Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, gave birth while in office this year, becoming only the second elected leader in recorded world history to do so. The birth of her child coincided with an increase in paid maternity leave for all parents in the small island nation in two phases: 22 weeks by July 2018, then to 26 weeks by 2020.
But New Zealand is an outlier. Not because of its generosity, but precisely the opposite. Until 2001, New Zealand was only one of three countries that didn’t offer paid maternity leave at all — it offered only a year of unpaid leave. As far back as 1952, the United Nations called for a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave. By then, the European average was 22 weeks of full pay (New Zealand now caps pay at around $2,000 per month); most of Europe now offers about a year of paid parental leave.
As a practical matter, for most new parents in Indiana and Kentucky, a meaningful period of bonding with a new baby does not exist. There is no guarantee of paid maternity leave or paid family leave or paid medical leave of any kind. What we have is a few weeks of unpaid leave. And even that is only available for women who work for larger employers.
Worse, while the best we can do is promise not to fire some new mothers for a few weeks, this promise is made with fingers crossed. I asked around for stories from women who tried to take unpaid leave and received hundreds.
Most of them are horrific.
Jenny (not her real name), was told to come back to her job at a public middle school “or else” after three weeks of leave. This was after an emergency C-section and other complications that landed her in the hospital for seven days. Cassie, in Northern Indiana, had a condition that caused profuse vomiting throughout her pregnancy. She lost more than 30 pounds from vomiting dozens of times a day. She went into labor 15 weeks early and gave birth to a 1-pound baby who almost died in the NICU. Despite all this and the fact that she had a severe infection herself, Cassie’s manager “texted me the day I gave birth and asked me if I could come into work in the morning to open since my baby would be in the hospital for a while.” Rebecca, who worked for one of the biggest corporations in Louisville, lost the little parental leave she had when she gave birth to a full-term, stillborn son. The company reasoned that she “was no longer a new parent,” and didn’t qualify for even unpaid medical leave.
Stories like these cannot be told in most of the developed world. A few folks insisted they had “good” stories; these generally involve employers generous enough not to fire workers who are forced to bring their infants to work during the first few days of their lives. Those who had the good fortune to have selected a reasonably generous employer, the foresight/extra cash to buy into a short-term disability policy and had enough saved up to pay three months’ worth of bills, were able to buy as much as 12 weeks with their new baby.
Twelve weeks. Eighty-four days. 2,016 hours. That’s the most you can get around these parts to settle into a whole new life. The ability to be present for your baby’s first belly laugh, her first taste of solid food, her first time rolling over. The opportunity to provide her the crook of your arm to nap in, when the warmth of her parents is all she knows to want. If you are lucky, you may get to try to cram this into 12 weeks.
Of course, wealthy families can buy this opportunity (and then some). The ever-shrinking middle often cannot. If you are poor, you have no chance at all. You must work. You are needed, desperately, by the enterprise that is accustomed to leasing you for the brightest, most wakeful parts of your day. So much so, that they cannot do without you for a week, a day, not even a single hour. It’s as if our entire economy is set up to sustain wealthy people and to create more of us who have no choice but to serve those wealthy people nearly every minute of their lives. There isn’t much in between. We produce wide-eyed, over-caffeinated, work-obsessed, gears on an unfathomably large machine. In a system like this, there is logic in depriving even infants of their first weeks of humanity; it seems profitable.
There is hope. Five states now have laws providing paid family leave. None of it is even close to the time taken for a god-given right by our friends across the pond (California and Washington both offer 12 weeks tops), but it’s a beginning. Dr. Erin Macey of the Indiana Institute for Working Families is on the forefront of this work in Indiana, where our GOP Governor recently extended paid parental leave to state employees. A statewide bill affecting the private sector is a pipe dream in Indiana or Kentucky, but Dr. Macey thinks the changes could occur at a federal level in the near future. Bills such as the FAMILY Act, which would provide 12 weeks of partial pay during pregnancy and childbirth recovery, languish without a vote for now, but a shift in Congress — even a fairly subtle one — could get one through. A Pew study from last year shows a staggering rate of public support: 82 percent for paid maternal leave. As such, according to Dr. Macey, “making progress can sometimes turn on something as simple as a lawmaker’s personal experience or a constituent phone call in the right district at the right time.”
Macey says her organization is working on “rallying grasstops and grassroots support.” As with so many things, she says that the most meaningful thing affected people can do is tell their story to the right people at the right times — which may mean telling it a lot. “My request is that people not only tell their stories and ask their lawmakers to work on this, but do so publicly. Ask in op-eds and candidate forums. Ask on social media and tag them. Let them know you expect them to do something and that you are going to ask and keep asking.” •