The maternity leave myth

Not all working mothers take maternity leave, and those who do take it often don’t even take the full amount. And a worrying number of women around the world aren’t actually entitled to paid leave at all.

Out of 188 countries that have recorded data, there are 8 that don’t offer any paid parental leave. The USA is one of them, along with Suriname, Tongo, and Liberia. It’s a surprising one, considering it is among the 28 richest countries in the world. In fact, the US is the only wealthy country that does not offer paid maternity leave (or paternity leave, for that matter, which I touched on here). There are an unpaid twelve weeks on the table at a federal level. Some companies offer paid leave, but it’s not enforced or even expected. Often, for practical and cultural reasons, it is the father that continues to work while the mother takes what time is feasible given their wages and budget.


In the USA, 40% of women are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The criteria state that covered employers can only offer maternity and paternity leave. A covered employer entails a private-sector employer that has 50 or more employees (along with some requirements over workweeks), public agencies, and those who work at elementary or secondary schools. From there, employees within this must also be an eligible employee. So they must work for a covered employer, must have worked a minimum of twelve months for that employer, and has worked at a location that has a minimum of fifty employees within 75 miles. Once you boil it down, the FMLA only covers 14% of working women.

This is leave, by the way. Not pay. That’s not included, unless you happen to work for a company with really good packages. Maternity leave and pay is also something that is not a right that is extended to low-wage workers on zero-hour contracts.


This isn’t without consequence. The USA has the highest infant mortality (a child dying before it turns one) out of 28 of the world’s richest countries. It’s hard to pin infant mortality on one particular cause. But data shows that children born in wealthier families have a higher survival rate than children from poorer families. Of course, there is no direct link from no paid maternity leave to infant mortality, but it certainly won’t help. Round the clock care from parents in the first stages of life is crucial to development and life expectancy. With one in four women heading back to work within ten days in the states, it begs the question if unpaid maternity leave policies are putting babies at risk, as well as the mothers.

For some, the concept of maternity leave is synonymous with a break. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, the doctrine permeates political conversations about paid maternity leave – and provides leverage against it. “Why should they get paid for doing nothing?” is a harmful doctrine that overlooks the struggles new mothers go through. Maternity leave is far from sitting around sunning yourself. It is sleepless nights, cleaning up messes, and generally having your life tipped upside down. It’s basically just like work except there’s more vomit involved.


Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is one that awaits women after they return to work from parental leave. Some women returning from work find that their roles have changed – and not for the better. Rather than a momentary lull in working, some employers regard it as a huge gap that ought to be taken into consideration when it comes to furthering on in a position or changing jobs. Put simply, women often get marginalised at work for taking time off to have and care for children. This is a global problem, not something just restricted to the states. Women who don’t already have children also face stigmatisation in the workforce on the assumption that at some point she will leave to have children. Surprisingly, it’s this facet that gets used to build up an argument against maternity leave rather than for.

But the problems women face after returning from paid leave shouldn’t be a reason to decry the concept of parental leave. These issues are deeper stemmed into the notion that women should remain as the primary caregivers, and that they’re not as committed to their jobs, rather than there being a problem of giving paid leave. Women who worked within supportive company cultures that looked after them during their maternity leave reported that they had “a renewed energy and focus for their work, a feeling of being valued, and enhancement of professional relationships.” This problem was never leaving in the first place, it has always been misconceptions and prejudices against women who do leave that have caused problems in the workforce, and helped to stigmatise parental leave.


Times do seem to be changing. There has been some talk of introducing six weeks of paid maternity leave at a federal level. The Republican party advocates family values, so it made sense but was still met with considerable backlash from a number of party members and supporters. It may take a while yet for the wheels to be set in motion, but the tides are slowly turning. Globally, while other countries still have considerable amounts of maternity leave, women still find themselves struggling to re-enter the workforce after taking time out to care for their children. However, this too seems to slowly be slipping away as attitudes towards working mothers have changed.

We’ve written other stuff as well. You can check out our other articles here.

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