You probably know how truly abysmal it is here in the United States, but let me give you a bit of history. While Norway was assuring mothers they could be home with their newborns for up to a year by offering them full pay and the confidence their job would be there when they returned, the U.S. Congress deigned to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. This meant you couldn’t fire a woman for being pregnant. But, neither companies nor the government were expected to pay a woman for taking time off after her child was born. That was her choice.
And hold her job for her? Ha! The argument then as now is that to stay competitive, companies needed their employees to be all-in, all-of-the-time. Holding a job for someone could hold the company back, placing limits on its productivity and profitability.
It wasn’t until 1993, one year before my first child was born and thirty-seven years after Norway first offered its citizens maternity leave, that the United States finally put the Family and Medical Leave Act into law, ensuring mothers could take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave and be confident they wouldn’t lose their job. However, the law applies only to companies that have fifty or more employees, which means only 40 percent of the American workforce is covered.
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Shockingly, 20 percent of employers who do fall within the scope of the law actually admit to not complying with the FMLA in the first place.113 Makes you wonder how many aren’t even admitting their lack of compliance. And when a woman is faced with a company that fires her for being a mother, the burden of proof is on the exhausted, financially challenged new mother, not the government or company itself.
In Norway, according to my cousin, the vast majority of mothers take the full year of paid maternity leave.114 In the United States, the average length of leave is ten weeks.115 One-quarter of new mothers take only two weeks because they have no other choice.116 Unless you are working for a company that subsidizes the leave, you are forced to choose between earning money to pay for your expanding family or being home to care for your newborn. And today, according to MomsRising.org,117 an advocacy group committed to creating better systemic support for parents, only 13 percent of workers have access to paid leave through their employers. According to the United Nations, the United States is the ONLY industrialized nation that does not offer its citizens paid maternity leave. Of the 185 countries that are part of the UN, only two don’t financially support new mothers (the other country is Papua New Guinea). How can we truly be a great country if we refuse to support the very well-being of our future citizens?
When Kitty’s second child was born in 1997, she took the requisite year leave and, again, she returned to full-time work without missing a beat. It was only after Filip was born in 1999 that Kitty raised the white flag and said, “I need more time.”
Kitty took the full year off as expected, but she decided to add another year of unpaid leave to allow her time to be with her three young children. She knew she could do this because Norway requires employers to hold positions for mothers for up to two years after the birth of a child.118 When, two years after she paused her career, Kitty returned to work, she negotiated a 60 percent parttime schedule.
“Was it difficult to do this?” I asked. “Did your employer expect you to hide it from others as mine did when I got my four-day workweek?”
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