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European-American Topics - Editorial - Maternity: European perspective

Maternity is not a private issue
By Martina Law

To be honest, the discussion around statutory paid maternity leave caught me off-guard and as a surprise. I thought that in the 21st Century paid maternity leave was not a privilege but a fundamental right that doesn’t need further attention.  I thought that the time has come for men and women to strive for genuine equality in society, and that paid maternity leave was only one of the building blocs to achieve just that. I guess I was wrong. 

At present, almost every country has provisions for maternity leave, allowing mothers to leave their workplace for a limited time around childbirth and returning to their job afterwards. These provisions vary from country to country. In the United States maternity leave amounts to a maximum of 12 weeks of job-protected leave within a 12 months period. Many European nations offer a more generous package. Sweden offers the most maternity leave, at 96 weeks. UK women receive 40 weeks maternity leave, and German women are entitled to take 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. Despite the generous maternity leave provisions in many parts of Europe, many European women actually return to their workplace on average six weeks before their statutory maternity pay runs out. 

Outside the EU, the highest provider of benefits in Europe, and globally, is Norway. Norwegian woman receive up to one year of paid maternity leave. That’s not all. In Norway, every mother has the right to two hours off work per day if she goes back to work. As a mother I think I should have been born in Norway.

But it’s here in the US where I hear bickering about maternity leave. True, women taking maternity leave create a problem of having to re-organize work. The employer has to find a way to get the work done formerly performed by the mother on leave. The employer may choose to arrange for work-sharing or employ a temporary substitute. Having the work done by co-workers should only be considered for short-term leaves. Interestingly enough, the costs of employing a substitute will generally decrease with increasing maternity leave duration, especially for skilled jobs. Here we go, that should give US businesses an incentive to increase their maternity leave instead of forcing women to literally jump off of the delivery table and crawl back into their offices.  

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with smaller businesses and the challenges they have to face when dealing with maternity leave. But saying that in order to protect businesses it should be a woman’s or family’s choice whether to have children or pursue a career would be utterly unfair. Simply said, it is not a family’s decision but a society’s decision. In the face of an aging population and heated debates evolving around Social Security and pensions on both sides of the pond, we need to take the long view and value our next generation's nurturers.  

To those in favor of a woman’s either/or decision, I’d have a couple of suggestions to throw in. To the parents of daughters I’d say, ask your daughters before sending them off to College whether they want to have children in the future. Why would you want to spend thousands of dollars on a higher education if your daughters want to have kids? Instead, get the Porsche you have always dreamt about. And to employers I’d say, make sterilization a job requirement. It’s as simple as that! 

Or look at the bright side of offering maternity leave: it reduces turnover and preserves the employer’s training investment; it is an effective recruitment tool, particularly for employers with large female work forces; it allows employees time to adjust to their role as parents, and reduces their stress at becoming new parents, and gives them time to prepare for infant care. 

Women have come a long way. Paid maternity leave is just one of many rights women have fought for with the intention of improving the labor market position of women.. American society that claims to value family highly rather staggers behind many European nations in this regard. It’s here I encounter more working mothers suffering burnout because they are caught in the dilemma of balancing children and career without substantial support. I believe that to truly value family a society should consider supporting women in managing both children and a career, and currently American society falls short.


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