A country as big, complex and fascinating as the United States naturally has a few interesting paradoxes, and here is one I have been observing first hand since we have moved that side of the pond. And which annoys me. A lot.
It can sound like a cliché to say American people love kids, but it’s true! I still cannot help to be surprised when perfect strangers start waving or talking to my toddler, or just stop me to tell me she’s beautiful. Even people I would not expect to – for instance suit wearing, busy looking businessmen – smile and chat, make silly faces, or just comment on how cute her socks are. Yes, that has happened.
Let me clarify – I am not surprised they think my daughter is cute or worth a smile; as any parent, I am absolutely and very objectively convinced she is the most gorgeous and smartest little girl! What surprises me is how easily and so naturally grown-ups engage with kids – and cannot help doing so!
When I was 16, I was lucky enough to spend a good chunk of my summer with a lovely American family, in North Dakota. It was a fun filled summer and also the opportunity for me to learn a lot about the American culture and how it was in some ways quite different to what I was used to. One of my takes was that Americans seemed to be celebrating childhood differently that we were in France. Parents would embrace activities with their kids, join in, seek fun and seem to know a lot about the kid culture. Much more than my parents ever had! French parents, I thought, were more focus on making sure they were preparing their kids for adulthood – focusing on learning, behaviour, etc. I do not mean that childhood in France is deprived of fun and games – that would be totally false and definitely not a testament to my own childhood. What I mean is that I felt childhood for the French was a stage that was coming before adulthood and parents’ mission was to make sure they were making the most of that time to get their children ready for that next step. While childhood for American parents was something you had to make the most of, it was a life stage you had to nurture and enjoy as much as you could before adulthood hits.
All of this is my take, my own analysis based on my experience and observations and there may be people, from either nationality, who would have a lot of counter arguments, and would certainly know a lot more than me on how childhood is embraced and perceived – after all, I am not an anthropologist.
But living here has been comforting me in this belief.
And despite all of this, despite this great love of kids and celebration of childhood, American women are still not entitled to paid maternity leave. How brutal do these words sound?
The United States, Suriname, Papua New Guinea and a handful of Pacific Islands are the only countries in the world that do not provide paid family leave. Out of 193 countries in the UN, they are the only rich country to have nothing in place. Some companies do provide some sort of paid leave to parents, as part of their benefits, but in 2014, only 11% of American employed in the private sector had access to some sort of paid family leave.
I cannot help but think that a country that have such an approach to maternity policies have no understanding whatsoever, nor care for women and children health. I may sound harsh, but how can anyone state the opposite?
Any woman who has given birth would agree: our bodies need time to recover, however easy or difficult childbirth was. It can take weeks for some of the post partum niceties to go away – I’ll spare you the graphic details. Add to that mothers can rarely put their feet up to get some rest: once the hard work of birthing is done, here comes the challenge of keeping an infant alive and fed, with milk having to be supplied in one way or another every 2 or 3 hours. How can you expect anyone to go back to work during the first weeks of life of a child, delivering as a parent and delivering as an employee, on barely no sleep, with a leaking body (here we go – I got into graphic details after all) and hormones all over the place?
If a mother decides to breastfeed – as highly recommended by the WHO and UNICEF – it also takes time and energy to establish breastfeeding. How can you do so if you have to leave your house and your baby 8+ hours a day? And no, breast pumps and the fact some companies generously allow mothers to pumping their milk in a gloomy meeting room kindly provided by the HR department are not a way around it, not when the baby is still a newborn. The people who came up with this clearly had no boobs.
That time when a newborn is in survival mode and needs to be kept in a cocoon of love and warmth should not be disrupted by the mother going back to work early. I am not demanding that all parents be given money to stay at home for ever, I am just talking of providing American parents with the basic minimum that most countries part of the UN currently meet or exceed: 14 weeks of paid leave, paid 2/3 of a worker’s salary up to a cap. Believe me, it’s not much but it can be just what is needed to get by for some time and ensure parents can focus on their baby and not be eaten up by financial worries.
In a country that loves kids and childhood so much, I am baffled there is so little love and support for mothers and parents in general, to support them at this crucial stage of their lives and their kids lives.
I found out that the first time when countries started thinking about maternity leave was during the industrial revolution (so some time ago!) when more and more women started working outside of the home. It still took some decades for this thinking to be turned into laws (in France, 8 weeks of unpaid leave were granted from 1908, and then in 1946 it increased to 14 weeks, paid 50% of the salary).
In a day and age when we talk about gender inequalities, when there is so much (but still not enough) focus on how to close the gap between women and men in the workplace in terms of opportunities and salaries, how can anyone ever expect to move things in the US while still not supporting new mothers? While still not granting them the time and support needed to recover and ensure they give their kids a good start in the best conditions possible, while being able to stay in the workforce?
I remember reading Sheryl Sandberg’s famous Lean in, before being pregnant, at a time when I was wondering when would be the right time to become a mother without killing my career. It was a very inspiring read that definitely provided lots of food for thought – but I vividly remember my shock, not to say horror when reading a chapter in which a supportive Sheryl was telling one of her co workers something along the line “Come on, having a baby will take you away from the office from what – 2 months top! You’ll be back in no time!” And I thought that this impressive lady, that is such a role model and an inspiration most of the time, had sort of missed the point on that one. 2 months from whale stage (read heavily pregnant) to back to the office having left a 7 weeks old baby somewhere (with a nanny or at day care) was not really something to be thankful for in my books.
By the way, I have been out of work for some time now. Following my mat leave, I had to leave my job to follow my husband to the US and so mainly look after my toddler girl at the moment, while looking for a job. I can reassure anyone having any doubts: I still have my common sense, remember how to do my job and have carried on developing lots of skills while away from an office. I actually think I am in a better place today than before being pregnant– more mature, more focused and also more human. I learn more everyday than I used to when sitting at a desk. Yes, I am a bit behind the latest gossip and news in my industry, but the time I’ve not spent listening to professionals talking to each other, I have spent actually being with real people, consumers who are product and service users. I am certainly not wasting my time as a brand manager. So trust me, allowing a woman 14 weeks away from work at a minimum will not turn someone bright, professional and efficient into a total liability not remembering how to turn a computer on. You may find you gain back a grateful, focused, more efficient employee. Win win, eh?!
Bureau of Labor Statistics