I knew I was lucky, but in the wake of Trump’s “maternity leave plan,” I realized just how lucky I am.
After the birth of my first and second children in the US, I was able to take 12 weeks of paid leave before putting my children into daycare and returning to work. I remember the hours spent staring at those babies, nursing them, getting to know their every noise and look before leaving them with a caretaker at the tender age of 12 weeks. I also remember the stress of pumping and freezing milk, finding the right daycare, and trying to get enough sleep to be a productive team member less than three full months after delivering.
Return I did, grateful for the time and the pay, assuming that this was the best that I could ask for and simultaneously aware that many returned to work much earlier and without paid leave. But now that I’ve had my third child in Israel, I know there is another way.
Israel supports 14 weeks paid leave for new parents. As with any leave policy, there are many ins and outs, but the basic gist is that women’s job are kept for them for at least 26 weeks, and for 14 of those weeks they receive maternity pay from the government in place of their salary. After seven of these 14 weeks, fathers can also take paid maternity leave in place of their wives, if their wives would like to return to work.
Additionally, this year the Knesset approved five days of paternity leave upon birth and a change in the linguistics from “nursing hour,” which allows mothers to leave work an extra hour early in the first four months after birth, to “parent’s hour,” so that either mothers or fathers can take that extra hour. Government sponsored maternity pay covers all parents: birth parents, adoptive parents, intended parents, and foster parents. Mothers and fathers, same sex or heterosexual, male and female alike, this policy covers parents.
In the larger conversation of paid leave in the United States, I felt like those 12 weeks were a gift, a gift that may have been given begrudgingly by the liberal American institutions that employed me, but a gift all the same. Days before I gave birth to my first child, I sat in a meeting to set the strategic direction of our organization. I disagreed with my boss and rather than acknowledge my dissent, he told me that “I would do better to focus on my upcoming labor and delivery and leave the big decisions to” him. It is no surprise that when I returned to work, he would ask me if I would be attending evening programs or if I was instead “going home to be mom.” There was a new father on our team as well, a father who shared actively in the caregiving to his two children, but he was never spoken to in this way, never demeaned for his choice to be a parent and a professional.
Despite being the main caregiver to both our children during the work week (my husband traveled four days a week most weeks), I did my best not to let external pressure or expectations fully impact me. I schlepped my pump on the bus to and from work, I blocked out time on my calendar each day to sit in a small closet and pump milk for my babies, and I endured the unabashed criticism of colleagues and bosses for having made the decision to bear children while also having the ambition to work. Why should I be given a promotion when I didn’t work as many hours as others? Why didn’t I attend all of the evening programs as others did? One supervisor suggested that I hire a nanny to allow better attendance at work programming that occurred outside of the regular working hours.
And then I had my third child in Israel. Ironically, I don’t work for an Israeli institution and therefore don’t qualify for the national benefits, but the expectation from everyone around me is that I take six months off before returning to work. No one questions the impact on my career of staying home with the baby, and most daycares don’t even have programs for children younger than 6 months. The expectation is that I will spend these six months recovering from labor and delivery, bonding with my child, and raising him beyond the 12 weeks that I was given in the US.
Psychologically, this policy is a huge gift to a parent. At 12 weeks, many new moms and dads are still sleepless, covered in spit up, and struggling to use the hours in their days productively. To be honest, all of these things are still true for me, four months in to having my third child, but the ability to take time to find my footing in the ever-changing landscape of parenting isn’t just gracious, it is necessary. I have never had the chance to keep a baby home with me past 12 weeks before this.
The conversation about parental leave is bigger than just the weeks granted and the money paid. It is a shift in attitude, moving from one that views parents as a detriment to the organization’s bottom line to one that values the employee through all of their life stages and changes. The United States falls woefully low on the list of nations when it comes to paying for leave, whether to care for a baby, a child, or a family member. The United States was not founded as a welfare state, but that can’t be what stops us from evolving.
I am lucky. I had jobs and insurance and paid maternity leave when I had my children in the United States, but I am one of a disappearing minority, which is why I lift Israel’s policy as an example at this moment, at a moment at which we have an opportunity to make positive change in the United States.