Marissa Mayer is pregnant — but she’s about to have two new babies, Yahoo! and a son. Mayer, who is expecting her first child in October, was recently named the new CEO of Yahoo! The company has gone through many public struggles over the past year and it appears there's another yet to go through: the Mayer maternity leave debacle.
In an interview with Fortune magazine, Mayer commented on her plans for maternity leave, “I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it."
This sent the mommyverse into a tailspin. Some mothers praised her determination and work ethic, others denounced her decision as selfish and mourned for the son who won’t spend much quality time with his mother while others think she’s going to be in for a rude awakening once her son is here and she won’t have time to work at all.
Unfortunately, none of this surprised me. There is a lot of judgment in mommyland. I admit, I’ve been guilty of it in the past, so I try hard to not judge when another mother makes a decision that I didn’t. However, when I read about Mayer’s decision to work through her short maternity leave, I was more interested in the state of parental leave in this country than I was in Mayer’s personal decision.
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) governs parental leave on a federal level. FMLA requires that companies grant 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to eligible employees after the birth of a child. However, there are so many clauses attached to this law that it is hard to determine if you even qualify for it.
For example, FMLA exceptions are applied to companies with less than 50 employees and individuals who have been employed at the same company for less than 12 months. Additionally, if both parents work at the same company, this 12 weeks is shared between the two of them. So mom takes eight weeks to recover from a C-section and dad only gets four weeks to help out with mom.
To make matters worse, this is unpaid leave. In today’s economy, the vast majority of working families cannot possibly survive three months without the mom’s paycheck.
Some companies go above and beyond the FMLA requirements though, and offer extended paid leave options. It is not uncommon for companies to offer new moms a six-week paid leave of absence. Other companies help employees manage vacation days, flexible holidays, personal time off and short-term disability to ensure that the paychecks keep coming during the maternity leave.
Unfortunately, this is a woefully inadequate approach to parental leave. In fact, the United States’ approach to parental leave lags far behind other industrial countries — embarrassingly far behind.
In Canada, employment insurance (EI) will provide maternity and parental leave during the pregnancy, after the birth of the child and also to families that adopt a child. Maternity benefits are payable for a maximum of 15 weeks while paid parental benefits can last for a maximum of 35 weeks. Payment is about 55 percent of insurable weekly earnings up to a max of $485 per week.
Britain has statutory paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Although paternity leave is typically only one or two weeks, the father can share hours that the mother doesn’t use. For example, if the new mom doesn’t use all of her 52-week maternity leave, she can share this time with the father. That’s right, the standard maternity leave in Britain is 52 weeks. A far cry from the six weeks that the typical American mother receives.
While researching maternity leave in other countries, I came across a report originally published in 2008 and revised in June 2009. Published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CERP), the study examined parental leave policies in 21 high-income countries (PDF).
The United States ranked 20 out of 21 of those countries on the issue of protected job leave. FMLA grants 24 weeks of combined protected parental leave while Switzerland’s parental leave is restricted to 14 weeks. The Swiss may have it better, though, because up to 80 percent of the mother’s pay is provided during the leave period — far better than the prospect of 24 weeks without pay here in the United States.
While Mayer’s decision to work through her maternity leave may have sparked another war of words between moms, I think the issue should be more about the state of parental leave in the United States than the age-old working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate.