Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Low Standards

In the past few weeks, I have found myself counseling two different friends who are about to return to work from maternity leave.  The irony of this is not lost on me.  I probably don't carry much credibility telling someone that it all will be okay, when I couldn't hack it myself. 

Neither of my friends are as lucky as I was, though.  As a biglaw associate at the time, I enjoyed an 18 week fully paid maternity leave for both of my kids.  When I tell people this, they are shocked.  18 weeks!  Most people, including my two friends, only get a twelve week maternity leave, only part of which is paid.  Some don't even get that much.  Because other people had it so much worse, I was programmed to carry a huge sense of gratitude about my own maternity leave benefit.  I felt that I couldn't complain, and for the most part, I didn't.

But you know what?  18 weeks sucks too. 

At 18 weeks, your baby is just starting to "wake up."  They are smiling.  They recognize you.  They are bonded with you.  They are becoming little people with preferences and quirks and distinctive sounds.  And as for you?  You are tired.  You may still be breastfeeding. You still aren't completely back to your normal self.  But you are getting used to this new person, this new life, and this new routine.  You are finally starting to enjoy things.  And just as you are getting into the groove, BAM.  Go back to work and find a stranger to take your child.  After the second maternity leave, I couldn't do it.

Wouldn't a bit more time be nice?

It got me thinking about what other countries do.  It's common knowledge that the U.S. leave policy sucks, but how much does it suck?  I was inspired to go to a trusted resource (aka, the internet) to do a brief multi-country survey of government mandated maternity leave.  Here are the results:


U.S. - No guaranteed paid leave.  12 weeks of UNPAID leave  if working at a company with more than 50 employees.  If working at small company (under 50 employees) - nothing.

Sweden - 16 months paid leave.

United Kingdom - 39 weeks paid leave. Unpaid leave of 13 weeks.

Denmark - 1 year paid leave.

France - 16 weeks paid leave, rising to 26 weeks paid leave for third child.  Unpaid leave of 104 weeks.

Finland - 263 days paid leave. Unpaid leave of 3 years.

Germany - 16 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 3 years.

Ireland - 6 months paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 4 months.

Italy - 22 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 26 weeks.

Norway - 56 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 1 year.

Canada - 50 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave dependent on region.

Australia - 18 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 1 year. 

Israel - 14 week paid leave. Unpaid leave of 1 year.

Japan - 14 weeks paid leave.  Unpaid leave of 1 year. 

(*Note that not all of this paid leave is paid at 100% salary)
(*Feel free to correct any of the above as my research for this survey was conducted in approximately 22 minutes).

I could have gone on and on, but you get the point.  (And don't even get me started on the paternity leave policies, that is even more depressing).

This is just ridiculous.

And the worst part?  We as women are made to feel ashamed to complain.  It is considered a sign of weakness, or indicative of a lack of dedication to one's job, to ask for more time off - even unpaid time off.  We are made to feel that we should take what we can get and feel fortunate that we even get anything.  How has this attitude permeated our society?  How is it that this is acceptable?  Shouldn't we be rallying in the streets demanding something more?

Part of me gets it.  I'm not rallying in the streets.  Who has time?  And it seems like such an uphill battle, why waste the precious time that you do have? 

But apart from the time factor, I think there is a shame factor.  Shame about not wanting to return to work, shame about reliance on a husband's income, and shame about putting one's children first.  In a man's world, we as women don't want to appear weak, weepy, or dependent.  This shame factor is, in a word, shameful.  

It is this same shame factor that makes me uncomfortable with telling people that I am no longer a lawyer - that I traded it in to be with my kids as a stay at home mom.  I know I will be judged negatively, by men and women alike - for abandoning my potential, for choosing to be with my children, for relying on a man to support me.  For some reason, in the professional world, it is not a good thing to admit that your kids are your priority.  You need me to work late and miss my kids' bedtime?  Of course!  I am dedicated, damn it.  You need me to limit my vacations to three weeks a year?  Absolutely.  And when I'm gone, I'll be sure to check email hourly.  You need me to come back to work after 18 weeks at home with my newborn?  I'll come back with a grateful smile. 

How did our standards get so low?

Look, I am grateful for the two 18 week paid stints I got from my law firm.  But is it so wrong to ask for a bit more?  Unpaid at least?

I can tell you, that if I could have taken an unpaid maternity leave the likes of which are offered in Europe, I think things would have turned out very differently for me.  And I would have felt no shame whatsoever. 


  1. This post makes me cry. I am about to go back to work after 12 weeks and would do anything to have more time with my baby girl. My job won't give me anymore time (even unpaid), and I can't afford to quit. So she's off to daycare next week. I have no idea how I'm going to do this.

  2. "For some reason, in the professional world, it is not a good thing to admit that your kids are your priority."

    Um -- yes because the clients that are paying you/your firm don't care what your priorities are outside of their work. What exactly were you expecting in a client service business?

  3. Tell people that by leaving your position as a BigLaw attorney that you opened up a new position for another attorney.

    After all, BigLaw positions are scarce and in high demand!

  4. Perhaps it is perceived as "wrong" because it is a personal lifestyle choice to have children. As a chidfree person I would LOVE to have a statutory or contractual entitlement to take some personal downtime paid or otherwise. I do feel that childfree people are discriminated in this sense. I would welcome your thoughts on this.

  5. @2:23- I see what you're saying. But the fact is, taking care of children is FAR from personal downtime. It is a job that has to be done, by somebody. Either it is a parent, or it is hired help (nanny, daycare, etc.). I think most parents, depending on their job, would readily admit that a day home with the kids is much harder than a day at work.

    Though it is a personal choice, society needs people to procreate. So I guess the question is: who is the best person to do that job? The parent? Someone else? If we as a society want to encourage parents to have the opportunity to raise their kids, at least in the short term sense (aka, first couple of years), then there need to be policies in place to promote that. That first year is so crucial for a number of reasons (breastfeeding, bonding, vulnerability of babies, etc.).

    But I hear you - I know some firms offer sabbaticals after five years or so. I would have loved that perk!

  6. I think the biglaw firms (in NYC) do offer long unpaid leave options. It's not uncommon for people to stay out 9 months or a year. At my firm, they are theoretically holding your job for you up to a year (you still have your office, work email, etc.), and you can stay out up to five years with a few stipulations like that you don't work anywhere else on your leave (and less of a feeling of security that they are "holding" your job for you as they take away your email and give away your office).

  7. Complaining that being with the kids is a harder job than working isn't going to get a lot of cred with us working moms, or with the firm. Because when I leave my kids to go to the firm, you can be for damn sure I think it'd be easier to stay at home and take them to the pool, even if doing that would require me to change some dipes, deal with some whining, etc.

  8. @6:23- Point taken - I shouldn't have purported to speak for all moms. From my personal experience, I have found some days (not all days) at home to be harder than my stressful firm days. But everyone has a different experience. I certainly don't want to start a working mom vs. stay at home mom debate. My point was just that being at home with the kids is not "personal downtime," though I will say it is much more personally satisfying than I ever found law firm work to be.

  9. I have thought about the topic of this post about a million times (and continue to do so even though I finally decided to quit my job at the firm at stay home with my girls). With my older daughter, I remember thinking that it finally started to get easier to leave her with a non-parent caregiver at about the one year mark, once she was sleeping through the night regularly (I was not blessed with good sleepers as you have been), walking, communicating a bit, finger feeding, drinking from a cup and (perhaps most importantly) weaned. Once she was, not to put too fine a point on it, no longer a baby. Our society seems to have lost sight of the fact that maternity leave is as much about the growth and development of the child as it is about the healing of the mother. I think we'd be better served to stop viewing maternity leave as "time off" for women, and start recognizing it as a time for infants to grow to the point where they are developmentally ready to be in the full-time care of a non-parent. A few of the other lawyer-moms and I have discussed how the short maternity leave (we get 12 weeks) was even more difficult the second time around, when you're trying to rush your new baby to be as "ready" for daycare/nanny as she can while trying to care for Baby #1 as well. Like you, I suspect that had I had the option to take a full year of leave (paid or unpaid) after each child, I may not have felt so burned out, broken down, and exhausted such that I finally chose to remove myself from the workforce altogether rather than keep working. I also suspect that, in the long run, my choice to stay home permanently cost the firm more money than two longer leaves would have.

  10. Love this article on the subject:

    Penelope is the mastermind behind The Brazen Careerist, and seriously, her writing is so good, and so pointed.

  11. "but i have a law degree" literally my montra!

    i had my kids during law school. never took extra time...worked in clinic, court, then firm with a new born. i worked so hard to keep it all going, for that potential of finding that perfect balance...and having it all.

    i have moved to two different states and have taken 3 different bar exams.

    my children are now 5 and 4. i sat at a playdate with them today, listening to other moms discuss their children's eating habits. and somehow the subject shifted to careers. oh yes, "you're a lawyer, right?"

    it is still the hardest question to answer. letting go and admitting, i'm currently a stay at home mom.

    when i was pregnant in law school i wrote a seminar paper on the "disability" of pregnancy and how women are treated in the work force. how the priority is given to that "client service business"

    funny how every other country in the free world has done better...
    it is still such a loaded question...i still don't have the right answer.
    but thank you, for putting into words how i feel so often.

  12. Totally in favor of more statutory family and or medical leave, I'd be interested in a followup post about the effect those policies have in terms of whether or not mother's are more likely to remain in the workforce and/or end up working closer to the number of hours per-week that they did before having kids in the countries you discuss above with the more generous guaranteed leave.

    Hi, just started reading your blog today, kind of loving it.

  13. @washerdreyer, my thoughts exactly. I got the wonderful 18 weeks too, and took two more unpaid. No pushback, no implications that I shouldn't take it. But I have observed that for me and many other women coming back from leave, it's hard to get fully staffed again. And at law firms, not being fully staffed is the kiss of death. But, this is also during another rotten economy dip, so it's hard to say.

  14. It is obvious that whoever said that maternity leave equals personal down time doesn't have any children. My maternity leave consisted of 6 weeks for my first child, and 5 weeks for my second child, all of it unpaid. I also had to pre-pay for the portion of my insurance benefits that were normally taken from my paycheck. When my son got sick with fever and I was called by Day Care to pick him up, my Boss (a woman) would tell me how she used to give her kids aspirin in the morning if they were sick to mask any fever and then sent them to school so she could get to work. And how proud she sounded for doing this. Do we really need to go this low to have a job.

    I couldn't afford to leave my job but I left anyway. I was looking down by my Supervisor (a woman) and the Director (another woman) every time I tried to take care of my kids or tried to live a more balance life so my kids wouldn't be in Day Care for 9-10 hrs.

    We need paid maternity leave and we need it now. We need family-friendly company laws and regulations, and we need it now.

  15. Germany know has 1 year paid at 66 % of your original salary. and if part is taking by the husband it is 14 month.

  16. Totally behind on this but I can relate. Preggo with #2 currently. I work for a small/!medium firm. No fmla, no leave policies. With #1 they gave me 3 weeks off. After 3 I could work from home for 2. I had to beg to get a 3rd week at ome bc my daycare didn't take kids until they were 6 weeks. I actually was doing discovery responses the night I got home from the hospital.
    I honestly have almost no recollection of anything from my child's first year of life. No exaggeration. I never caught up on my sleep and thus am now do sleep deprived it was suggested I take time off (quit) to address my sleep before I tried to get pregnant again.
    Well here I am w/#2 on the way. I've been a valued employee for now nearly 5 years and when I requested I take 12 weeks all unpaid it was met with anger and questioned if I even wanted to be a "real" lawyer. They're getting back to me. I promised myself I'd

  17. Quit if they didn't agree but then don't know what I'd do as the market is so stellar. But what kills me is every single partner at this firm has kids, how can this be so unreasonable?!!!
    When did this become acceptable?

  18. I had originally planned on taking 8 weeks of unpaid leave with my first child. After she was born I just couldn't bring myself to leave her in the care of a complete stranger! Here was this little being that I loved with all my heart and soul and it felt like a crime to not be there for her. Needless to say, I did not return back to work and made the decision to be a full time stay at home mom. I started college courses when she was four months old and I am so happy with the direction my life has taken. I now have two children and feel such a sense of pride that I am there to see them grow and change, to participate in all of their life events, and most importantly for them to know I am always there. It has not been an easy road and we have struggled financially. If only more mothers were afforded the choice of staying home and not having the decision dictated by financial means. I feel the support system for families is crucial and that maternal/paternal paid leave is a must. We are investing in the future of our children and country by providing better support to families. I hold on to hope that I will see change in my lifetime so my children will never have to make the choice between choosing their family or job.


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