This past week, General Mills was all over the news in the Twin Cities. Not for a cool new cereal, but because they overhauled their family leave policies to better support their employees. Instead of 3 months maternity and 2 week parental leave, now General Mills employees are eligible for 18-20 weeks of paid maternity leave for a birth mother and 12 weeks paid leave for partners and adoptive parents…how amazing is that?? This news, along with the fact that it’s Labor Day weekend, got us thinking about parental leave policies in general and why they are so important.
Karen and I actually work at the same place (have we told you that yet?) and we were lucky to be able to take 3ish months off work when our little babies arrived. Now, not all of that was paid, so we cobbled together wages for ourselves with a combination of our 6 week paid leave, vacation, and short-term disability. This time was so precious and appreciated, not only to learn how to take care of a baby (which is hard!) but also to try to physically heal from giving birth. That said, we both agreed that we could have used more time. (On a personal note, Kris was home with us the whole time too and I could not be more grateful. It really opened my eyes to how much of a difference having both of us there made, for figuring out how to parent and to feel supported in my own healing journey.)
Make no mistake, maternity leave is not a vacation.
Maternity (and other parental) leave is stressful, scary, and wonderful. I cannot describe the stress you feel when trying to figure out why this tiny human is screaming at you, even though you’ve tried everything. It’s a time when you make late-night panicked phone calls to the nurse line when you see a “weird red patch” on baby’s leg, or you don’t remember if 100 degrees is a fever you should be concerned about. It’s also the time when you learn how cute your child is when they sigh after they finish nursing, and you get to watch your spouse become the incredible, caring parent you knew they would be. So you know…there’s good and bad.
Taking all this into account, this is an extremely important time for both you as parents and your new baby, which is why for working parents paid leave is essential. The United States is the only high-income country (as classified by the World Bank) to not have required minimum paid maternity leave. The only one. This means that for many women who do not have paid leave they have to go back to work far before they are physically or emotionally ready. Add to that the stress that most daycares will not take babies younger than 6 weeks, so you’re left to scramble for childcare if you need to return to work before then. Contrast that with 50+ countries that offer 6 (or more) months of paid time off! (See linked article above for details)
Since there is not a mandatory minimum of paid time off most companies don’t offer a ton of time for new parents, often saying it is because it is “too expensive”. The tide seems to be changing little by little, thankfully, with more private companies like General Mills offering more generous leave policies for all parents (because partners and adoptive parents need baby time too!). I’m guessing these companies will be rewarded with better retention rates and return-to-work rates after leaves are taken. I know I would be more likely to stick with a place which clearly valued me as an employee and respected my need as a parent as well. However, I’m hoping that we in the US get our act together and require paid leave for all employees.
A fascinating article from NPR quoted Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA, saying that paid leave time has a significant positive impact on an infant’s health – “There are powerful, long-term studies showing that providing paid maternity leave, for example, lowers infant mortality,” she says. “Beyond this, we know that women who have sufficient paid maternity leave are much more likely to breastfeed, and breastfeeding lowers the risk of all sorts of infectious diseases, it increases and improves cognitive outcomes, and it benefits the woman’s health.”
Boom. That’s it. Let’s get this ball rolling, Washington! Paid leave for all!
Happy Labor Day, everyone!