We didn’t exactly have a plan when it came to me going back to work. The funding for my job ran out a week before I went into labor. I wasn’t too bothered– If I was going to be laid off, the timing seemed kind of serendipitous. The job didn’t offer paid maternity leave anyway. Plus it was really intense: I wasn’t sure I could handle that and a baby too.
You see, our first few months as parents were a little rocky. Our son cried– constantly, inconsolably– for hours. He was tired, and yet hardly slept. He had major challenges with latching on and nursing. He was hungry, yet barely ate. He was gassy and/or maybe colicky. He had ear infections. It took us and our pediatrician three months to figure out that he was having horrible acid reflux every time we tried to lay him down, and by then our nerves were completely frayed. Why do we have such a miserable baby? I thought he must have been switched at birth, because this sure isn’t what I ordered. There were a lot of tears at that time– and many of them mine. I couldn’t have imagined going back to work then.
After eight weeks of unpaid leave, my husband went back to his job. The leave was unpaid because his employer had been bought out the year before, and in addition to some other changes, the new owners had gotten rid of the company’s family leave benefit. Eight weeks might sound like a long time, but it was over before we even knew what happened. We still had a fussy, temperamental baby to contend with, and with both our families hundreds (or thousands) of miles away, most of the baby and house things were going to fall on me now. I quickly realized just how much my husband had been doing during those 8 weeks as my workload doubled.
I know we should feel grateful that he/we could take time off at all– not a lot of families could weather being totally income-less for two months– but after my husband went back to work, I didn’t feel particularly grateful. I felt angry. And I felt cheated. Here’s why:
The United States is one of only a few countries IN THE WORLD which does not guarantee any paid time off for new parents.
The best we’ve got is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which means you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off and your boss isn’t allowed to fire you for it. But according the International Labour Organisation, most countries provide maternity or family leave policies to their citizens– and it’s not a “benefit,” it’s a right everyone has guaranteed by law. Canada, for example, offers 17 weeks of maternity leave at half your regular pay. Italy offers moms 5 months of leave at 80% pay. Brazil offers 120 days of paid leave for either parent at 100% of your wages. But Sweden takes the cake with a particularly awesome family leave policy: parents are entitled to 13 months of paid leave (per child) at 77.6% of the parent’s monthly salary (up to $3,400 a month). Oh, and weekends are included in these paid days off too (which makes it more like 16 months)– you know, because Sweden recognizes that caring for and raising the next generation is important work that deserves compensation.
If that weren’t reason enough to be green with envy, many countries like Sweden also offer universal child care programs to working parents (92% of Swedish families choose to make use of their country’s state subsidized childcare programs and go back to work after 13 months).
Three weeks ago, I started back to work. My son is 6 months old now. He’s amazing, smiley, giggly, and doing new things every day. While I’m excited about my job, I’m sad too to be leaving him in someone else’s care all day, every day. I’m sad that I’ll only get to see him mornings, nights, and weekends (if I’m lucky). I’m astonished by the $225 a week it costs to have him in quality daycare (multiply that by the number of brothers or sisters my little one might have in the future, and it’s no small wonder so many of us stay home with the kiddos)!
See, the thing is, I want to be home with my kid– I want to spend time with him, teach him things, experience what he experiences, and cherish these moments when he’s small– part of the time, anyway. But I also want to be able to work, to make my own money, and to have some sort of a life and identity outside of my kid. I don’t want this phony “balancing work and family” crap, which really just means you’re supposed to work 8-10 hours outside your house, and then six or seven more when you come home. I don’t want that life where I’m constantly overworked, overtired, and too short-tempered to be the sort of mom (or the sort of person) I want to be.
I’ve got spit-up on my shirt, work emails dinging on my phone, and I haven’t showered or changed my pants in four days. I’m too tired to preach. My brain is too fried to think of a solution. But I know it isn’t this way in other places. I know it doesn’t have to be this way here. I know American parents deserve more.