, but not the decision to work outside the home? When I looked into the benefits package from my husband’s current employer, a religious institution, I noticed that double income families are eligible for up to $5000 in childcare assistance, but single income families are not. Let me tell you, living in SoCal on one income is no easy feat, but because we’ve chosen to have me care for our children rather than the daycare workers down the road, we apparently don’t deserve as much assistance as our working mom friends. Logically, I understand that the cost of childcare is astronomical–high school babysitters charge $15/hour plus gas, and I’m saving us $40,000/year in daycare costs by caring for our children myself. But in choosing to subsidize one form of childcare over another, we’re sending the message that we place a higher value on families that outsource childrearing.
Maternity Leave is Bad for Women Writ-Large
Surprisingly, this point is one that I’ve seen made, repeatedly, by working women, not by my fellow sahms. Without intense government subsidies (=our tax dollars paying for that subset not to work), paid maternity leave is only viable for women working for employers secure enough to be able to swallow the cost of paying two people to do one job, and even unpaid maternity leave presents a logistical burden for employers holding a job open for someone who may or may not come back. I recently talked to a couple who hold very conservative views in other areas. But because the wife was determined to be a working mother, they were incensed that we couldn’t be more like Canada or England, with their generous socialist maternity leave legislation. I hear this a lot in conversations about motherhood and career.
Interestingly enough, feminist working mothers in both aforementioned countries have questioned whether maternity leave is such a perfect solution, after all. As Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue magazine, points out, “Nobody can legislate a route through the conflict between work and motherhood.” While the UK’s laws have expanded maternity leave privileges more and more, the results might not actually be as helpful for women (and therefore their families) as one might think. I love her honesty here–she gets that some women want to work, and some want to stay home, “But what I don’t understand is the idea that you should be able to keep exactly the same job, with all the advantages that entails, and work less for it, regardless of how that affects the office or colleagues.” When working mothers demand preferential treatment in the workplace, we shouldn’t be surprised that coworkers have certain negative assumptions and attitudes about women of childbearing age. Now we have childless people demanding “meternity leave” to go “find themselves” (it’s only fair, after all).
And this post at Canadian Business talks about the dark side of maternity leave: “Many businesses struggle with the financial and efficiency burdens of filling temporary positions, especially if they’re senior or highly skilled roles. They can’t be sure if the new parents will return after their leaves or choose to cut back their workload—or quit altogether. Meanwhile, resentment may brew among remaining staff forced to shoulder extra work demands.” Several employers confess that it’s just easier to avoid hiring people who are going to be having families. This decrease in job opportunity, salaries, and promotions for women of childbearing age can be seen in country after country with extended maternity leave. So while a working mother loves the idea of getting paid not to work while she bonds with her baby, all the rest of the women trying to enter the workforce are being penalized for her little subsidy.
Maternity Leave Promotes an Entitlement Mentality
At the Federalist, work-at-home mom Joy Pullman talks about why it’s not fair to require businesses to pay people not to work:
It’s unfair for me to ask employers to put themselves out for me if it doesn’t benefit them. Mutual benefit is the whole reason people enter into contracts. Work is not welfare. I have to provide something of value in exchange for my salary, or it’s not something I’ve earned, it’s an entitlement I’m coercing others to provide.
When I brought this point up to my conservative friends yearning for socialist family leave policies, they brought up a handful of Fortune 500 companies that give their employees generous time off and find that it increases productivity. That sounds nice, but in my husband’s personal experience at a top-ten law firm, “unlimited parental leave” was really just lip service, as the work emails he received before we left the hospital with our newborn daughter attested. My husband’s team was in the midst of a trial. They couldn’t ask the judge, jury, and opposing counsel to just take 6 weeks off while my husband spent time with his daughter. And while my husband did work from home for a few weeks, the broken sleep of a newborn, the acting out of a toddler who was no longer an only child, and the diaper changes and fetching and carrying while I nursed the baby did not make him more productive; they made him much less productive. When he returned to the office, he had to be brought up to speed. And he wasn’t even the one physically recovering from giving birth! How much more of a burden would this be for a small business in which each employee plays a vital and distinct role. Vacation time and parenting aren’t the same thing. While some companies may truly be able to swallow the cost of paying their employees not to work without passing that cost along to consumers, it simply doesn’t make economic sense. If this wishful thinking were true, we wouldn’t need the government to coerce everyone into doing it.
Serena Sigillito writes in a beautiful piece how the maternity leave controversy actually misses that “the transformative power of motherhood is precisely that it forces you to focus on someone other than yourself.” Rather than fixating on what we’re entitled to, motherhood gives us the chance to embrace selflessness. Sigillito continues,
Early motherhood is filled with disgusting things—like poopy diapers, with all their various, endlessly meaningful variations in color and consistency. It’s filled with difficult things—like overcoming unpredictable and painful obstacles to learn how to breastfeed your child. And it’s filled with mundane, boring things—like pre-sleep routines that involve singing the same song over and over again or going “shh, shh, shh” for twenty minutes straight.
Yet these menial things are not the purpose of maternity leave, or of motherhood. No, the purpose of the vocation of motherhood is to love your child. And love demands action—action that has the potential to draw you out of yourself, teaching you to overcome your own weaknesses and character flaws for the sake of this new little person that you love with a fierceness you could never have imagined.
So what is the solution for mothers? Joy Pullman’s piece above ends with lots of good, concrete ways we as a society and individuals can support new parents. We try to avoid direct politics here on the blog, but you can probably tell that I’m in the less-government-intervention camp. When a couple chooses to have a baby, they need to a financial plan in place to care for that baby. Morality aside, getting married first is wise. If a couple can’t afford to have kids, we do know how babies are made. And once we have them, children don’t actually have to cost the hundreds of thousands that we’re told we must spend on them. And of course I think there should be a safety net for women facing unplanned pregnancies–I’ve been involved every place we’ve lived in private organizations that provide resources and support for women in that situation, beyond what the government provides. If you’re interested, I can get you in touch with such a group near you. I’ve talked before about how single moms especially need our support, and I encourage all of us to keep an eye out for how we can help and encourage the single moms we know. But to return to an earlier point, extended maternity leave is not about helping minority teen single moms (who we all agree need assistance), it’s often about upper middle class career women who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments to have their children in the first place.
(I ran this piece by Anna and Bethany before posting it, and we all want to emphasize that in combating the idea that mandatory paid maternity leave is inherently good for women, we are not unsympathetic to why eligible moms want it. It is hard to live on one income, and it gets harder the more two income families there are around us. When we say that children are worth sacrificing for, we have all felt the pain of sacrificing career success or years and years of tight budgets or not being able to save for retirement or having to explain to our kids why they can’t have the stuff their friends with two working parents can afford. The call to full-time motherhood (and single income living) is a high and hard calling. We all have mom friends who are working just in order to have health insurance for their families because Dad is self-employed or a student or out of work. We understand why women who feel they have to work still want the chance to take a paid maternity leave, getting some short-term fruits of staying home without paying the full price. It is natural and right for women to want to stay home and bond with their babies after giving birth. It is good for dads to spend time bonding with their children, and when my husband was eligible for paternity leave with our fourth (in his job, a one-course reduction to his teaching load), he took it. E2S is not here to judge you if you are on parental leave.)