Despite individual preference to either lean in or out, America's pregnant workers are all at a disadvantage when it comes to family leave time after bringing baby home, particularly when compared with the rest of the planet. The U.S. is only one of a mere handful of countries that do not mandate paid, family leave time for its work force. Men don't have it much better, often facing derision or resentment from colleagues when leave is requested after the birth of a baby or an adoption takes place.
A world-wide leader falls behind
The 20-year old Family and Medical Leave Act has not kept pace with either the needs of American families just starting out or with businesses striving to remain competitive and solvent in today's global arena. FMLA requires all public agencies and companies with 50 employees or more to provide three months of unpaid leave for impactful situations including the birth of a baby or adoption, without cessation of medical benefits or the threat of job loss. Disability benefits are sometimes accessible to workers during this unpaid period, yet rarely supply more than a bandage over the resulting financial hemorrhage.
Designed to support work-life balance for the American workforce, FMLA falls woefully short, both for families who are struggling financially and for those who are monetarily solvent and wish to continue climbing the corporate ladder, without losing out on the joys of new parenthood. Men and women requesting leave are often met with resentment from employers, who either doubt their commitment to their jobs or distrust that they will return at all.
Those taking leave often feel the need to keep involved at work during leave, for fear they will permanently lose ground in their careers. The unending stress caused by this multi-tasking lifestyle may adversely affect not only the precious bonding experience between parent and child but also reduce the amount of time infants are breastfed. With one foot at home and the other at work, parents find themselves harried, exhausted and unable to be completely present in either place, resulting in decreased productivity and creativity as well as a bone-crushing increase in anxiety and guilt.
The impact on American families
Katrina Alcorn was one such mom. Despite an enviable job and supportive spouse, Alcorn suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after the birth of her second child during a diaper run. This experience became the catalyst for her book, "Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink." Alcorn knew she was luckier than most women in the workforce, as she had some paid leave after the birth of her second child, yet she acutely felt the pressure of going back to work too soon. "Our current system forces us to choose – be a mother or have a great career. It's very hard to have both unless you have a lot of money to pay for help and don't mind being away from your baby for 50 or more hours a week," she says. "Lower income families struggle terribly as they often have rigid schedules, no paid sick time and lack of affordable child care options, while professional families like mine may have better benefits but struggle with the expectation to work long hours in order to build our careers," she adds.
Dads wishing to be more involved at home often hit a wall of resentment from higher-ups and lose professional ground, raises and promotions. "When you are a professional, there is a feeling that FMLA leave is a boondoggle, resulting in employers being officially accommodating, yet maintaining an unwritten air of disapproval about your request for paternity leave," says Edwin Lyngar, a parenting blogger and married dad who wanted to take paternity leave after the births of his two children. Lyngar and his spouse had high-paying jobs and were able to hire an au pair for three years to fill in the gaps, although Lyngar's wife did ultimately opt to leave her job as an attorney. "I struggled with my employer who questioned my leave because I was the dad," he says. "My wife and I had the best benefit packages America has to offer, yet we still had to push to get what we felt our children deserved."
The impact on American business
Despite FMLA's lofty goal of supporting corporate America, our current system also turns a blind-eye to the needs of companies who would benefit greatly from a corporate culture supportive of increased workplace flexibility and solutions addressing their employees' needs outside of the office as well as their accomplishments within it. Paid time off, flex time options and amenities like on-site childcare and breast feeding rooms would inhibit attrition, enhance the ability of working moms to participate fully in the workforce, grow their careers and keep an eye on their company's bottom line as seasoned employees, while simultaneously tamping down the understandable feelings of guilt they might experience about not spending enough time with their families.
It would also eradicate the all-too-common, creativity-sapping resentment many feel towards unbending employers. This upside pertains to dads as well. "Research shows that fathers who stay home early on have stronger relationships with their children for life," says Alcorn, who believes strongly that part of the problem is a cultural perception that family leave is a woman's issue only. "If more dads were comfortable taking family leave, flexibility would no longer be just the mom's issue and employers would have more incentive to meet the needs of parents," she says.
Turning new parents into financially strapped hamsters on a wheel does nothing to support either strong families or strong businesses. Of course, many of the strains associated with bringing a baby home cannot be mitigated by an enhanced leave package. However, giving men and women across all financial strata the opportunity to support themselves while growing their families, as well as continuing to contribute to the workforce with confidence, is an attainable goal. It may be time to rethink our current, stingy policy and fully address the needs of the American workforce.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.
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