This is not maternity leave

Photo on 3-1-15 at 10.06 AM

Lazy Sunday with Fustible Liddifer Jones, six weeks old.

I’m about to start my second week home alone with my infant daughter. (Wow that still feels weird and wonderful to say!)

Our days consist of snuggling, screaming, washing bottles, dancing, laundry, eating, washing bottles, sleeping, walking the dog, marathons of The Fall and Chopped, washing bottles and, if things go well for everyone, bathing and, for some reason, many trips to the post office. Oh, and poop.

The days go really fast. I am off work now for longer than I’ve ever been off work; off a scheduled daily routine for the first time since…oh, since I started first grade. I have always been in school full time or working or both. And now I barely have the brain space to think about these strange outside world obligations.

Until 3 a.m. when I’m awake anyway, feeding the babe and worrying, worrying, worrying…

I am (thankful to be!) on paid leave for what will ultimately add up to about 12 weeks. In this country, that is, alas, nothing to sneeze at. But let me be clear: this is not maternity leave. 

Over the last five years, I have seen many of my colleagues take maternity leave (or so I thought). I never saw anyone take less than 12 weeks (OK, OK, I wasn’t exactly counting the days of other peoples’ leave, but certainly 12 weeks seemed to be the norm). In fact, more than a few of them took up to six months! So imagine my surprise when I checked our Staff Handbook and learned that:

There is no leave called “maternity.”

That is a direct quote. Whaaaaaaaaaat!? 

It took several days of wading through our staff handbook, plus a meeting with HR, to piece together what “the options” actually are. There is no single document or web page that makes it all clear, and many overlapping pieces come into play, so I’m going to try to lay out all “the options” here. (Please note that all of this applies only to what I discovered, this last year, at my current employer. This is a breakdown of my own situation, not intended as a guide to anyone else’s. YMMV.)

So, here is what’s on offer, family-baby-leave-wise, from my employer:

  • FMLA: Employees who have worked more than a certain number of hours are protected by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees that your job will be protected and your benefits covered as usual for up to 12 weeks when you must be away from work for a permissible reason, including (but not limited to) the birth or adoption of a child. However, FMLA says nothing about whether the protected leave is paid or unpaid–that depends on the individual employer.
    • Employees are allowed 12 weeks of FMLA leave per year, with the year starting over on the anniversary of your first day of work–so if you time things right, you can get back-to-back or near back-to-back leave.
    • The 12 weeks of leave need not be continuous.
    • The law states that if partners/spouses work for the same employer, at the discretion of the employer, they may be granted only 12 weeks of FMLA leave to share between them. Thankfully, our employer grants the full 12 weeks of leave to each individual.
  • Child Care Leave of Absence: Following the birth or adoption of a child under the age of 18, employees may request of leave of absence of up to six months, which may be extended up to a year.
    • This leave is unpaid, and runs concurrently with FMLA leave. Paid leave options must be exhausted before an unpaid leave may be requested.
    • After the 12 weeks of FMLA protection run out, the employee must fully pay for their own benefits in order to ensure that coverage is not interrupted.
  • Extended sick time for pregnancy and recovery from childbirth: Pregnant women may use paid extended sick time for complications or inability to work during pregnancy (typically up to two weeks before due date) and recovery from childbirth (typically 6 weeks after a vaginal delivery or 8 weeks after a c-section).
    • Documentation from a doctor is required to qualify for paid extended sick leave, and to request more time than the standard 2/6/8 weeks noted above.
    • Of course, this falls into the classic trap of classifying childbirth as an illness and/or disability…
    • Nevertheless, it is actually kind of nice, the way this breaks down, because if you have to stop working before the baby is born, it doesn’t take away from how much paid recovery time you get afterward.
    • Employees who are not pregnant and giving birth may not use their extended sick time to care for a child. Obviously, this policy gives a huge (if medically necessary) advantage to women who are pregnant and give birth. Fathers, adoptive parents of all stripes, and anyone else who somehow comes into parenting without giving birth misses out on this 6-10 weeks of paid time off.
    • The following hilarious excerpt comes directly from our staff handbook: “In January, 2010, the […] Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommended that postpartum leave following a normal uncomplicated delivery of a healthy term baby be 12 weeks in order to provide ‘the best outcomes for women, infants, and their families’. University Human Resources supports this concept and the well being of children and families, but limits the amount of time-off which is covered by pay.” In other words, HR is open about the fact that policies are not consistent with the recommendations made by the doctors and researchers at this institution’s health system.
  • Sick Time: Employees may use regular sick time to care for a child.
    • Regular sick time can be used for childcare only within the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child.
    • Sick time is granted in a block of time each year. It does not accrue, but is renewed each year on the anniversary of your start date…so like with FMLA, timing can screw you over, or help you double up on your paid sick time.
  • Vacation: Of course, any employee can use vacation time at their discretion (with the supervisor’s OK). At our institution, vacation time accrues for a pretty long tiem, but eventually reaches a limit.
    • You are required to exhaust all paid vacation time before taking any unpaid leave for childcare.
    • Vacation continues to accrue while you are on sick, vacation, or unpaid FMLA leave. Can’t remember if vacation continues to accrue on a 6 or 12 month unpaid childcare leave and don’t have the will to look into it now.

Got all that? So, here’s how my leave breaks down:

  • 2 days vacation waiting for baby to be born
  • 3 weeks regular sick time (FMLA leave starts here, from the first day we have the baby in our care)
  • 2 weeks back at work(!)
  • 4 weeks vacation
  • 2-3 weeks back at work
  • 3-4 weeks vacation (this still feels very far away)

Because our daughter is adopted, I do not qualify for any extended sick/disability leave. And, since the policies in general are not in my favor here, I am exploiting them to my advantage wherever possible. For example, if I were on  extended disability leave after childbirth, I wouldn’t be able to bounce in and out of the office like this. I would have to (from a medical and an employer standpoint) take my 6-8 weeks all at once. But FMLA/vacation time allows me to do this, and my co-workers and supervisors have been incredibly flexible and supportive. And so I am doing it.

Here’s the thing: this adds up to about 11 weeks of paid leave time. On the surface, this looks like what we think of as a typical generous (for the U.S.) paid maternity leave. From the outside, it would not raise any eyebrows. This is the kind of leave that makes people think our employer offers maternity leave. 

But. It actually requires me to use an entire year’s worth of sick time–lucky, lucky, lucky I rarely get sick and have never had a serious injury so I still have so much left to burn at the end of my work year–and EIGHT WEEKS OF VACATION that I have banked by never, ever, ever taking all of my vacation days over the FIVE YEARS that I have worked here.

In other words, it is only through a unique combination of good luck and some foresight on my part that I have any paid time off at all. If I had, say, broken my wrist and had the flu this year, and taken all of my vacation time every year since I started work (which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do!) I would have ZERO DAYS of paid time off after the arrival of my infant daughter.

And, for that matter, if we ever have a second child, that’s probably very much what it will look like. With one child in the house now, we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re ever going to be able to bank sick and vacation time like we have in the past. We’re going to be using it, all the time. Which means if we adopt again, we will be looking at something more like one or two weeks of accrued vacation. At most.

No paid leave after the birth of a child is not enough, for anyone, anywhere. At a large public institution widely recognized for its generous benefits coverage, it is incongruous and, frankly, shocking.

And while everyone I work with has been amazing, I know in my heart that this joyful and supportive spirit is, at least in part, because this is our first child and we have been waiting so long for this moment. Practically speaking, we should have the same leave options available for our third child as for our first. But I wouldn’t expect all of my co-workers to so enthusiastically embrace this, if I pulled it three times in four years (unlikely).

Counting on the goodwill of people–even the very best people, which my colleagues are–is not enough.

We need better policies. But we’ll never get there if it’s not widely known–even among employees!–that we need them. I have worked at the same place for five years, and because of the way we talk about maternity leave, I assumed for that entire time that our employer offered a standard 12 weeks paid leave. That we were doing better than the nation at large, when it comes to family leave policies.

We aren’t. The misleading blanket term “maternity leave” covers all manner of scenarios, a huge range of cobbled together bundles of paid and unpaid leave. Why don’t we say so? Why do we say people are on maternity leave when our staff handbook explicitly states that our institution offers no such thing?

I had no idea that my colleagues, like me, were using their vacation, their sick time, or taking unpaid leave (though many of the moms among them probably also benefited from extended disability leave after childbirth).

I am highly aware of the privilege of taking so much time off of work, paid. I am also highly aware that, barring policy changes, I will never have this opportunity again. So, let’s be transparent when we talk about these things:

This is not maternity leave. 


4 thoughts on “This is not maternity leave

  1. Not noted in the above is that if you have less than a year of service at your employer, you are not eligible for FMLA. I recently learned that this affected a friend who had her second child in her first of employment there. Zero paid leave except what she could cover between vacation and sick time.

    My employer guarantees 6 weeks’ paid leave to employees on the birth or adoption of a child. No extra time if you have a c-section, as I did. We’re guaranteed the 12 weeks’ protection under FMLA, but that runs concurrently with the 6 weeks’ paid leave. Librarians have no sick time in the way that most places have sick time – if you’re sick, you take time off, and it’s not a problem until it becomes a problem. So missing a few hours here and there for doctor’s appointments before you give birth is no problem, but you can’t use any “sick time” towards your leave. I ended up strategically using half of my vacation and all of my “personal days” (which also don’t really exist in my type of appointment) around the holidays plus 4 additional weeks unpaid to take a total of 14 weeks off.

    All of this was made more hairy by the fact that he came a week early. I’m still not confident that I got the math right, but thankfully HR and my supervisor were flexible and understanding.

    Meanwhile, my partner’s dad’s partner tells me that in Belgium, she got 3 (or was it 6?) months’ paid when their son was born 12 years ago. And in Denmark, my partner’s brother’s partner got a year off paid (though not at full salary) when their son was born in January of last year. And I’m trying to explain how grateful I am because what you and I get is generous for this country.

  2. Pingback: Maternity Leave: a tale in three parts | Chameleon in Boots

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