BY KRISTEN COREY | Program planner, Iowa Commission on the Status of Women

I remember the moment clearly. It was the moment I realized things were different for women in the working world than they were for men.


I was 25, newly married and had just started my first professional job. I spent my first several days at a human resources retreat where the HR professional went over things new employees needed to know such as paid leave, workplace policies, and so on. The HR professional quickly went over the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and being a young woman who was thinking of having kids within the next several years, I asked about maternity leave policies.


The HR professional looked at me and gave a short laugh. “Maternity leave?” she asked. “Well, you just use your accrued sick and vacation time.”


I thought for a moment. “What if I get pregnant in the next several months or I’m currently pregnant?” I asked. At that time, my vacation and sick leave accrued at a rate of approximately 8 hours every two weeks.


Her reply: “My advice to you over the next year? Don’t get pregnant.”


I remember leaving the retreat thinking about that: “Don’t get pregnant.” A line said with no ill intent, but still it sticks with me to this day. I left the retreat worried about getting pregnant and being forced out of my job because I would not have protection under FMLA for the first year of my employment. As a new professional starting a job, that is a scary feeling.


When I applied for my current job, I was pregnant with my second child, a child that we had not planned. I was three months pregnant when I interviewed for the job, and I made sure to wear the baggiest suit I could find in an attempt to hide my pregnancy for fear I would not be hired. (Spoiler alert – I got the job).


I’m sharing these experiences because my story as a young professional is similar to stories I hear from other women. Luckily for me, while pregnant, I was able to keep my job and receive paid leave for at least half of my maternity leave. Other women are not so lucky and may have to go back  to work within a short time of giving birth in order to put food on the table for their families and pay for a roof over their heads.


I would like to say this situation is not commonplace, but research points to the fact the U.S.,  in comparison with other countries throughout the world, is not a very friendly place when it comes to maternity or family leave. A study conducted by Heymann and McNeill (2013) showed that of 186 countries examined, the U.S. is the only high-income country, and one of only eight countries in the world, that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns. According to a separate study (International Labour Organization, 2010), nearly every member of the European Union provides at least 14 weeks of job-guaranteed paid maternity leave to new mothers, during which those mothers receive at least two-thirds of their regular earnings.


So why is paid maternity leave such a big deal?


1) There can be health implications for mother and baby: This practice of women returning from maternity leave before they are physically ready can not only hinder bonding with the child, establishing good breastfeeding habits, and allowing a new mother to adjust to her role as a parent, it can affect her own health and well-being.


2) With paid maternity leave comes increased income stability for families: An estimated 40 percent of American households are headed by mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner. Forcing a new mother to take unpaid leave for 6-8 weeks could leave that family without food or the guarantee of shelter after the baby’s birth, forcing that family to skip mortgage payments, or end up homeless.


3) Ability to retain trained, educated employees: In an economy where both the public and private sector are fighting to retain trained, qualified workers, what better way to show your workers that you are a worker-friendly employer than by offering paid maternity (or family) leave?


And finally,


4) It’s the right thing to do. Period.


As a country, we vocally support “family values”, but it is not always the case that we support policies that value the family. It’s time to take care of our mothers (and fathers) for giving birth to and raising the next generation. That’s a service all of us can be thankful for.


Kristen Corey leads the Office on the Status of Women at the Iowa Department of Human Rights; however, this article is her own opinion, and may not represent the opinions of the State of Iowa. Corey also received a master's degree in sociology and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University, where she started her career as an academic researcher for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She later worked for the Iowa Department of Human Services and then moved to her current position to follow her passion for working with and for women and girls. She and her husband have two small children and are constantly renegotiating roles as working parents.


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