Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Value of Family

Today is a sort of mini milestone. Five months ago, I began my maternity leave. These five months have been a real blessing. They have allowed me time to really get to know Cupcake and settle her into a good routine, not to mention the fact that I have been able to spend more time with Crumpet and help her adjust to her new role as big sister. And I still have over six months of maternity leave left.

I admit that I haven't done that much research into U.S. maternity benefits, but from what I understand there is no law that stipulates that an employer must provide paid maternity leave. As far as I know, most businesses or organizations allow a maximum of twelve weeks, but this time off is not always paid. I'm sure there are exceptions (in fact, just today, there was a feature on the Today Show's website about this very issue), but many of my American friends have had to return to work a mere six weeks after giving birth. When I had Crumpet, I could barely walk for at least two weeks. And I don't think I got a decent night's sleep for at least three or four months, when her colic subsided. Women need time to adjust emotionally to being mothers, and babies need time to bond with their mummies. At six weeks old, the world is still brand new to them. And six weeks after giving birth, a woman's hormones are still all over the place. I could not imagine trying to juggle the demands of work and the needs of a newborn at the same time. And although I don't judge anyone for the choices they make for the benefit of their families, I personally could not imagine handing my six-week old baby over to a nursery or child minder.

My school paid me my full salary for the first six weeks of my maternity leave and 50% of my salary for the next ten weeks. From seventeen weeks to nine months, I am being paid the government's statutory maternity benefit, which is less than £500 a month (but at least it's something!). I can take another three months off at no pay, but I retain my job and my management position. Men are also entitled to two weeks of paternity leave (whether or not it is all paid depends on the company, as far as I know). When I go back in February, I will have taken just over eleven months off. This, however, is nothing compared to the maternity benefits women are entitled to in other parts of Europe. In Sweden, for example, women and men can share parental leave of up to 16 months at at least 75% of their salaries. (Anyone who is Swedish and reading this, please correct me if I am wrong on this.) Slovenian women are entitled to 12 months at 100% pay. Spanish, Polish, and Hungarian women can take up to 3 years off, unpaid, and retain their jobs. This all seems so much more civilized to me than the American system. For a country that prides itself on family values, it certainly doesn't seem to place much value on the family unit. It shouldn't be so difficult for women (or men -- I am certainly not one to assume it is always the woman in the role of primary caregiver) to take time off from work to be at home with their children in the formative years.

This is a contentious issue, I know, and not everyone will agree with me. Some women, for various reasons, may choose to go back earlier that I am, but that is their choice. And I am so thankful to live in a country where I am even given that choice.

These five months haven't always been easy. Contrary to my boss's sarcastic comment when I left in March that he hoped I would enjoy my "holiday," I have not been sitting around with my feet up all day. Keeping a three-and-a-half-year-old entertained without over-tiring a newborn has been a challenge. Sometimes I have craved a few hours of child-free adult company. And even with The Other Half working and my maternity benefits still coming in, we've had to pinch a few pennies. But I wouldn't trade this time with my girls for anything in the world. This year is something I can't even begin to put a price tag on.