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Commentary

Maternity leave

Jack Lessenberry

I teach at Wayne State University, which, more than any other school in our state, offers working people a chance at a first-class education. Last year, I had a woman enroll in two of my classes who was obviously heavily pregnant.

After a while, I asked when the baby was due. She told me a date in the middle of the semester. I asked what she planned to do about her classes.

The young woman, who seemed a trifle naïve, told me her due date was a Saturday. She thought she might have to miss the Monday class, but would be back after that.

“No, you won’t,” I told her.

I explained that for one thing, not even doctors knew for sure when babies would come, and for another, she wouldn’t feel up to rigorous academic work right after having a baby. I told her to stop coming to class, that I would give her incompletes, and she was to come and see me later.

Well, she had the baby and I haven’t heard from her since, which doesn’t surprise me. Something did disturb me, however; she said that she wished her job had been as understanding.

Which underlines a major injustice. The United States and Michigan are disgracefully horrible when it comes to maternity leave. Writing earlier this week in the Daily Kos, sociologist Laura Clawson noted that we are the only major nation that doesn’t require any paid maternity leave for new mothers.

Great Britain guarantees thirty-nine weeks. Australia, eighteen. Even Mexico, parts of which are more developing than developed, offers a dozen weeks of paid leave. America requires nothing.

In Michigan, as far as I can determine, there are no specific state laws on the books requiring maternity leave, paid or otherwise. The Elliott-Larsen civil rights act does supposedly prevent someone from being fired for being pregnant, and they are supposed to be given their jobs back after having the baby.

Legally, they can request more unpaid time off under FMLA, the Family Medical Leave act, though there are no guarantees this won’t damage their careers.

map of maternity leave by state
Credit http://michrad.io/1DudYwt / National Partnership for Women & Families
/
National Partnership for Women & Families
From the report "Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help Families"

The real problem, however, is that for most families, this is no longer the 1950s. In classic sitcom terms, both Ward and June Cleaver usually have to work, to keep the mortgage and keep Wally and the Beav in school.

Politically, we are making it harder and harder for people, especially educated young professionals, to have a future, which is one reason they tend to have few babies.

What’s ironic is that many of the politicians who claim to be “pro-family” are anything but. What they usually mean by pro-family is that they are anti-abortion and anti-same sex marriage.

But anyone who opposes paid maternity leave is, in reality, anti-family, and we ought to start calling things what they are. It is extremely telling that pregnancy is considered a “short-term disability” in both federal and Michigan law.

Funny thing, that we stigmatize the very process by which we create members of our society. By the way, if we ever did join the rest of the civilized world and provide paid maternity leave, childless people like me might have to pay more taxes.

Well, I think we damned well should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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