Do you know what Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Afghanistan have in common? They all offer a MUCH more generous maternity leave policy than the U.S. However, experts say there's hope for our families. 
maternity leave
Credit: Shannon Greer

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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Among the World's Worst

Women in the United States are penalized every day simply for having babies. This country lags far behind other nations in providing parents with both paid and unpaid leave for childbirth and adoption.

The U. S. is one of only four countries worldwide (the others are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho) that don't offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers; women in 163 other countries, including Rwanda and Afghanistan, have the right to paid leave for the birth of a child. In 45 countries, fathers either receive paid parental leave from their employer or have a right to paid parental leave (with income coming from government funds); our country isn't one of them.

But doesn't the U.S.'s FMLA mean everyone can take time off? No. Less than half (46.5 percent) of private-sector employees are both covered by and eligible for FMLA leave. And even though women make up nearly half the workforce, the number of employers offering paid leave is dropping, due to the economic climate and the high cost of health-care benefits. In 2008, 16 percent of employers provided full pay during the postpartum period, down from 27 percent in 1998.

You might assume that you can use your sick days to get paid during your leave, or receive disability pay. Not necessarily. Just four U.S. states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Washington, and Wisconsin) have laws guaranteeing the use of accrued sick days or other leave to care for a new child. Only five states (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), plus Puerto Rico, have disability-insurance programs providing some pay for employees who are temporarily disabled for non-work-related reasons, including pregnancy and childbirth.

maternity leave
Credit: Shannon Greer

The Crucial Steps to a Better Leave

Here's what you need to do to get the best possible deal from your employer: First, know what you're entitled to. You're covered by FMLA if your company has at least 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius. You must have worked at the company for a year or more and put in at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before the leave. Check your employee handbook to find out whether your employer's plan is more generous than that. But don't be surprised if your employer is less generous than it should be: Some 20 percent of employers are out of compliance with FMLA, estimates the Families and Work Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. This may mean they don't offer leave at all or that they deny employees' legitimate requests for leave time. Some may not even be aware of the law. It's essential that you act as your own advocate.

Once you know your options, crunch the numbers and think about what's financially realistic. Make a decision as a family and be confident about it, says Parents advisor Kyle Pruett, M.D., a child psychiatrist and an expert on family relationships. Go ahead and ask for the max and don't feel bad about it. It's your right and you should exercise it. "Say, ?You're going to get good work out of me -- you always have and you always will," says Dr. Pruett. Doing this will help make it the norm for every mom and dad at your workplace. By standing up for what you want now, it'll be easier down the road when you're asking for flexibility to take your child to the pediatrician and go to teacher conferences.

If funds are really tight or the benefits at your job are skimpy, get creative. Would you be willing to return to work a bit earlier if you could telecommute? Is phasing back to work slowly important to you? Could you take your baby to work or job-share?

Ask for exactly what you want -- and the earlier the better, says Richard Law, cofounder and CEO of Allyis Inc., a technology consulting firm in Kirkland, Washington. "Articulate how it will be beneficial, or at least manageable, to the company, and give as much notice as possible," says Law, noting that extra lead time gives everyone a chance to prepare. "If you can't afford unpaid leave, be ready with a counterproposal." That could mean working from home or modifying your hours. List recent accomplishments and present a plan for how your tasks will be completed while you're out. What will you do before you go? What can a colleague take over? What can wait until you return? Would you be willing to do a trial run? Spell it all out.

Before and after your own leave, support coworkers who take time off. Keep them in the loop about workplace happenings, share your own experiences, and even cover some of their tasks. Julie Janus, a case manager for a foster-care agency in Middleton, Wisconsin, did this when a coworker had a baby. Janus took over five of her coworker's cases, which was difficult on top of her own workload. But she says this ultimately boosted her skills. "The experience helped me build empathy and understanding," says Janus, who now has a 15-month-old daughter of her own.

Is There Hope?

It's one thing to be empathetic to your coworker; it's quite another for "empathy" to be state-mandated. In 2004, the state of California expanded its state disability-insurance program to cover family leave. This means that taxpayers, instead of employers, foot the bill -- a plan that some argue should be adopted by other states. Most employees are deducted only a few dollars per paycheck, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, cofounder and executive director of MomsRising, an advocacy group working to improve family economic security and end discrimination against mothers. (Just 1.1 percent of taxable wages go to the fund, which covers medical disability as well as family leave; the max any employee contributes to this fund is $1,026 a year.) And the money can't be used to plug California's budget holes. "When we're building a nation, an economy, no one entity should have to shoulder all of the costs," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "Sharing that is important. Everybody has a mother; no one is exempt."

There is a business case for stronger leave policies too. "Turnover is not only expensive in terms of rehiring and retraining," says Law. "It hurts morale when people come and go, and intellectual capital is lost. There is real, intrinsic value in having people stay." He supports his team of 210 employees by providing six weeks of paid leave to all mothers and fathers, including those who adopt (sadly, this brief amount of paid time off makes the company a leader among U.S. businesses). "I don?t think employers cut back on benefits to be cruel or miserly," says Law. "They just aren't thinking through the hidden costs of not keeping your culture strong."'

Speak Out!

If you don't live in California or work for a company that sees the value in paid parental leave, what can you do? Get involved. Start by signing up for updates from or another advocacy group whose philosophy matches yours. "Let the group do the hard work of research for you. We know moms are busy -- nearly three quarters of them are in the labor force, leaving them with little time to engage," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "We identify places where moms' voices can make a difference, from taking a few seconds to send an e-mail to testifying in Congress."

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, agrees: "Learn about your rights and stand up for them. Send the message that it's time our laws caught up to the realities of working parents' lives. Become an activist: Write to your federal and state legislators; write letters to the editor; comment on blogs; and share information with fellow parents and coworkers."

Some states, including New York, Oregon, and Washington, are working to provide some paid leave, says Ness. If you live there, be sure to tell your representatives how you feel about paid leave. If you live elsewhere, it's still critical to voice your opinions to your federal and state government reps. (See for a directory with contact info.)

If you're planning to expand your family in the coming years, you may be in luck. "The time is near when we will enact policies that extend paid family and medical leave and other modest, commonsense policies more broadly," says Ness. "There is growing evidence that family-friendly policies improve public health and save taxpayer dollars. At a time when we are fighting new viruses and flus, when more parents are in the workforce than ever, and elder-care responsibilities are growing by leaps and bounds, I believe it is only a matter of time until paid leave becomes available to many, many more workers." That will only happen if you speak up and make it happen -- for yourself, your colleagues, your partner, and your daughters.

Can Dads Take Time Off?

While FMLA applies regardless of sex or adoption status, less than a quarter of employers in the United States offer paid paternity leave, according to the 2008 National Study of Employers, published by the Families and Work Institute. Even fathers with access to leave may not feel comfortable stepping out of the workplace for weeks or months at a time. About half of employed dads take some vacation time or other leave after welcoming a new child, but it lasts an average of only 12 workdays.

Kenneth Sharperson, an attorney who practices in Newark, New Jersey, has taken three paternity leaves of varying lengths. "I am a better dad for taking leave. I also feel like a better employee because my company respected me enough to allow me to take leave, and I work harder when I return," says Sharperson. At press time, his wife was expecting their fourth child.

I'm Adopting. Can I Take Leave Too?

Less than 20 percent of employers in the Families and Work Institute study offered paid leave to adoptive parents. Yet those who adopt are eligible for FMLA under the same terms as those who give birth. Like birth parents who don't have health insurance, adoptive parents may find it even more financially challenging to take unpaid leave: They need income to care for their families, and to pay adoption-related bills. Happily, some companies do offer financial assistance for parents who adopt, along with paid leave time. Wendy's International gives up to $24,300 in assistance and up to six weeks off, for example. Check out for more.

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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