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Why Maternity Leave is Becoming Extinct

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More and more new mothers are taking less and less time off. Here's why.

allison sweeney

In the new issue of People magazine on newsstands Friday, Alison Sweeney says she was back on the "The Biggest Loser" set just eight days after the birth of her daughter - and returned to her role as Sami Brady on soap opera "Days of Our Lives" just six days after that.

She's not alone.

The upcoming April issue of W magazine features a story called "Born Yesterday: The Ever-Shrinking Maternity Leave," where New York professionals discuss going back to work just days or weeks after their babies were born. For many, this is becoming the norm.

With the economy the way it is, many women feel they can't take a few months off -- especially since, for most, the majority of that time is unpaid. Actual paid "maternity leave" -- while the norm in every other developed country -- is unusual in the United States. Out of 168 nations in a Harvard University study, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. We're the only 4 countries in the world who don't offer paid leave to new mothers. Shocking.

Most women here use a combination of short-term disability (STD), sick leave, vacation, personal days, and unpaid family leave during their time off to bond with baby. But more and more moms are returning to the workplace faster just to put food on the table.

Even if women can AFFORD to take off four months, many say it hurts their career later. They can't climb the corporate ladder or play with the "big boys" if they are out of the office for three or four months at a time.

How do you feel about shorter maternity leaves? Is this no biggie, or are women robbing themselves and their baby of bonding time they'll never get back?

next: Help! What If I Have to Call 911 on Vacation?
22 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kristen March 20, 2009, 6:48 AM

This is disturbing and will only hurt their babies in the long run. It means less time for breastfeeding, less time to bond with mom/dad, less time to learn how to become a family with a new addition.
I think families in this country are broken because no one actually spends time together anymore due to work, work, work. Shoot people even send their kids off to school for 6+ hours a day. It’s sad and we need to change our priorities.

Gigohead  March 20, 2009, 9:34 AM

I plan to come back right away after I have my baby in October. I went back at 6 weeks with my daughter and I do plan to come back about the same time with a c-section. It’s insane but desperate times calls for desperate measures.

Anonymous March 20, 2009, 9:56 AM

It just seems so sad.

hillary March 20, 2009, 11:35 AM

Wow, so sad that careers are more important than families. Women’s priorities have changed for the worse imo. I personally stay at home and i know if i can do it, most other moms who want to could too. Just sad.

tracy March 20, 2009, 12:18 PM

Hillary, some women HAVE to go right back to work to pay the rent. Not everyone has the same luxury as you.

Teresa March 20, 2009, 1:25 PM

Not only is bonding with the baby jepordized, but breastfeeding often stops once mom goes back to work. without the important antibodies that are passed throught breastmilk, babies are susceptible to all sorts of diseases. Not only thier minds, but their health is affected. The US in general has their priorities messed up. I don’t know of a single mother who would willing choose to go back to work early if it was not a necessity.

Dawn March 20, 2009, 1:25 PM

I happily live in Canada and am currently on my 17 weeks maternity leave, where I am getting paid 93% of my salary. After those 17 weeks I’ll continue on 29 weeks parental leave of absence, where I’ll still be paid 55% of my salary from the gov’t. My husband will be taking the additional 6 weeks parental (for a total of 35 weeks) leave and his company will bump him up to 100% of his salary! Do we LOVE it?!?! YES!!!!!!!!!! We did the same with our daughter! Now I’ve got a whole 52 weeks to enjoy my new son and spend quality time with my daughter as well. Besides, by being home we are saving big bucks in childcare, gas, etc each week!
It’s a true shame that the US has not moved forward to this kind of recognition of motherhood/parenting being full time work!!!!! (which I’m sure most parents would agree it IS!)

Buffie March 20, 2009, 1:27 PM

When my daughter was born I had to go back after 6 weeks. There were bills to pay and our savings was pretty much depleted by that point. Believe me, the mortgage company doesn’t care that you just had a baby. They want their money.

JoAnn March 20, 2009, 1:52 PM

I think it is sad and shows the family’s priorities. Babies are born dependent for a reason. The fact that we ignore this design shows in our society…in broken homes, in mental illness, in teen rebellion, in drug and alcohol abuse, in rising crime rates, etc.

What the average American family calls a NEED that make it a NECESSITY for the mom to work is just luxury. When we visit the homes of dual working families, my kids don’t envy what those kids have (expensive home, lots of toys, an oversupply of new designer clothing) because they would rather be home with their mom and have a dad that doesn’t work tons of overtime.

Steph March 20, 2009, 1:56 PM

I think it is different for every mother. I was totally a career person and had planned to return to work right away. Not the case. My job changed their plan on my schedule/increased my hours, which demanded too much time away from my infant. And my gut instinct told me that all the hours of work were not worth the time away from my little baby. But i was blessed to be able to stay home. Many of my friends cannot, due to financial obligations. I think the children will be fine either way. And realistically, in these economic times, the opportunity to stay home is becoming less and less. I just remember a wise mom telling me at a work meeting…”make it happen, try to stay home with your baby at least a year..its worth it.” So we sacrifice certain things, but that is our choice..not everyone can choose this way.

Anonymous March 20, 2009, 2:00 PM

The state of this country is so sad. Mothers don’t feel they can afford to take leave for fear of their jobs, while others are forced to return to work to pay the bills.
Personally I went into a great deal of debt for my 10 week leave. I lost respect in my office for missing a busy season even though my pregnancy wasn’t planned and I could not have foreseen having my son early like I did. But I would do it again because the bonding time I had with my son was worth all the trouble and debt.

Erin March 20, 2009, 2:19 PM

I work for a small nonprofit, so did not even have the benefit of the FMLA to legally give me any time off (paid or unpaid). However, because the work that I do is important to me and my organization values what I do, they worked with me and as a result, a fairly generous medical leave policy was developed that other new mothers OR employees with medical issues can take advantage of. I used a combination of my own sick and vacation time, and my workplace provided me 4 weeks of paid medical leave as, totaling 12 weeks paid leave for me when my son was born. I know I am lucky for this, but I still think it is appalling that my experience was the exception, not the rule. However, it makes me proud of where I work and I am quite thankful.

Hillary, I have had to deal with comments like yours since having my son several years ago, and it burns me up that you think you are so superior to a mother that works. I personally believe that the work I do makes my community a better place to live - for my family and for so many other families (often headed by single mothers, and no, they are not all deadbeats on welfare). I also feel that my current work/life balance is a positive thing for my family - it makes me a more productive mother/wife/employee/citizen. Would I like to stay home in an ideal world? Probably, but for our family right now, it isn’t an option. However, my son is THRIVING in a wonderful child development center and has fabulous social and cognitive skills, and quite frankly, is probably more well-rounded than if I stayed home with him.

SOrry to get off topic. Thanks for allowing for this discussion, Momlogic. Love your site.

Erin March 20, 2009, 2:26 PM

Oh, and JoAnn? This dual career family does NOT have an expensive home, lots of toys, or an oversupply of designer clothes/shoes.

I also breastfed my son for over a year and hauled the pump to work daily for 10 months. I am immensely proud of that accomplishment for my son’s health and the connection it provided us. I only mention that b/c I do think there is a direct correlation between amount of time a woman has off and how long she breastfeeds, on average. It is hard work and takes a lot of dedication on the mom’s part (no matter if you’re in a work setting or not!)

Peggy Gorman March 20, 2009, 4:37 PM

I feel the laws need to be changed for a new Mom to take at least 6 months off for maternity leave with pay!
If a Dad is included in this ,so either could be with the baby for the first 6 months, would be wonderful .
I had 12 weeks without pay and I felt that wasn’t enough.
Some parents have to work,that is why we need to have this policy in place ,allowing a family to get off to a happy and wonderful start
If other countries can allow paid maternity leave ,the USA can come up with some type of policy.
A happy family makes a happy employee

stephanie March 20, 2009, 4:44 PM

Nobody really wants to listen to canadians brag about their paid leave.

Nor do we want to listen to self-rightous SAHMS talk about how evil we are.

Commisserate with us working moms, or stay out of the conversation, please.

Jen March 20, 2009, 7:45 PM

It is SAD that our country has not given mothers paid maternity leave. Something needs to change. Do I blame a mother that HAS to go to work weeks/days after giving birth… absolutely NOT! I have been there before and it broke my heart to leave my 4 week old baby at the babysitters so I could help make ends meet for my family. But people do what they have to. Luckily, with my second, we are in a different financial situation, so I am able to stay at home with him. I have been on both ends and feel extremely lucky to be able to stay home right now. It really isn’t necesary to judge other women in when they chose to or have to go back to work, ladies!! Or for that matter, the ones that are able to stay at home. Everyone has a different life style and only you know what works for your family.

leelee March 20, 2009, 10:13 PM

Thank you Jen, that was well said. I too was on both ends and we all need to have sympothy (SP?) for each other, not bash or brag.

Aunt Fannie March 25, 2009, 3:55 PM

This is totally unfair and a bad, bad thing for babies and ultimately the families who will forever have to bond with them in the few hours between work and sleep. It’s also a classist policy that allows those who have money enough to stay home to bond with their kids - while the rest of us have to have them raised by a designate.

karen April 19, 2009, 3:52 PM

I think it’s absolutely disgusting that this country does not mandates paid maternity leave like every country in Europe but the worst part is that the US is grouped with places like Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, 3rd world countries!!!!

What is wrong with our government????? They should be embarrassed that we are grouped with 3rd world countries.

It’s true about what another mom said about breastfeeding. The 6 weeks I got was not enough time for my baby. She needed a lot of work and more time on the breast and by the end of her 3rd month she hated it. I had to stop!!

Mo January 23, 2010, 12:01 AM

GOOD I am glad companies are cracking down on Maternity Leave. Women take way to much advantage of companies when it comes time to have thier babies. The question then becomes who is going to fill your position and specficially how long? Then women wonder why when they try and come back their position is filled or eliminated simply because they took too much advantage of their company and Maternity Leave and the company has to keep going. Companies are not going to wait hand and foot for you to take your sweet time to take care of your new baby.

I also believe that there should be a limit on how long a Maternity Leave women should be able to come back to the company quarter time/part time. Comming back to the company quarter time/part time from Maternity Leave is still taking advantage of Maternity Leave. I don’t blame the companies if they fire you if the women takes too much time off or after they take some time off for Maternity Leave then decide they want to come back to work only for like a quarter time.

It pisses companies and coworkers off that have to cover for you when you come back from Maternity Leave and say oh I will come back but I need to take this time off, I need to work only a quarter time or part time. Why should companies keep handing you easier schedules after your Maternity Leave?

Now I think 8 days or just a couple weeks is pretty harsh. I think 3 or 4 months is sufficient and then once you return to work I believe you can go back full time and take your baby to a day care, hire a nanny or a live in nanny. Yeah it might cost a bit more for a nanny in the short run but in the long run it’s a hell of a lot better than risking your career, getting fired, not being able to come back to your position due to being replaced because you took too much time off. Women don’t get mad at your companies when you have your babies and they don’t keep your position or expect you to come back a lot sooner than you would like. The company didn’t get pregnant. You got pregnant and you have to take the consequences as an adult.

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