Column: The hard truth about maternity leave

08/13/2016 9:00 AM |

Vera column 1

I cried earlier this week.

It was Sunday, the first full day I would be leaving little Nora Jane Parpan — born May 19 at a healthy 7 pounds, 1 ounce — in someone else’s care following 12 weeks of maternity leave. 

That time was filled with large pots of good coffee, a baby’s first giggles, teaching my 2 1/2-year-old son how to hold his sister, splashing around a kiddie pool, long trips to Target, tummy time, a load of laundry for what seemed like every household member every single day, and more screenings of “Monsters University” than one family needs to see in a lifetime.

It was a time for bonding, laughing, teaching, learning from and cuddling with two tiny people I created. The days never move so fast as they do when you don’t really have to be anywhere but with the people you love. I could have lived in those wonderful 12 weeks forever.

But maternity leave can also be one of the most stressful, physically painful (The first week of nursing? Cringe) and exhausting things you will ever experience in your life.

I sat still for hours with a sleeping baby in my lap, my stomach growling for anything from the kitchen. I shoved my iPhone in my wild toddler’s face at 6 in the morning, desperate for just 20 more minutes of sleep. I called my husband at 5:01 in the afternoon asking when he planned to come home, knowing full well he has never left his job at 5 p.m. in his life. There have been times when I could not even tell you when I last brushed my teeth. And those big pots of good coffee? I never made it through a full cup before it got cold.

But the stress of finishing all the day-to-day chores while trying to time my kids’ naps together pales in comparison with the big worry. The one that hangs over your head while you’re staring at the ceiling during yet another sleep-deprived night.

Money.

If you’re reading this, you may know that the United States is the only industrialized nation not to mandate any form of paid maternity leave for its citizens. French women get their full salary for 16 weeks. A new Canadian mother gets 15 paid weeks, and many parents are eligible for additional time off at partial pay.

But in the U.S., just 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid maternity leave through their employer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Federal law allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for most new parents. That means a roughly 25 percent cut in a year’s pay for most mothers and fathers who elect to take the full leave.

Then there is the cost of delivering the baby. The rise of high-deductible insurance plans mean many women will find themselves paying thousands of dollars in medical bills, even for a natural, uncomplicated birth. That didn’t happen a generation ago.

Annual out-of-pocket costs rose almost 230 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to a report from The Kaiser Family Foundation.

And for working moms, there is the question of who will take care of the baby after she returns to work. For many, day care and private nannies are an unrealistic option. The median weekly income for American women ages 25 to 34 was $679 in 2014, the last year U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics were available. Child care can easily gobble up more than half that amount.

However, there is some hope that we’re moving in the right direction when it comes to supporting working mothers. In April, New York became the fourth state in the nation to pass a law offering paid leave. It goes into effect in 2018.

When it is fully implemented in 2021, all employees will be eligible for 67 percent of their weekly pay (capped at two-thirds of the state’s average) for 12 weeks. That income will be funded by a tiny weekly payroll deduction on all workers. I certainly won’t miss what amounts to about $1 a week — especially if that enables a single mother to stay home with her newborn.

But more work needs to be done. That could come in the form of further health care reform, paid maternity leave in all 50 states or better tax breaks and subsidies for child care.

Caring for a brand-new baby, whether you gave birth or adopted, is a crazy, exhilarating, exhausting, all-consuming time in life for anyone. Perhaps one day we can make it easier in this country.

The author is the editor of northforker.com. She can be reached at [email protected].

Caption: My daughter, Nora, left, and son Jackson, a few days before I returned to work. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

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