Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Eight is Enough?

In a 4-3 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined yesterday that women are entitled to eight weeks of maternity leave, during which their jobs are protected. Should women extend their maternity leave beyond eight weeks, they are no longer protected by law and risk losing employment. The Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act applies to companies that fall under state jurisdiction, mainly small businesses. Companies with more than fifty employees fall under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows women to take twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave and ensures job protection.

When I had my baby last August, my job allowed eight weeks of "paid" maternity leave, which really meant I cashed in forty sick days, and four weeks of unpaid leave. If I chose, my employer guaranteed to hold my position, or a comparable position, for up to two years without pay and without benefits. Fearing the loss of salary and loss of great health insurance, I returned to work after twelve weeks. It was not long enough. At this point, I was barely physically and mentally ready for work. I had not slept through the night in months, my concentration was compromised, and I felt physically exhausted. My baby was nursing every three hours, which made it extremely difficult to leave her for eight hours or more. I pumped at work, which impacted my productivity and forced my co-workers to pick up my slack time and again. Had I gone back to work any earlier, I do not think I would have survived.

During my junior year of college, I spent a semester in Sweden where I learned about social democracy. While in Stockholm, I became fascinated by their parental-not maternity, but parental-leave policy. Swedish parents are given sixteen months of paid parental leave, which is divided between parents. In fact, the "secondary" parent, usually the father, is encouraged to use two months of parental leave to strengthen familial bonds and foster shared parenting. My husband's company does not even offer paternity leave. He used two weeks of paid vacation after our daughter's birth. Sure, the Swedes give nearly half of their salary to the government, but the social impact of such comprehensive policies makes me question our national priorities.

With many families dependent upon dual-incomes, how are parents expected to nurture and raise kind, thoughtful, and socially responsible children when they spend most of their time at work? How are mothers expected to sufficiently care for their babies and themselves if they return to work after a mere two months? The SJC's latest ruling prioritizes generating money over strengthening families, which seems really backward to me. While other nations, including nations with much lower gross domestic products, move forward with progressive maternity, or parental leave policies, our country seems to lag further and further behind. I am not sure what the SJC was thinking, but do you think eight weeks of maternity leave is truly enough?


  1. I am not familiar with what the policy was in Mass before, but have to say that 8 weeks is not enough. 12 is barely enough! When I do have another child, I am going to try to stretch the limits out of it like no other. It can take 12 weeks in my office just to find someone new to replace you, and another 12 weeks for them to be a useful asset to a team. The extra few weeks it would mean to bonding and recovering, would make you/me infinitely more productive.

  2. Previously, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act still only offered eight weeks of job-secured maternity leave, however people used the law as a grounds for sueing their employers if they lost their job after taking more than eight weeks of leave. This ruling ensures employees cannot use the Maternity Leave Act as a grounds for legal action if they are fired for taking more time off. I guess the Massacushetts Commission Against Discrimination, which enforces the law, also occasionally blurred the lines of the law by giving mamas eight weeks for each baby (so mamas of twins got 16 weeks), and granting leave to fathers (the law states explicitly female employees only). This ruling ensures the law is followed and protects employers from lawsuits. It doesn't reduce the amount of time women are able to use for maternity leave, just makes things more clearly defined.