New motherhood is a huge undertaking often fraught with sleepless nights, exhaustion, and steep learning curves.
For the more than 40% of American mothers who take unpaid maternity leave, since the federal government doesn’t require employers to pay workers during a parental leave, the situation becomes infinitely more challenging.
“Just buying formula for my baby was awful,” says Krystal Weston, a 27-year-old mother in Durham, North Carolina.
“I hate asking people for money or putting people in a bind, but there were plenty of times where we had to ask my boyfriend’s mum to help us buy formula and diapers because we also had to pay the rent.”
As a dietary aide working in the kitchen of a rehabilitation center in Durham, Weston was granted 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 when she had her baby, Noah, in December 2013.
While the law requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide new parents with 12 weeks of leave, it doesn’t require this leave to be paid. In fact, the US is one of just two countries in the world that doesn’t ensure any paid time off for new mums, according to a report from the International Labour Organisation. The other: Papua New Guinea.
This policy is also restricted to full-time employees who have been with the company for more than a year, which, all told, applies to about 60% of workers in the US.
It’s been 22 years since the FMLA became law, but the needle for workplace and gender equality has moved very little since then. Without the guarantee of paid leave while caring for a child, many new mothers are faced with the choice between economic hardship and returning to work prematurely.
Weston faced this dilemma when she had her son, and she chose to go without pay for almost 12 weeks to take care of him. She didn’t take the decision lightly.
Noah’s father and Weston’s partner, Jamal Mustafa, moved in with Weston after Noah was born to help support the family. As an assistant manager at a clothing store in Durham, he brought home about $US575 per paycheck. The couple’s rent was $US525 a month.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, new parents spend, on average, about $US70 a month for baby clothes and diapers and more than $US120 a month on baby food and formula. Big-ticket items like furniture and medical expenses add up quickly.
“Plenty of nights I would stay up with Jamal and budget out our bills so that we could possibly have some funds left over to save for the next month,” Weston says.
Soon after becoming pregnant, Weston applied for public assistance. She was initially granted $US75 a month on food stamps, which increased to about $US300 a month after she gave birth to Noah, and she used this to buy household necessities and formula.
Since Weston was nursing, she qualified for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to receive free milk, wheat bread, eggs, and cheese. “I was appreciative of anything I could get without having to buy with real money,” she said.
Weston continues to rely on these assistance programs to support her family.
“If I hadn’t had these assistance programs for mothers my maternity leave would have been a nightmare,” she says. “Who wants to worry about money and not knowing where their next meal is coming from?”
Weston says she was hesitant to use her stamps and vouchers at the grocery store, fearing people would assume she was abusing the system. “But,” she says, “I knew it was going to help me and my family so I quickly got over it.”
Unpaid maternity leave was especially trying for Weston because she suffered from postpartum depression.
“In the beginning, I had no idea what was wrong with me. I was crying, angry, moody, sleeping a lot or not sleeping at all,” she says. “So you could just imagine feeling all of those things, and, on top of everything else, worrying about the bills knocking at your door. January and February were the toughest months for me.”
Weston advises expecting mums to make a saving goal for themselves and make sure they do all their homework as regards maternity leave: “I don’t want any new mother struggling and worrying about money while you have this precious gift you also have to struggle and worry for as well!”
When a new mother should be focusing on nurturing her child, she says, the last thoughts she should have swirling around her head are of how she could possibly afford to clothe, feed, and protect this new life.
Unfortunately, thanks to American’s family-leave policies, this is often a reality.
According to a 2012 report from the US Department of Labour on family and medical leave, about 15% of people who were not paid or who received partial pay while on leave turned to public assistance for help. About 60% of workers who took this leave reported it was difficult making ends meet, and almost half reported they would have taken longer leave if more pay had been available.
In the arms race for top talent, extended paid leave for new mums — and new dads — is often used by big businesses as a device to beat out the competition. But most people don’t work in these companies or at the executive level, and currently only about 12% of American companies offer paid maternity or paternity leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That’s down from 17% in 2010.
“Support for motherhood shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a matter of course,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote last year in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “Paid maternity leave is good for mothers, families and business. America should have the good sense to join nearly every other country in providing it.”
Wojcicki reported the rate at which new mums left Google fell by 50% when in 2007 it increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. “Mothers were able to take the time they needed to bond with their babies and return to their jobs feeling confident and ready. And it’s much better for Google’s bottom line — to avoid costly turnover, and to retain the valued expertise, skills, and perspective of our employees who are mothers.”
There’s plenty of evidence that supports the effectiveness of paid maternity leave.
In 2004, California became the first state to implement a paid-family-leave policy that enables most working Californians to receive 55% of their usual salary for up to six weeks, to $US1,104.
Since then, only New Jersey and Rhode Island have actualized similar programs.
According to a report last year from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, more than 90% of employers affected by California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or no noticeable effect on profitability, turnover, and morale.
Another study, from the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, found that women who had taken advantage of New Jersey’s paid-family-leave policy were far more likely than mothers who hadn’t to be working nine to 12 months after the birth of their child.
The study also found these women to be 39% less likely to receive public assistance and 40% less likely to receive food stamps in the year following a child’s birth compared to those who didn’t take any leave.
A study of European leave policies by the University of North Carolina found that paid-leave programs can substantially reduce infant mortality rates and better a child’s overall health.
And research out of The Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) in Bonn indicates higher education, IQ, and income levels in adulthood for children of mothers who used maternity leave, and the biggest effect comes for children from lower-educated households. The researchers cited this as a significant discussion for policymakers to have, as it could reduce the existing gap in education and income in the US.
“The reluctance of conservatives to incentivise women’s work is the only remaining barrier to consensus on paid leave,” Johns Hopkins labour sociologist Andrew Cherlin told Lauren Sandler for this month’s New Republic cover article. “When it gets right down to it, many conservative social policymakers don’t want to further discourage mothers from staying home. That’s the basic reason we don’t have [paid] family leave here when we have it everywhere else.”
Weston jokes that unpaid maternity leave is just a way to make women go crazy.
“Not being paid while taking care of a newborn is just backwards to me. It’s almost like a slap in the face from the US,” she says. “It’s like, ‘OK, you’re having a baby, you’re coming to work faithful while eight months pregnant with swollen body parts, and then we’re not going to pay you!'”
For Weston, to receive no financial support from her employer after she worked a physically demanding job while pregnant cuts deep, she says: “I didn’t feel appreciated or even cared about from my company.”
While Weston is also disappointed with current US policy regarding paid parental leave, she remains hopeful for the future.
“If more women in this country stood up and really showed how unpaid maternity leave affects many of us, I think we would get something accomplished,” she says. “Our leaders of this country really need to take a look at what their people are truly going through.”