When I first tipped up in Kansas City from London, 8 months pregnant and trailing my husband’s career, I enjoyed watching the looks of envy when I’d tell people I was on a year’s maternity leave. Thirty-nine weeks of it paid, and a guaranteed job to walk back into at the end of it thanks to a generous progressive company. It was already good by British standards, (statutory is 12 weeks paid), but in the US, the only developed country in the world to not offer paid parental leave, it seemed extreme.
Most of the women I’ve met in Kansas City, took 12 weeks maternity leave, sometimes 16. Some were lucky enough to have employers who offered paid leave, others saved up for it. One woman my husband met was waiting tables two weeks after a c-section. Now I also had an emergency c-section and was advised not to drive a car or even climb stairs for two weeks after. And I didn’t, because frankly it hurt and I was exhausted. And here was this poor woman on her feet all day, carrying heavy plates.
Anyway back to me. I felt so smug. I breastfed. I had a pump but unlike my American sisters I didn’t need to pump in the car, in meeting rooms frantically building up my freezer stash of breast milk. And when the year ended, I weaned my son, and went back to work.
Except then I didn’t feel so smug. I feel completely, and utterly discombobulated. So much had changed. There were new people in new positions. New projects and strategy. And actually I started to feel like I didn’t know myself. I wasn’t sharp anymore. I couldn’t remember anything. I made mistakes on the job. I started to feel like work was doing me a favor by hiring me back. I had loved my job before I left, and now I was struggling.
Before when work was challenging, I responded by working harder, doing longer hours to keep up. But now I didn’t have this “luxury,” I had set hours I could work and then after that I was back to being a full time mum. What’s more I really missed being with my son. I cried on planes taking me on overnight business trips. Hated being in hotel rooms alone. Which was strange since the previous year I’d fantasized about nights of full uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room by myself.
I swung between wanting to quit and fearing that I was about to be fired. I knew I had to do something. So I did what I’ve done so far with any other motherhood challenge, I asked other mothers I knew for advice. Specifically, I asked a mix of American and British working mothers.
It seems everybody I talked to had found the transition back to work hard in some way. But for American mothers their concerns were more about the challenges of combining caring for an infant with working. They didn’t seem to be suffering from a total loss of confidence in their ability to do that job – which is where I was, and where thankfully some of my British mum friends had also been. One of my British friends Sarah confessed she thought it was a case of ‘”plopping back into work mode and being organized. Then I realized I was a completely different person to the one who stopped working.” Another British friend Kylie was putting herself under so much pressure to perform at her pre-baby levels, she was identified as high risk for burn-out by her company and put on a six week cognitive behavior therapy sessions. She credits it with saving her. Both friends said the pressure they were putting on themselves was far greater than necessary and that in reality they were doing much better than they thought they were. But it took time and hard work to pull through.
I have been back at work now 5 months and I’ve taken solace in their words, and the words of this brilliant piece Female Company President: I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with but it got me thinking. A 12-month maternity leave sounds like a dream to most Americans but maybe it’s too long. The American moms I talked to, didn’t feel as out of touch with their working self because they had less time away from it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I don’t think I am going to take a 12 month maternity with number two. Based on my experience, I think the optimal time for me to be away from work lies somewhere in the middle between the two countries. Maybe, a little closer to the UK time but certainly not as long, or longer. I am thinking six months sounds about right.
But actually it’s kind of immaterial now. Because we decided to stay on in Kansas City beyond our initial year, and now I am a U.S. tax payer with no maternity benefits. Like my American friends, whatever I decide to reward myself will be based on how much I can save.
So I started looking into why the U.S. doesn’t offer maternity benefits and found some interesting facts. The biggest barrier to a policy of state or federal funded parental leave is unsurprisingly a fear of increased taxation. However, four progressive states, California, New Jersey, Washington and Rhode Island all have initiated programs to introduce paid parental leave. California already offers 6 weeks paid at 55% of regular wage level. And finally one of the biggest lobby groups against policy in this area is the National Restaurant Association (Guardian, 2014). Yes, that’s right. The same industry where our waitress was waiting tables against medical advice two weeks after a c-section.
I feel privileged that I can choose to work. I know that I am lucky that I can save to give myself a maternity leave. But I also think about that waitress a lot. I worry that my first maternity leave was too long, I know for sure that hers was too short.
The Midwest is a very family friendly place. It’s why we love it and wanted to stay. But where is the state of Missouri or Kansas on parental leave? And what can we do about it? If not for ourselves, but for those who need it most?