A working mom on her employer’s unpaid family leave policy

Editor’s Note: Netflix made headlines last month when it announced that it would offer a full year of paid parental leave to most of its employees. It’s part of a larger trend of high-profile tech firms, including Google, YouTube, Adobe and Microsoft, that have recently expanded their parental leave policies.

But these companies are in a minority. More than 70 percent of employers in the United States don’t offer paid maternity leave, and more than 80 percent don’t offer paid paternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off within one year of a child’s birth. And small businesses with less than 50 employees are exempt.

In January, Economics correspondent Paul Solman and producer Diane Lincoln dove deep into the debate on whether time off is good for new parents and business. The segment was so popular — and heavily used in a John Oliver Mother’s Day segment — that the NewsHour decided to rerun an updated version on tonight’s PBS NewsHour.

In exploring the issue of unpaid family leave, Diane Lincoln spoke with Claire Prestwood, an employee of the federal government and new mom. Prestwood spoke of the difficulties of a mere 12-week maternity leave, unpaid. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

Claire Prestwood: My daughter is three, her name is Ainslee. Declan is six days old, and we are doing pretty well so far.

Diane Lincoln: What is your employer’s maternity leave policy?

Claire Prestwood: I get the 12 weeks I’m entitled to under the Family Medical Leave Act. So it’s all unpaid. And the only opportunity I would have to receive additional paid leave would be to use my vacation time or accrued sick leave. In some cases, we can solicit leave donations within the agency, and colleagues or work friends will donate. So far, I’ve received two donations, which is fantastic. Any little bit helps.

Diane Lincoln: Besides the donated days are you going to use any vacation or sick time?

Claire Prestwood: I’ve used pretty much all of my sick and leave time already, because when you have a young child, almost all of your paid leave goes to their sick days or any time you need to take off to bring them to the doctor for a regular checkup, so I rarely use sick time for myself. It usually goes to my first child, and I have used all of it this year to take care of her. So when the maternity leave came around for the second time for Declan, I basically was out of leave. So I have to take 12 weeks unpaid.

Diane Lincoln: So it’s all unpaid, except for the two days that your generous coworkers donated to you?

Claire Prestwood: Yes. And federal holidays. (laughs)

Diane Lincoln: Are you worried about managing without your income for three months?

Claire Prestwood: We timed our birth basically to be able to save up and have a cushion. I couldn’t afford to take more than 12 weeks though. We just budgeted for 12 weeks of coverage, because we knew that’s how much time I would be able to take. And we are comfortable where we had enough time between both kids where we could save up a bit more.

Diane Lincoln: Why do you think maternity leave is important?

Claire Prestwood: I think first, women have to heal after they have children. To expect someone to be back at work two weeks after they have a baby is really a high expectation given the lack of sleep and the physical process that your body goes through.

Second is being able to care for your baby. There’s no one else except the mother who can really best care for the child in the first two weeks of their life given needs for nursing and bonding and the fact that you’re the only human being that baby’s really ever known.

Third is if anyone expected me to go back to work two to six weeks after I had a child, I would be the most unproductive employee in the office. I would be exhausted, and I would be worried about my child. It really wouldn’t be worth it for me to be in the office or for them to have me there trying to work, because it just wouldn’t work well.

Diane Lincoln: So if you could — if you were paid for longer — would you take a longer leave?

Claire Prestwood: I would. I would take a longer leave. I mean, it’s very important to me to be home with my child and take care of him for the first several months of his life. I think that it’s a benefit to both the family, but also to the workforce, to have an employee who feels like they’re supported and cared for both in their private life as well as in their professional life.

Diane Lincoln: Do you think that 12 weeks is enough?

Claire Prestwood: For me, it was enough. It may not be enough for others, but for me personally, it was fine. But I also had the comfort of knowing that my husband would be home with our child for at least a month after I went back to work, so it wouldn’t be like I was sending such a small, tiny person to a daycare or to strangers to be cared for. My spouse was there. That’s also something that we have that’s very fortunate.

Diane Lincoln: You’ve touched on this before, but tell me, do you see drawbacks to the employer if parents come back too soon?

Claire Prestwood:  Yeah, you’re mentality is going to be split between what’s going on with your child at home, being exhausted and then also worrying about whether or not you’re meeting the standards they expect you to meet at work. It’s, you know, the typical sort of mom-guilt that people refer to. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, because it’s not just, “Oh, I should be home with my baby,” it’s, “I’m exhausted, I want to be home with my baby, but I’m also required to be here, and I need to do a good job, because they’re paying me to do a good job.”