Unpaid Maternity Leave and Human Rights

Last week, Huffington Post published an article concerning the United States policy on maternity leave alongside a video from one of their live chats with working moms, with that included a popular eye-opening graphic I’ve seen floating around the Internet for quite some time now. 

When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t even think it would be an option to experience maternity leave with pay simply because I had never heard of it. And there’s good reason for my not hearing of it, because it doesn’t exist. The graphic doesn’t lie: as an American citizen, I simply do not have the option of paid maternity leave.

As soon as I finished celebrating the faint blue line on the stick, told my family members and bought a baby name book, I logged onto my county database to review my sick and personal vacation days. I knew I would bid farewell to all of the days I had accrued in my years teaching. In addition, I spoke to an insurance representative who informed me that had I opted for disability insurance during the last open enrollment period and paid a certain amount per paycheck, I would have qualified for 50% of my pay. However, once a woman knows she is with child, she is unable to select that insurance option. How ironic.

So, I ended up taking all of my sick and vacation days when my son arrived. Then I ended up with one week unpaid before the summer started because although I had “planned” my son’s birth around my professional calendar, he came two weeks early. One week. And it still hurt us financially. On top of that, I was forced to come in the last two planning days of the school year when my son was only 4 weeks old in order to make sure that I remained under my insurance coverage per our contract.

I mentioned these circumstances to a co-worker who looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “Well, I guess women need to be like you and plan their children at the right time.” Newsflash: There IS no right time. Yes, I happened to get pregnant at the end of the summer which meant my child was due in the beginning of May—three short weeks before school would end. But not everyone is a teacher. Not everyone has the “summer” to set aside for all of the things. Not everyone has an out. And certainly, not everyone has the money to pay for necessities as well as the luxuries that come with having a new baby when they’ve had to sacrifice one income.

When one of our former LWM contributors, a resident of Canada, mentioned she took a year off when her daughter was born and received 50% of her annual salary, I was left scraping my jaw off the floor.

When I started to research, I realized, like many of you have probably realized, that all first-world countries except the United States of America offer some type of paid leave for new parents.

I read Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme, written in 2009, which calls the new program “an historic reform to prepare Australia for the challenges of the future.” In the document, the Australian government promises its citizens “greater financial support” and claims that the scheme will “increase workforce participation and promote early childhood development.” When I read the line that revealed, “Australia has been one of only two OECD countries, along with the U.S., which does not have a comprehensive Paid Parental Leave scheme,” I felt sad. Embarrassed. Irate. Australia has been one of two. But now, America stands alone.

Why? Why are we the only first world country not seeing the importance of government supporting growing families? Why do I have to read another country’s document calling out my country, where I live and work so hard? And why do I have no reasoning with which to defend my country?

The Huffington Post discussion highlighted “bright sides” to this striking maternity leave discrepancy in the U.S. Certain states like California and New Jersey have taken steps in the right direction by instating programs through which new parents and caregivers of elderly family members are allotted a certain number of weeks off with pay. However, like many other issues plaguing our nation, other states have fallen behind and nothing is being done at the federal level.

According to Best for Babes Foundation co-founder Danielle Riggs, the bottom line is that the lack of paid family leave in the United States IS a human rights issue. Plain and simple. And I couldn’t agree more. This travesty must be addressed at the federal level so that all citizens of our country can benefit and can rely on the fact that we have support as new working mothers. According to National Partnership for Women & Families Director of Work and Family Programs Vicki Shabo who spoke to Nancy Redd via Skype on the subject, “Both workers and employers benefit when workers are able to take time off after having a new baby. For mothers, it means doubling the length of breastfeeding… it means going back to work…in a mindset and in a physical condition where you’re better able to do your job. For employers, it means less turnover.”

How can these positive possibilities be denied? I can’t help but wonder… What would our nation look like, how much better could we be, how much stronger would our sense of family become, if every branch of our government, every politician, every person who has influence, gave working mothers and fathers the support, the finances, the opportunity they deserve to welcome new children into their homes and care for ailing family members without worry?

Ultimately, if our rights as humans are being withheld, and if we want policies to change nationwide, what are we going to do about it? Would writing letter suffice? Holding protests? Telling our stories as mothers and fathers? I believe many of us, ALL of us in America, have pertinent stories to tell.

Tell us yours.


  • Mary Beth says:

    Go Shannon, Go Shannon! GREAT ending question – what are we supposed to do? Did you read my article about sick leave? It’s all related…. UGH.
    LOVE these: “Why are we the only first world country not seeing the importance of government supporting growing families? Why do I have to read another country’s document calling out my country, where I live and work so hard? And why do I have no reasoning with which to defend my country?”
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  • Surf Momma says:

    Yes, yes, yes! This is a hot button topic for me. I had an extremely complex pregnancy and had to use up a lot of vacation and sick leave before my son even arrived. My government wage had already been garnished in the name of a balanced state budget that year with having a baby on top of that, I went from April to October of the year my son was born without a full paycheck. When I let HR at my office know that I had written to some of our legislative members on both a state and federal scale in support of paid leave for new moms and why I felt so strongly on the issue. I was promptly called into our directors office and told to not rock the boat that I wasn’t doing anything for boosting already poor morale by complaining about my leave being unpaid. I was told at least I had a job to come back to. Well, what kind of job was I coming back to with that attitude?
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  • Arielle says:

    As a single mom by choice, the way I got any pay during my maternity leave was through temporary disability. I was expected to be back by the time my little guy was 6 weeks old! I nearly died, how could anyone expect me to leave him behind so young? Somehow I got my doctor to keep me out another month, but I was receiving less than half of my pay. I only survived because of my parents, but still, what if I didn’t have that luxury? It makes women’s choices to be single and have children impossible in the United States.

  • Nerdmommathfun says:

    Oh, this. THIS. You mean with proper maternity leave I wouldn’t have been pumping in an unlocked janitor’s closet? Or had so much unpaid time to take care of sick kiddo b/c all my sick leave got used when I had him? Or felt pressured by my district to write plans / grade papers on my UNPAID leave?

    Reducing turnover FTW. There wasn’t any compelling reason to go back – daycare and unpaid sick leave negated my pittance of a salary.

    Great post.

    PS – don’t feel bad about the short term disability insurance. I had it, but b/c I was under 5 years of employment it didn’t pay out for maternity (specifically).
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  • Jamie says:

    Absolutely, Shannon. No paid maternity (or paternity) leave in our country is a huge issue. I was hoping that someone would bring this up in the last debate when they started discussing women…

    I was a high school teacher when I became pregnant with my son, Bo. Unfortunately, because we had undergone 5 rounds of IVF I had burned through all of my sick leave trying to get pregnant and subsequently attending doctor’s appointments during my pregnancy. He was born in late November so I was able to take Thanksgiving break and Christmas break and 20 days of unpaid leave. I went back to teaching part-time in January and taught part-time (with part-time pay) for the rest of the year.

    When my twin girls were born, I was teaching online and I did not take any time off with their birth. I was grading in the hospital. They were born in late September and I was thrilled to have 9 days off at Christmas that year. That was my only maternity leave.

    My husband took two weeks off work when my son was born and one week when my girls were born. Sick leave, of course.

    I 100% agree that something needs to be done. I just have no idea how to do it and rally the nation to support something that should be so fundamental.
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    • Shannon says:

      It’s so taxing to HAVE to do both like you did. Grading in the hospital room? With now THREE children? Seriously? I know this is another whole topic altogether, but when I think of all the “choice” women are given to NOT have children in this country… when I think of the fact that many times, insurances cover ABORTIONS but not IVF… when I think of the fact that when we “choose” to have families we’re not supported, it just makes me angry.

      And I feel terrible that until it was me, I was so ignorant of this fact.
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  • Eileen says:

    I saw these stats awhile ago. I was shocked, because I live in the ignorant bubble of California where as you mentioned, we DO get paid leave. Plus I’m lucky to work for a company that pays as well. But it’s not an American company, so I’m guessing why they are ahead of the curve. In any of our nationwide offices they pay full pay for 6-8 weeks depending on the birth and if you are overdue etc. If in a state like this where you get partial pay they just make up the difference, otherwise they pay the whole thing. CA continues to pay partial pay for another 6 weeks of “bonding time” which can be taken either right after your disability (maternity leave) or you can save it for later in the year.

    I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this coverage, on top of health insurance that covered every penny of my hospital birth.
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  • Brandy says:

    ::shuffles in from the shadows:: I just wanted to comment that while the government SHOULD do something about it ::cough cough:: should be in THAT binder somewhere ::cough cough:: companies can step up their act too. It isn’t unheard of to be paid on maternity leave. I was. I wrote about it here actually ( http://liberatingworkingmoms.com/2012/06/18/what-to-do-about-maternity-leave/) But I know my company is WAY different than 99% of American companies (talked about that here too http://liberatingworkingmoms.com/2012/02/26/what-makes-a-working-moms-paradise/) But like others stated, this was in the form of short term disability…not just for maternity leave. It should be recognized differently. All this from someone who was ready to be back at 10 weeks but I know that isn’t true for all.
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  • Cherlyn says:

    Yep, I found this out too when I first became pregnant and every time someone I know gets pregnant, I think of this harsh reality. And it angers me every time.

    Interestingly enough, I was just talking about this very subject at a halloween party because a dad (expecting baby #2) just received a memo from his work stating that – they will match (or cover the remaining) what CA offers in “paid” family leave (which is about 40-45%). We did get into the specifics and since he works for a company that employs over 50 employees he is covered under the FMLA – hearing this someone at the party said – wow, you really know your laws. I replied, well you have to if you ever got pregnant, you need to know how you will have to scrape up the money and plan to return to work, if at all.

    I was also watching the Living Abroad series on HGTV and when they were in Austria – I believe, they mentioned that the gov’t gives you 2 years of paid maternity leave, plus a stipend each month for your child.

    We ooh and ahh over these wonderful benefits (and rights!) that these other countries have, but I feel like – as much as we want them – we don’t want to have to pay for them either (not me, I want them and will gladly pay into it) , take for instance – people who oppose the Affordable Care Act…
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  • So, I went to that HuffPo post specifically to read the comments. I know, I know. Always avoid HuffPo comments at all costs. But those comments are why the US will probably never (at least in our lifetime) have mandatory paid maternity/paternity leave. Too many people thinking “children are elective” or “If you can’t afford the time off work, don’t have kids” or “Who is going to pay for this? I’m not wasting my hard earned money so women can keep popping out kids and leaving me to pick up the slack.”

    Because here in the US? We live to work. We don’t work to live. Work should always come first. Babies, apparently, can come later, or not even at all.

    I don’t get it. I don’t think I ever will. And I don’t have an idea on how to make it so that everyone can agree it’s a good thing. It’s a nice thing to dream about, though!
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  • Observacious says:

    I went to dinner last night with a friend of mine who is in town. She lives in California and has a 9 month old son. My jaw dropped when she told me about her benefits. (She had a particularly traumatic birth and works in a physically demanding job, so she is getting benefits through the end of the year!)

    I was going to try to write more, but this topic is just too infuriating. I don’t have time to formulate all the thoughts that this topic sends swirling around in my head. I’ll just say in short that this needs to change.
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  • mrshiggison says:

    Imma do my own ::cough cough:: moment here & state that not only am I one of those former LWM Canadian contributors (holla!) who got a year off at 55% of my salary, but for my third child? I took 14 weeks Maternity Leave & my husband stayed home for the remaining 36 weeks Parental Leave.
    It is an immense privileged. It is also undeniably necessary. Though I chose to return to work with my third daughter- it was my CHOICE. I often forget how much of a burden that releases me from, family planning wise. Yes, 55% of my wages is an adjustment, but it’s guaranteed. It says to me that my mental health, our family dynamic, my children’s most drastic time of growth, is respected by my government. I pay my taxes, they pay me back in kind.
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  • Pat Katepoo says:

    Until public policy catches up with what women (and babies!) really need, new moms can advocate for themselves. Learning to ask and negotiate for more from the employer often results in more time off and pay. HBR just published some savvy tips for negotiating more parental leave: http://blogs.hbr.org/hmu/2012/10/how-to-negotiate-your-parental-leave.html
    Asking works. Pat Katepoo, author of Max Your Maternity Leave
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  • Laura says:

    I ended up getting some short-term disability after my second daughter was born, but I had to pursue it on my own. The VP of HR told me I wouldn’t qualify; I took him at his word (I figured he should know what he was talking about — ha!)…for awhile. But then I got curious since other mom friends were getting paid during their maternity leave. Turns out it depends on your company’s insurance policy (who knew?). I called mine directly and they told me I’d almost certainly qualify. Really?! All it took was filling out some paperwork and voila. Granted, overall it wasn’t much money, but something was better than nothing. Even within your own company you have to advocate for yourself.
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  • I wish I knew the answer, considering I’m sitting here in month one of my unpaid maternity leave – which I got because I specifically presented my state’s law to my boss in no uncertain terms. I’m thinking, though, that having done so may come back and bite me in the tush. The company literally had no maternity leave policy – I’m the only woman on staff!
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  • Shannon you do have an option for paid maternity leave, only you just don’t know about it. The article and infographic you cite have been circulating around the internet for months, and does a disservice to many families.

    By focusing only on the lack of a federal law mandating this entitlement, women miss out on the opportunity to purchase private insurance that replaces income for a normal childbirth, along with any complications.

    The policies do have to start prior to conception. They can be 100% employee paid, so there is no good reason for employers not to offer the option.

    A group of connected women could combine forces to get the word out and make a real difference with what already exists today.
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    • Shannon says:

      With all due respect, your comment here and your post concerning “Missing Alternatives” (which I read, by the way) prove you have a misogynistic outlook on the issue of maternity leave. Take the graphic out of the picture. Let’s discuss the options my aunts and uncles in Europe received, or the options a friend of mine in France received, or the options my neighbor who moved to the US from Germany received. The list goes on, but what you intend to do is take the focus OFF the US, and I think the focus needs to be directly on our country and its unwillingness to support growing families and working mothers.

      “Only you just don’t know about it” is kind of a condescending way to put it… especially since I mentioned in my article that I was informed that I could opt for disability insurance. However, when I accepted my first teaching job as an unmarried 21-year-old, it didn’t seem prudent to pay every two weeks for something that COULD help me if I ever ended up pregnant. So there I was, into my third year teaching, pregnant, and without the ability to opt for that disability insurance because you have to start “prior to conception” as you said. Call me crazy, but a policy that covers you BEFORE conception? That’s our best option? And you think my piece and other articles on this subject do a disservice to families? How about we offer something ONCE a woman learns she is pregnant. Because let’s face it, many of us are in such dire financial situations that we’re not willing to pay out of pocket every check for something that might happen three years from now. It’s asinine.

  • Lisa says:


    I am about to have my baby (due the 10th of this month). I was hired April 2 of last year. I am the primary breadwinner in the house hold since my husband is in Law School (which means great healthcare and pre-natal care thank goodness). I do get disability, but I get 4 weeks for a vaginal delivery and 6 for a C-section. I do get 60% of my pay those weeks. Since FMLA is pretty much useless in terms of help, and I have not been there a full year (like I planned to get pregnant right after I got a job, right), FMLA will not kick in until April 2. This means my little girl needs to come LATE, but who can predict that? Who should have to plan around that?

    My girls is breech and not turning. So, we scheduled a c-section for 2/14. If that happens I will end up getting 3 months off. BUT, if she had come early I would have missed my reaching hire date by weeks or EVEN ONE DAY and would only have gotten 6 weeks of disability and the 2 weeks of sick and vacation I have built up from working and not taking any time off since I knew I was pregnant.

    It is CRAZY we have to think of this. And, it is stressful to have to deal with.

    That is our story over here.

  • Jennifer says:

    I just found out recently that I’m pregnant, and due in December. I don’t know what I’m going to do about rent and bills. My job does not provide paid maternity leave or vacation/sick days. My husband is not working full-time and can’t pay our rent with his check either

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