Sunday, 8 April 2012

maternity leave inequality

A few weeks ago, at my 24-week midwife appointment, I got my MAT B1 form signed off by the doctor. This little piece of paper was simple; it only had one essential tidbit of information on it - my due date. But this little piece of paper was worth so much. It was proof of my pregnancy and allowed me to book 52 weeks off work starting anytime I want after I turn 29 weeks pregnant until my due date. 

When I got hold of this powerful little piece of paper and sent it off to HR it made me think about how lucky I am. 

I am lucky to be having a baby in the UK where I am granted 52 weeks of leave. These 52 weeks are not all paid for, in fact the majority of my leave is on low pay or no pay, but my job is protected for the full year I take off work. 

I am also lucky to be able to go back to work after this leave and then have a legal right to request flexible working hours. Because I will be a parent with a young child, my employer must consider my request and may only refuse it if there is a clear business case for doing so. This means that not only is my job protected for a full year during maternity leave, but I can return to work on a part-time basis if I want to (unless my employer can prove my working part-time would be detrimental to the business).

Things are different for my friends and family in the United States.  

Out of the 21 richest countries in the world, of which the US is one of the richest, only the US and Australia offer no paid maternity leave.  Australia does, however, offer a "baby bonus" equal to about US$5,600 (£3,525) per child which helps cover the costs of maternity leave...the US doesn't offer anything.  

Looking at job-protected leave, regardless of whether or not it is paid, the US again ranks badly (20th out of 21 countries). The US offers 24 weeks of combined protected job leave for a two-parent family (12 weeks per parent); Switzerland provides only 14 weeks of leave, but the 14 weeks are paid at 80% pay. The 12 weeks per parent offered in the US is completely unpaid.

Graph taken from "Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries"
Center for Economic and Policy Research

I should also mention that the 12 weeks unpaid leave per parent in the US is only available if you qualify for what's called FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). Around 60% of US workers are eligible for FMLA, meaning 40% of workers get no guaranteed leave whatsoever!

What's more, when mothers go back to work after their stingy 12 weeks, there is no law in the United States that allows them the right to request part-time or flexible working. 

I find it shocking that the United States, a country so rich and powerful, doesn't prioritise the health and well-being of its mothers and babies. For example, the World Health Organisation recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed for 6 months to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health. If women aren't even given 6 months off work, isn't the US government indirectly discouraging breastfeeding and thus worsening the health of its population? I'm not saying that breastfeeding is always the right choice, but the government is taking away the mother's option to easily breastfeed by forcing her back to work prematurely. 

So yes, I feel so extremely lucky to be having my baby in the UK. But it saddens me that things are so unequal between here and the US and that my friends and family don't get the maternity leave and flexible working options they deserve.



  1. I never knew that. I know feel unbelievably lucky. I get 26 weeks full pay and then SMP there on upto 39 weeks. I still haven't handed in my MATB1 form yet … I should really do that!!

    Mrs W x

    1. Wow, that is amazing maternity pay - you must work for a great company! Take advantage of it, I say :)

  2. We are lucky. The length of maternity leave also leaves you plenty of time to emerge from the tired/emotional/hormonal spell in the few weeks post birth before you have to make child care decisions or decide whether you want to return to work. I have just left my job at the end of my 39 weeks because that was the right decision for us. Hope to return when he is older tho! Can't imagine being any good at my job when baby under 3 months old so full credit to those who have no choice but to get on with it.

    1. I completely agree! The time we get off here allows us to process everything and take the time to decide whether or not we want to return to work without feeling rushed into a rash decision. How exciting that you just left your job!

  3. Great article. Thanks for the info, it’s easy to understand. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a mat b1 form, I found a blank form here