The Impact of “Parental Leave” in the USA

by Emilie Cleaver

Warning – this post gets graphic and brutally real. AS IT SHOULD. I am talking about the literal birth of a human child. You will read the words “vagina,” “nipples,” “hemorrhoids.” Read at your own risk.

When I had my amazing baby girl, I got to take 12 blissful weeks off work on a little extended vacation with my perfect bundle of joy.


Okay now that the joke’s out of the way, here’s what that sentence should actually look like:

I pushed a human child out of my vagina, then spent 12 weeks bleeding, walking like a penguin, trying to heal, learning how to feed the child with my body, learning how to heal my body from said child’s horrifically sharp gums (how can humans without teeth hurt your nipples SO BAD???), hallucinating from lack of sleep, crying (me, not the baby, though there was PLENTY of that too), trying (and often failing) to figure out why the baby was crying, lamenting the disgusting state of my home because I had literally no time to clean, and trying to figure out how we were going to make it financially.

And I HAD IT EASY. I have a very supportive spouse. And he’s a teacher, so he was able to be home with me for the first few weeks of our spawn’s life since he was on summer break. We were fortunate. We live in a country where most partners get a week off for the births of their children if they are lucky. Many don’t get any parental leave at all.

I didn’t have postpartum depression. I have experience and knowledge in child development. I’ve been babysitting and nannying from the time I could make a peanut butter sandwich. And it was still the hardest twelve weeks of my life.

Then I had to go back to work.

I hadn’t even gotten very good at breastfeeding yet, my baby had JUST begun not to scream all day long, and I was still not getting nearly enough sleep.

“Parental leave” is usually FMLA.

In the vast majority of the United States, “parental leave” does not actually exist. And I’m not even talking paid leave. I mean AT ALL, paid or unpaid. What is commonly referred to as “maternity leave” is in fact actually (usually, in most places) FMLA – the Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA is frequently called “maternity leave” because it is the only way mothers get to take time off. Often this is true even if they have sick and vacation time saved up.

And don’t get me started on how wrong it is to have to use VACATION TIME to get time off as a new mother. LIKE IT’S A VACATION. Again, refer to above: “Ha. Ha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

Yet most places I’ve worked have had a policy in place where you have to use all your sick and vacation time in conjunction with FMLA. You get your 12 weeks off, and some of it is even paid (however much sick and vacation time you have saved up)! So you get 12 weeks of time off work, but your sick and vacation time must be used and counts toward the twelve weeks, and the rest is unpaid if you don’t happen to have 12 weeks of sick and/or vacation time saved, and then you get to go back to work with no time off available for when your child inevitably gets sick their first few weeks in daycare BECAUSE THEY HAD TO GO TO DAYCARE AT 12 WEEKS.

Don’t get me started on how TWELVE WEEKS is not nearly enough time for a tiny little peanut who lived for nine months (or FORTY WEEKS) inside of a human to separate from said human and be in someone else’s care for eight or more hours per day, no matter how perfect the childcare arrangements may be.

What if you don’t qualify for FMLA or can’t afford to take parental leave?

Also, the above scenarios only apply to people who are fortunate enough to get 12 weeks off. People who can afford to take 12 weeks off with some, most, or all of it being unpaid. Not if you work part time and/or don’t accrue time off of any sort or if you can’t afford 12 weeks off, period. Daycare centers begin accepting babies as young as six weeks. When my baby was six weeks old I was still dealing with hemorrhoids and bleeding and would have almost certainly given up breastfeeding if I had to pump 3-4 times a day at that point (props to exclusively pumping mothers omg you da real MVPs). Not to mention the fact that my baby was still screaming in pain and/or unexplainably for most of the day at six weeks and would continue to do so until around ten weeks.

And it’s not uncommon for parents to have to return to work at six weeks or even earlier. I’ve heard as early as two weeks. THIS. IS. RIDICULOUS. How?!?!

So there’s my soapbox on how absurd “parental leave” in the US is.

Here’s how it went for me.

I went into it thinking “babies sleep a lot, I’ll have time to get stuff done and maybe even make some money on the side.”

I direct you again to this sentence: “Ha. Ha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

I’m so glad I didn’t actually commit to any client work before my baby arrived. Hoooo boy would I have under-delivered (birth pun not intended but definitely appropriate).

My baby had NO CHILL. Let me point you to this Twitter thread where I described just how hard the first weeks of parenthood were. To sum it up, I didn’t have time to shower, let alone do any work aside from taking care of my baby. I couldn’t have made money on my leave if I wanted to. And indeed I did want to and had planned on it.

Challenging baby twitter thread

Financial Impact of Taking Parental Leave

Financially, we scraped by because we had the means to do so. I had been saving extra in our emergency/baby fund throughout my pregnancy in preparation for my parental leave. I also got a credit card with 0% interest for the first 15 months just in case, which we needed toward the end of my leave because after living on one income and our savings for 12 weeks, we still had to pay ahead for daycare for my return to work.

Having a baby set us back. Thankfully, I had paid ahead by a year on my student loans, so that gave me a cushion and I didn’t have to worry about them. We used all of our emergency fund and put additional charges on our credit card.

Lost Income and The Motherhood Tax

Not only did I lose out on the money I didn’t make during my unpaid leave, I also lost future income potential. I lost 24% of my salary that would have been invested in my retirement for the 12 weeks I was out. I’m not going to do the math on how much money I lost compounded in the market over 30 years, but let’s suffice it to say that it isn’t a small amount.

I missed out on the ability to get the maximum percentage raise over my evaluation period. Due to attendance. Because I had poor attendance from taking time off TO HAVE A BABY. That one really boils my blood because it is the clearest example of a “motherhood tax” that I can think of. This will affect my earning potential for all of my working years with this employer. It will affect my retirement contributions and the company match for all of my working years with them, and if I decide to have more children, I will be even more impacted financially.

It pushes my potential retirement date back not just by the 12 weeks I took off, but by the loss of compound interest I would have received in at least three ways (retirement contribution, employer contribution, potential for future raises which impacts future savings and future retirement contributions). Compounded, this is A LOT OF MONEY I am missing out on that the men in my company don’t even have to think about or worry about. Meanwhile I have to decide if having children is worth losing so much earning potential, while also juggling the physical and emotional toll of returning to work within 12 weeks of childbirth.

“But having kids is a choice,” you say.

“You should have saved more/waited until you were out of debt/waited until you were older.”

If this is your argument against implementing better parental leave policies in the US, it’s a stupid argument and I’m not even going through the emotional labor to refute it.

This post is coming from someone who likes her job. Who has done well after going back to work and is happy with returning. And still, I know that we are not doing nearly enough for families in the US with our leave “policies” (if you can call them that).

As a society, we need to talk about the real impact having children has on parents financially, physically, and emotionally. I’m here to say that we have got to do better. And that’s where I’ll leave you for now.

Let me know in the comments what your experience of “parental leave” was like or what it will be like if you’re expecting!

Peach Colored Flowers

You may also like

1 comment

Savvy History June 16, 2020 - 6:55 pm

Great post for people who desire kids and even people who don’t desire kids. As a teacher, the timing of my firstborn was great. May – giving me 14 weeks paid with him.

This time? I am due in Sep. I sit here very pregnant while asked how soon I want to come back. Only 6 weeks is paid. I could push myself to do it, but I know it is healthy for both the baby and I to aim for 12 weeks. So – as you can imagine – we are saving up! It seems so ridiculous that I have to make this choice. If we are doing school online again, I may push myself to come back sooner to save some money, but I’m not happy about it. Part of me thinks I should be thankful I should get anything at all (that’s the way the US has us thinking!)


Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.