I walk into my local London cafe to find my favorite barista behind the counter. She’s glowing and round and tells me today’s her last day before she takes maternity leave. “I’ll see you next year,” she says excitedly. I wish her luck and grab my tea — I’m crying before I get out the door. At the time, I’m 14 weeks along. I’ve just told everyone back home — my family, my friends, and my office — that I’m pregnant. I’ve also just been told by HR that I’ll receive three weeks of paid maternity leave. (Yes, only three.)
In 2014, my husband and I temporarily relocated for his job. While he was hustling in his posh Canary Wharf office, I worked remotely from our tiny flat in North London for a company I’d been with for five-plus years. When I first accepted my position, the company was popular and profitable. They offered a solid work-life balance, generous vacation time, and 12 weeks of maternity leave.
Years later, slick with morning-sickness sweat and planning a return to the States, I was informed that the mat leave policy had changed. Until I asked, no one had notified me, or any of the other women in the office, that the original policy had been scrapped and replaced with a way shittier policy. While I felt their actions were unethical, after some rage-filled Google searches, it turned out that they were completely legal.
In the UK, partially paid statutory maternity leave is 39 weeks, in the E.U. companies are required to give at least 14 weeks partially paid (however, 19 out of 28 member states offer more than that), and in New Zealand mothers receive 18 weeks paid and up to 34 weeks unpaid. But in the United States, you’re lucky to get anything at all.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed in 1993, provides employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year. To be eligible, an employee must work for their employer at least 12 months, punch at least 1,250 hours a year (or an average 24 hours per week), and have more than 50 co-workers. According to the Department of Labor about 40% of employees do not qualify for any coverage because they or their employer do not meet the aforementioned requirements. At the time of my pregnancy, there were fewer than 50 employees in my office, which meant I was legally entitled to nada.
At the time of my pregnancy, there were fewer than 50 employees in my office, which meant I was legally entitled to nada.
So what did I do about it? Nothing, really. I cried into a lot of Chipotle burrito bowls and told my story to anyone who would listen. What else could I do? In truth, it was my own fault. There are no federal laws, other than FMLA, in the United States that protect pregnant women in the workplace. That means I was screwed out of maternity leave because I didn’t know my rights — or lack thereof — before I decided to have a baby.
On the bright side, policy changes (though they may be happening at a glacial pace) are in fact happening. On the federal level, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D – Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y.) have introduced a bill for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would require that employers provide 12 weeks of leave at 66% pay. (The bill was introduced for the second time in 2015, but has yet to make it through the Committee on Finance.) On the state level, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have passed paid leave laws; and in 2018, New York will join them in offering paid leave to employees.
Losing nine weeks of maternity leave sucked. It’s heartbreaking to worry about returning to work when there are more important things to worry about: leaky boobs, a torn vagina, and — oh, yeah! — a brand-new human whose life depends on you. With any luck, my daughter won’t deal with the same bureaucratic nonsense when she decides to have children. Perhaps by the time she’s ready to pop, the United States won’t be the only industrialized nation in the world without family leave.