America's Maternity Leave Drought

Cristen Conger

Deborah McClinton/Getty Images

Before we even published this week's podcast on why the United States offers scarce maternity leave options for working moms, the horror stories started pouring in. In anticipation of "Why America Hates Maternity Leave," we asked Stuff Mom Never Told You fans on Facebook whether their maternity leave was straightforward and sufficient, and the resounding answer was, to paraphrase, not by a long shot.

For a quick recap of what it's like to navigate parental leave in the United States, let's start with the most-cited statistic: the United States is one of just two developed countries (Papua New Guinea) to not offer federal paid maternity leave of any kind. The closest the government comes to maternity leave employment protection is through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enacted in 1993, which allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. However, due to numerous exemptions, such as for private businesses with fewer than 50 employees, 40 percent of paid workers in the United States aren't covered by the FMLA.

Listen to the podcast: "Why America Hates Maternity Leave."

That means in many cases, financial and job security around childbirth and adoption are issues left up to new parents to figure out and cobble together. Just take it from American Stuff Mom Never Told You fans with kids:

"I worked for government but no paid maternity leave. I was allowed FMLA but had to use sick/vacation if I wanted income while I was away. I took two weeks off for my first child & one week off for my second child, simply because I couldn't afford to stay home longer." - Abagail

"With my daughter I had to go back to work after 6 weeks unpaid leave. Corporate wanted my supervisor to fire and rehire me (losing all seniority benefits) because I came back to work two days past 6 weeks...Our system is broken. I was lucky we could just manage to scrape by with me taking time off. My husband was lucky if he got 3 days off for [childbirth]." - Rebecca

"I just started a new job and got the call for adoption- I was not eligible for FMLA (have to be employed for 1 year) - so I could only afford to take 2 weeks unpaid leave. Would like to have had much more time to get to know my babies before heading back to work." - Amber

"I was working 70 hour weeks at the time. I was allowed to take up to 8 weeks, but was threatened by HR that I'd probably just be fired if I took more than 4. I decided to fight for my rights and got all 8, but it was extra stress during an already stressful time. The last 4 weeks were unpaid and the first four were funded by my sick days and vacation time." - Ashley

"[Maternity leave was] absolutely not sufficient either time. Six weeks is about 4 weeks sooner than I had been recovered from my surgeries, let alone feeling ready to juggle new motherhood and work." - Monica

"This is so sad. The amount of time and love I put into my students/classroom I wish I could take care of my bills and family when I have a baby but I receive zero pay as a teacher. I am forced to use my sick days and I am new to teaching so I had no time to save for this." - Mandy

"I had my daughter and immediately went back to work. She was in daycare 10+ hours a day with commuting in the city. The daycare told me about first words and steps. I completely missed out on her babyhood and it kills me its something I will never get back. I have never had another one because I wanted the next time to be staying at home with more time but even with short term disability to cover the 6 weeks of recovery it still is not enough and everything else comes out of savings." - Jenny

Contrast this to international listeners' maternity leave experiences:

"I received 6 months at 1/2 pay (paid for by my employee). Was sufficient for me. Most working mothers also qualify for 18 weeks government paid maternity leave (minimum wage)." - Alsion in Australia

"Speaking for my wife... she was ready to head back to work after being off for the year (in Canada you get a year!)." - Kris

"I am Canadian, we get 15 weeks maternity for birth mother's and another 35 weeks parental which can be split between parents. I took it all myself and it was great, but I was ready to go back." - Rebecca

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