When it comes to maternity leave, I’d rather be a Mum than a Mom. There is more than an ocean divide between the US and UK in terms of maternity leave. Actually a big difference.
I was asked by a financial website last year to give a quote on what advice I’d give to US moms planning to take maternity leave. My reply: “Don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty about taking maternity leave as it’s your chance to bond with your newborn. Don’t feel guilty if you take a short or long maternity leave, or decide to become a SAHM or return to work.”
It was the best advice given to me as a new mother – by other Mums – when I made the choice to leave my career as a successful international journalist to be at home with my twins. And the same advice was given to a close friend who decided she wanted to only take a short time off from her company.
( A quick side note – I’m using Mum to refer to British mothers and Mom for US although there are also Moms in UK!)
But I wasn’t fully aware of US laws on maternity leave. My knowledge and guilt issues were based on UK policies in relation to taking time off when you give birth to a child. I was also surprised by the reactions in the US that Prince William was taking paternity leave to be at home with his newborn Prince George.
UK maternity leave rights
In Britain you can take a year off for maternity leave without losing your employee rights. No matter how long you’ve worked for a company. Just let the company know 15 weeks before the due date.
You’re eligible for pay during maternity leave if you’ve been employed for at least 26 weeks up to the ‘qualifying week’ – the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth.
What does this entitle you? The official UK maternity leave policy – known as Statutory Maternity Leave (SMP) – means that employees will still earn money for up to 39 weeks. During the first 6 weeks you receive 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax. Then for the next 33 weeks either £136.78 pounds sterling (about $225 US per week) or 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax depending which is lower. Your employee rights, including holiday entitlements and pay rises, are safeguarded during the time you take off.
For the ins and outs about UK maternity leave, find out the latest rules on the UK government website here.
If you don’t have a work contract you can still get maternity leave allowance. For up-to-date information on this check out the UK government website here.
There are also rules allowing for UK paternity leave. Under new rules starting in April 2015, fathers will be allowed to share a year of parental leave after the birth of a child.
What about in the US? My reaction on finding out about US maternity leave versus UK maternity leave was that I was gobsmacked. Translation – utterly astounded.
US maternity leave rights
According to the 1993 US Family Leave and Medical Act employees can take off 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. But the company must have at least 50 workers and women must have been employed with the company for at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months to be entitled to this time off.
This is a federal law affecting all of the US. Only a handful of US states offer better terms with some partial wage compensation. Individual companies can also offer special maternity leave deals. If they want to … but they’re not obligated by law.
First of all did you notice the word unpaid. Sorry but I have to repeat it…UNPAID. A 2013 study of US Census bureau statistics showed that 40% of women are now the breadwinners in households with children under the age of 18. How can a mother take unpaid leave if she is the sole or primary source of income for a family?
Oh, and in comparison, the UK law states that “you must take 2 weeks’ leave after your baby is born (or 4 weeks if you work in a factory).”
The United States is one of only eight countries, out of 190, without paid leave. The eight countries are: USA, Suriname, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and four small Pacific islands (Palau, Nauru, Western Samoa, and Tonga). The US leading the way? The wrong way. Frankly I’m surprised that the US lags behind the rest of the world in their treatment of mothers – and the care needed by a newborn child.
I know my British friends juggled with how long to take off for maternity leave. There is always the fear of being sidelined at work when you return. Or feeling guilty about taking too much time off. Or not enough.
But I don’t know how American Moms manage when it comes to deciding whether to take leave or not. Do you quit your job completely because no leave is available? Do you feel guilty or angry about taking unpaid leave? Do you feel guilty because you can’t afford to take time off to be with your newborn child? How do you cope with breastfeeding – if at all – if you can’t take maternity leave?
I was inspired to write this post comparing UK and US maternity leave laws by a new linky called The Prompt – this week’s topic is “Guilt to motherhood is like grapes to wine” – created by the wonderful blogger Sara at MumturnedMom.
Sara (@mumturnedmom) says
I was also gobsmacked when I started talking to Moms here – and then did a bit of reading up. I cannot believe that the US is so fundamentally behind on maternity leave/rights – it is utterly astonishing in this supposed ‘modern’ society. Great post Kriss, and I love that the quote inspired you to write this. Thanks so much for linking to #ThePrompt xx
It is quite astonishing that the US has such backwards policies concerning maternity leave.
This is a brilliant, and thought provoking post Kriss. I have an American friend who is an ICU nurse, and she had her second baby just before Xmas. She’s taking 6wks leave at the moment, and the other 6 weeks over the summer to come to Europe travelling.
I know I wouldn’t be able to cope with going back to the office, let alone a hospital job, just 6 weeks after having a baby. Then again I guess if you live there you know the score, so factor it all in? I don’t envy her that’s for sure!
I agree. I think it would be incredibly difficult to go back straight to work after a short leave. For a start I hardly slept the first couple of months!
Jess @ Catch A Single Thought says
Wow, I am completely gobsmacked. I can’t imagine NOT being able to take time off to be with my newborn baby (aside from the fact that as a person who has just given birth you need time to physically recover!) and you are right, so many mums in the UK worry that the 9 months paid leave they get will not be enough. I took it for granted that other countries would follow suit. I honestly can’t even compute how you would manage it, if you were the main breadwinner or even if you weren’t but just financially you needed to be at work. Crazy!! #theprompt
I expected the US to be much more forward thinking when it came to mothers but clearly they’re not. I agree – crazy!
I had no idea about this, and it really is unfair to US moms. This is such an important issue and I’m surprised that no one is challenging it. In the UAE, paid leave is only six weeks, though it didn’t make a difference to me personally as a SAHM.
There are some campaigns and petitions but nothing huge as far as I can tell. It would have to be raised and pushed in the next US elections.
What a great post and something I didn’t realise, I would have thought that with the US being such a leader they’d have been similar to us but I am shocked. How are mums supposed to survive?
I think the lucky ones are only those who work for a large company with good maternity benefits.
The Reading Residence says
Oh, I had no idea. This has really shocked me. It’s appalling and I feel so sorry for US moms now, as it seems like it’s geared against them bonding with their children and being able to relax and enjoy that time. I’m assuming there are huge campaigns to change it?
IN December 2013 the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act was introduced to Congress which is an insurance plan that would cover 12 weeks family and sick leave cover for employees. Will be interesting to see how it progresses and if it becomes a bipartisan fight between the Republicans and Democrats.
Meanwhile per NY Times the US failure to provide paid maternity leave “has contributed to the United States’ being condemned for human rights violations by Human Rights Watch. The United States also ranked last in breast-feeding support by Save the Children.” !!
Stephs Two Girls says
OMG I’m amazed by that too! Just glad I wasn’t in the US when I had my babies…!
I don’t know how US moms manage either!
Orli D says
I was astonished the first time I heard how becoming a mum in the US works. From paying for giving birth, to no paid maternity it seems to me it is just plain WRONG. and it should be out there so people will know.
Christine M. (Cool Mom) - Tech Support for Stanley & Katrina says
Sheesh. That is horrible, isn’t it? But yep, it is a fact of life here. What do Mom’s do? Return to work quick, usually, or quit their jobs b/c what they make at work may barely cover the cost of daycare, anyway. Hubby and I were debating on which one of us would be staying home, but in the end we decided it would be better suited for being at home. Breastfeeding? There is a ton of pumping going on. 🙂 I’m in awe of the leave you get in the UK. I can’t even to begin to imagine that luxury. Thank you for sharing this post! There is so much guilt no matter what you decide. That part seems to be the same everywhere (sigh).
Thank you for your view as a Mom! In the UK it’s not viewed as a luxury but as a mother’s right. I think it must be incredibly difficult for Moms.
Isn’t it sad 🙁
I’m lucky I was able to stay home and care for my children. I was full-time when I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, and even if I wanted to go back to work I couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were young and there is no way we could afford childcare.
We’ve long envied the UK for their maternity rights vs. our own.
Thanks for sharing!
P.S Love the twin’s picture!!
Lisa Nelson says
I just don’t think that the US really puts value on being a Mom. Actually, it’s a negative. Being a Mom is the most important thing you could be doing. The idea that bonding with your child for 6 weeks and then done is crazy – and it should be paid. Really? Come on. AT the very least, the 6 weeks should be paid, and your job should be secure of 6 months-1 year.
I worked full time after my son was born, and that was my biggest regret. I should not have done that. With my daughter, I quit work. I remember that my boss was going to hold my job for a month. I told her she could stuff it. She wasn’t doing me any favors.
It’s just the way it is here. It’s the culture. However, we do have psycho people running around shooting random kids in schools and random people in malls – so…maybe if one of their parents stayed at home and hugged them more – who knows.
I don’t think it’s fair that US Moms don’t have much choice or support when they have a child. And I completely agree that jobs should be secure during maternity leave. Thank you for your comments.