Paid family leave: It’s about freaking time

When my daughter was 18 months old, my father and I went head to head on the subject of paid parental leave. I argued that employer- and/or government-subsidized leave was beneficial for, well, basically the entire nation since it would allow parents time to bond with their child and start to recover from the life-altering event of bringing a tiny human into the world.

Paid leave would provide–literally provide for in actual money– a less stressful time away from work, and lay the foundation for parents to return to work as productive employees and for babies to do their baby business with a caretaker after they’re well into their infancy.

My father argued that he shouldn’t have to pay for someone’s “vacation” to take care of a baby. (I’m well aware of how he was effectively arguing against parental leave for me, his daughter, to take care of my daughter, his grand daughter; he did not seem aware of this. I then argued that, well, maybe I shouldn’t have to pay for his state pension, but I digress.) My point is that here in the United States, we don’t have any sort of blanket parental leave, paid or otherwise, and that is much to our detriment as a society.

Currently only four states offer paid leave–California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York. Look at those blue states giving those families love! Washington state, which I currently call home, is ramping up funding for what will be the most generous paid parental leave program, with up to 16 weeks paid time off that will cover not only parental leave but also medical leave. It’s almost like taking care of your citizenry is a good thing… maybe it’ll catch on in red states? The Washington state paid family and medical leave program will start in 2020, which almost makes me want to have another baby.

Beyond state-paid leave programs, it’s up to businesses to offer leave benefits, and one company is going above and beyond to make the transition back work after baby much easier. In a viral facebook post from January 8, Beth Wood Shelton described what one private business has done about the parental leave conundrum.

Shelton works for the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa (GSGI), which is now offering the Infants-at-Work program allowing mothers, fathers, and guardians to bring their babies to work until they’re 6 months old (or until they’re crawling). WHAT?! When I read about this program I felt so seen.

When I had my daughter 6 years ago, I took off as much time as I could to stay home with her. I burned through all my vacation time, exhausted my short-term disability pay (luckily I had a c-section so I got more paid time than if I had delivered “naturally”?), and budgeted for a few weeks of unpaid leave.

I was able to cobble together 14 weeks of time away from work, and I fully acknowledge that my privilege allowed for this amount of time off. My daughter was born with hip dysplasia and double inguinal hernias, so much of my leave was spent going to pediatric orthopedic appointments and helping my 12-week old recover from hernia surgery in time to start daycare.

When I had my son 3 years later, the bulk of my time off was through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which is the program enacted in 1993 to provide up to 12 weeks of UNPAID job-protected leave. (Again, my privileged ass was able to afford unpaid leave for 12 weeks–it was not without stress, but it was doable. Not many families can do that, just take a peek at dire consequences of the current government shutdown.)

After I exhausted my vacation time when my daughter was born, I was never able to accrue enough vacation time for when my son was born 3 YEARS LATER. Oh, and also? My pay has never recovered. Since my raises are based on time worked, which is measured by when my company is paying me (not necessary for when my ass is actually working), I’ll never be paid at the level as if I’d never had children, or at the level of my male colleagues who have children but didn’t take leave.*

What the GSGI Infants-at-Work program aims to achieve is, simply put, EQUALITY and EQUITY for working parents and guardians. This program acknowledges what a recent New York Times article shines a spotlight on:

“To achieve greater pay equality, social scientists say — other than women avoiding marriage and children — changes would have to take place in workplaces and public policy that applied to both men and women.”
The New York Times, “The Gender Pay Gap Is Largely Because of Motherhood”

Short of the U.S. government seeking funding to provide paid family leave (and, hey, let’s throw in that subsidized child care while we’re at it), programs like GSGI’s Infants-at-Work fill that gap, support families, and help with employee retention in one fell swoop.

Programs like this could help alleviate the stress many parents face when having a baby and trying to figure out how to take leave and how to return to work and not blow up their lives, financially and otherwise. These kind of programs encourage bonding, breastfeeding, and not fucking losing your mind over how to pay bills, get enough sleep, and care for a tiny human.

And frankly they just acknowledge that women can have babies AND be professionals–the two are not mutually exclusive–AND we should not be punished financially for wanting to be BOTH. Because here’s the thing: when you pay people, they will continue to want to work for you and make you money. Maybe this is a concept the government would like explore?

*My company now offers 6-weeks paid leave in addition other leave options.