The Fight For Better Maternity Leave

Do you know what Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Afghanistan have in common? They all offer a more generous leave policy than the U.S. But experts say there's hope for our families. This is what we all can do.
maternity leave

After Michelle Rogers gave birth, she stayed home with her baby daughter for nearly six months. Rogers, an attorney at BuckleySandler LLP in Washington, D.C., was paid for 18 weeks of maternity leave and four weeks of vacation time. She checked in with colleagues occasionally and visited the office once with her baby. But she didn't feel pressured to keep up with e-mail or other job tasks.

By the time Rogers returned to work, she was rested and ready. "My daughter was sleeping through the night," says Rogers. She was grateful to not have to leave her baby when she was a newborn, and the longer leave allowed Rogers to make a more informed decision about her child-care needs. "I am much better at my job knowing that my child is well cared for," she says. Rogers also feels confident that her career won't suffer due to her time off. "The policies at my firm make me feel valued, and it's not just limited to me as a parent. Obviously everyone, parents or not, has life issues that arise. We are better workers when we feel secure and appreciated."

Around the same time, Rogers's friend and neighbor -- who asked that her name be withheld -- had her first baby. A cost analyst working for the federal government, she was entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She saved her 58 vacation days so she could continue getting a paycheck during her time off (if she hadn't, she would have received no pay). When she learned that her department was in a bind because a colleague had resigned, the new mom volunteered to return to work part-time three weeks early.

The reward for her loyalty? A drop in rating on her annual review, which meant a smaller salary increase. She says her agency had a policy of not awarding the highest rating to anyone who took extended time off -- which, practically speaking, ended up applying only to moms on maternity leave. "Nobody mentioned this to me until I sat down for my review," she says. "Had I known, I wouldn't have given up part of my leave. I was kicking myself for that." She considered filing a complaint, but felt it was too risky. "It would have helped other mothers in the long run, but it would have killed my career."

Still, she's angry: "I don't think I should be penalized for caring for my newborn child," she says.

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