If you’re a working mom in America, you’ve probably learned that maternity leave in this country largely sucks. There’s no federal law requiring employers to offer new parents paid time off, which means many employees have to sacrifice a paycheck in order to spend a substantial amount of time with their new child before returning to work. Moreover, many moms say they feel "working mom guilt" about taking leave and worry that when they do go back to their office, they’ll be “mommy tracked” or judged differently. It’s not like this everywhere, though. We’ve spoken to women around the world to get a sense of how their maternity leave experiences compare to what we’ve heard from our friends in the U.S.
Here’s what we learned:
Cecilie L., who hails from Norway and has two kids, tells us that “Norway is a pioneer in this field, and it amazes me that the U.S. is so backwards when it comes to women’s human rights in the workspace and maternity leave. In Norway, it is expected that women go back to work after maternity leave -- therefore it is facilitated by the government for women to go back to work without any trouble.”
If only the U.S. could be so practical!
“[In Norway], we get 100% pay for 40 weeks maternity leave and 80% for 52 weeks. Dads have to take their 12 weeks of paternity leave, or the parents lose this opportunity. Most dads take it,” Cecilie says. “There are also special facilities, rules and opportunities for single women with children. Ergo: women need to go back into the work field, since we need everyone for a country to function!”
How do they make it work in Norway? Kindergarten is available to all children age 9 months and older, although most begin when they’re a year old. “Kindergartens [in Norway] all have governmental oversight and have to follow the same professional syllabus,” says Cecilie. “All personnel have to be specially trained educators. We believe that putting our children in kindergartens will make them good citizens and prepare them for life and school. It is a wonderful place for kids -- they all love it! All kindergartens are open from 7:30 a.m. - 17:30 [5:30 p.m.]. Kids can be there for up to 8 hours.”
Cecilie also points out that to better include fathers in the caretaking of kids, they tend to refer to these issues as “family politics” rather than “women’s politics.” “This works really well here,” she says.
The UK has a “Statutory Maternity Leave” policy that allows eligible employees to take 52 weeks’ maternity leave; expecting mothers can begin the leave 11 weeks before their due date. Employees are required to take at least two weeks off after the birth of their baby. Nancy C., who had both her sons in London while working for the Financial Times, tells us, "I was grateful to my employer and to the UK for giving me time to be home with the boys. It would have been incredibly difficult to cope with work had I needed to return 8 or 12 weeks into leave, which is the standard in the US. I am in awe of so many of my American friends who had to do it; it is a physical, emotional and all-around labor-intensive time for parents during the first year of a child's life.
“At least at the Financial Times and among my peer set, it was the norm to take some number of months,” she says. “I didn't feel judged one way or the other. ”
The UK also has “Statutory Maternity Pay,” which offers eligible employees some amount of payment for up to 39 weeks. Nancy says that some companies, like Pearson (which owned the Financial Times while she worked and had kids there), try to improve upon the basics offered by the government.
“For example,” she says, “with my older son I received full pay for 20 weeks, then Statutory Maternity Pay for 19 weeks, then was unpaid for the last 13 weeks. They also offered up to 10 Keeping In Touch days, which you could use during the last part of leave - essentially it was a way to meet with colleagues/supervisors and catch up on what was going on and these days were paid. Further, vacation accrued while on leave so I was able to reduce the number of unpaid days using vacation time.”
She adds that she’s not sure what the norm is in the UK in terms of how many women choose to take a full year off vs. not; women who come back after 6 months are offered the same job, while after 6 months they should be offered a comparable job, though not necessarily the same one they had.
"I can't generalize how all women make the decision about how much leave to take,” says Nancy, “but the way my husband and I thought about it was in financial terms - can we afford to be without a full, second salary for roughly 6 months? Taking the time to be with them as babies was something we both wanted me to do - it was whether we could do it financially. We determined we could."
When Nancy returned to work, she came back 4 days a week for a period of time before going back to 5 days a week. She says this is not uncommon.
Tracy Y., who’s from America but was working in Hong Kong when she had a baby, tells us that in Hong Kong, women are required to leave work and begin maternity leave two weeks before their due date. Most companies offer a ten-week maternity leave.
“For those mothers who deliver two weeks past their estimated due date, this results in a truncated maternity leave. Tradition in the Chinese and Cantonese cultures is to ‘sit the month’ after childbirth, staying inside, eating certain foods, and recovering privately - and a semblance of the tradition stays,” she says. “My husband and I surprised many locals by hiking with our two-week-old.”
Tracy adds that there's a strong support and service economy in Hong Kong to the tune of affordable live-in helpers and apartments with domestic help quarters abutting the kitchen. “The helper structure allows for local mothers to populate the work force and return to work, while their children are cared for, laundry is done, and dinner is cooked,” Tracy explains.
She adds, “Local mothers in Hong Kong have a strong preference for formula. As an American Expat, I often visited the luxury hotel bathrooms in central Hong Kong to nurse my baby.”
Melita L., who worked at a relatively small private company in Sydney when she had kids, tells us her maternity leave experience in Australia was pretty positive in general, but that it was tough financially. She adds that women’s experiences depend on the organization they work for and their standing in that organization.
Melita took maternity leave for the first time 15 years ago and then again 12 years ago. “There was no option for me at the time other than to take unpaid leave with the organization I worked for. There was no paid maternity option or benefit offered at that time. So it was pretty tough financially, as we had to live off my husband’s wage,” she tells us.
“There was no pressure on me to return to work early; my employer completely supported me taking 12 months off (the maximum amount you can take in Australia). Nowadays, there are options for 6 months at half pay, or less. We also have some paternity leave in our leave allowances that we get outside of our normal annual 4 weeks leave.”
Melita also tells us that daycare in Australia is incredibly expensive. “When I had my second child and went on another 12 months unpaid maternity leave, I took my daughter out of daycare. It’s also difficult to return to work part time if you need daycare, as the costs for daycare almost eat all of your wages, so it’s a real juggling act and how people deal with it really depends on their debt at the time, and how much they get paid.”
Ingrid P. works at an e-tourism company and tells us that maternity leave in France is well accepted and organized, especially if you work at a big company. Women can take 4 months off without taking a pay cut. She explains that generally, women leave work 6 weeks before their due date and are expected to return 10 weeks after their baby is born. “The conditions are the same in all office jobs and for women working in shops. But that might be different in some specific industries / economic fields.” She adds that while the 4 months is a basic rule, if your pregnancy is even minorly complicated, your doctor might grant you with a two-week “bonus.” This is called a "congé pathologique," Ingrid says, and it allows you to keep your salary for an additional two weeks. If you need more time due to health problems, she says it’s treated as a “classical ‘congé maladie,’” for which you have the same rights than anyone who's sick.
“If you want to spend more time with your kid, you can add some of your vacation time -- which you keep earning while you’re on leave -- at the end of your leave. Some women negotiate 1 month of ‘congé maladie’ with their doctor because they are too exhausted to get back to work,” she says.
Women are allowed to take additional unpaid time off in 6-month sessions that they officially renew with their employer. They can also negotiate for part-time or flexible schedules when they return to work. “It's not rare to see moms going back to work only 4 days a week,” Ingird says.
Ingrid, who’s in her early 30s, says that when her parents had kids, it was common for women in France to stay home for a few years after maternity leave. “I think the situation was reversed (at least in big cities) in the past years, and it was seen as being a modern mum to go back to work ASAP after maternity leave,” Ingrid explains. “But I feel pressure has been reduced, and you really have a choice; it's about you and what you want -- as long as your company is OK with it, of course.”
She clarifies that companies can’t force women one way or another, “but I still hear sometimes that women fear for their job by leaving for too long. Meaning that [even though] they will still have a job when back, [they fear] losing their team and responsibility.”
She says she personally had a positive experience in part because she has a great boss who made it easy. Ingrid was encouraged to reduce her time in the office to avoid exhaustion and she took six months off overall.
If your country isn’t represented in this article and you’d like to fill us in on your maternity leave experience, email [email protected].