Why can't America have better maternity leave laws?

by Kate Lewis Torok

Eight weeks ago, I had a baby. Three weeks from today, I will be returning to work. While my wallet is hurting, my heart is hurting more. It aches, actually. My daughter is still a tiny peanut, working on her neck muscles so she can hold her head up to see this world like the rest of us. It hardly seems fair that in just 21 days, work will come between us. I am the one she has come to know so well over the last 11 months – from my womb to my arms.

I love my career, and I have always loved it. In fact, I willingly admit that the stay-at-home mom gig probably isn’t the gig for me. This is my second maternity leave, and now that I’m in the middle of leave with a newborn and an almost-four-year-old, I once again realize the utmost respect that I have for stay-at-home moms and dads. It hasn’t been easy keeping up with the constantly changing attention span of my older daughter while keeping up with my baby’s feedings. My heart has broken every time I’ve had to tell my older daughter, “Hang on a minute,” when she asked me to play dollhouse or to paint with her because I’m trying to soothe my baby at the same time. But, I do so wish that I would have just some more time and a little more money to pay the bills during this very precious time.

Again, I love my job. And there is a small part of me that is almost looking forward to the routine of the workday and to taking a shower at the almost-same time every morning. But the majority of me will miss not even caring if I fit a shower in because I’m too busy smiling and staring at my miracle of a baby.

Why can’t the United States have better laws for maternity – and paternity – leave? Why can’t mothers who thrive on their careers also take a little bit of time out of their lives to thrive on what’s really important – their children? Why can’t we have just as much time with them out of our bellies as we had with them in? We worked hard leading up to and during delivery – both with work, at home, and making sure that the being inside of us was healthy and strong. We deserve more time.

Really, I am one of the lucky ones. A lot of women return to work after just six weeks off, or even less, for financial reasons or just to keep their insurance. Thanks to a great employer, I was able to take the full 12 weeks offered by New York State and not worry whether or not I would have a job to return to. But, I also had to use all of my personal and vacation time to get paid for only half of it, supplemented by the horrific short-term disability offered by New York State (I couldn’t even shop at the grocery store to feed my family for a week with that measly check).

Can women have it all? Sure, with sacrifice, which means we actually don’t have everything. Can we have as much as we can handle, balance it like we balance on our heels, and still raise amazing children? Absolutely. And most women do just that.

But, my wish for my daughters is that by the time they have babies (and it better be sometime in the 2030’s and not before), there will be a universal law in place that better serves new moms. A law that allows them leave with pay and job protection. So many other countries do it, there is no reason we can’t. In a country where Jerry Sandusky, a convicted child molester who will die in jail, is eligible to receive $60,000 pension for the rest of his life, why can’t better parental leave laws exist? There is something seriously wrong with that.

For now, I will bask in every dirty diaper, every spit-up, every cry, every feeding, every smile, every “goo.” every sleep interruption, and every bit of exhaustion I have until I return to the office. And I know that as painful and traumatizing as the actual labor and delivery was, nothing will hurt me more than leaving her at her new daycare that first day. And maybe someday, the moms who come after me will get just a little more time.


Kate Torok is a married mother of two. She works as a communication specialist at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.

Image: Mommyish

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