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Maternity leave policy: Why it's time for a new one

What does a modern maternity leave policy look like, post-pandemic?

The world may have been put on pause recently, but the human instinct to multiply has not. Babies are still being born despite global uncertainty, and it’s something all businesses need to make provisions for. 

One thing's for sure: taking maternity or paternity leave is not a vacation. Becoming a new parent (or adding to your existing family) has never been easy, but times are particularly challenging now. Having time off work to be with a new child is a necessary component of their physical, mental and psychological health (and that of the parents, too). 

Too many societies and businesses see it as an inconvenience and don't give parental leave the respect it's due. But the disruption caused by the pandemic has meant a chance to rethink how we approach parental leave, and what parenting means for our work-life balance

Taking time away from work to welcome a new human to the world is still a necessity - so have things changed for parents in the pandemic? We've already looked at how parental leave for childcare has evolved - but should we expect changes in attitudes towards maternity and paternity leave in the near future? Here's how things are looking around the world.

Statistics on maternity leave policy and the pandemic-related changes

  • In the Republic of Ireland, parents of children born during the pandemic were granted an additional three weeks of leave alongside the usual maternity, paternity and adoptive leave. [1]
  • Despite the petitions of 236,000 people, the UK government denied calls to extend parental leave for births due to the pandemic. The government said the country's maternity arrangements are already "among the most generous in the world". [2]
  • The pandemic has made millennials without children even less inclined to start families, with 48% saying they don't want children at all. [3]
  • 52% of millennials say the rising cost of childcare is a major reason they don't want to have kids. [3]
  • Modern fathers take on roughly three times as much childcare duties than they did in 1965 - they now average eight hours a week. [4] 
  • 7% of US fathers are stay-at-home dads, according to research done in 2016. This is up from the 4% seen back in 1989. [4] 
  • Childcare responsibilities for fathers have increased even further during the pandemic, with men participating in childcare and housework more than ever before. [5]
  • 68% of dads report feeling closer to their children during the pandemic, and 57% say they are appreciating their children more. [6]
  • Unfortunately, men’s increased participation in childcare means we are inching closer to equality but far from there yet — studies show that women have had to disproportionately drop out of the workforce due to antiquated notions of caregiving that lead to gender inequalities in the home. Mothers are three more times than fathers to be responsible for a majority of housework and childcare during the pandemic. [8]
  • In 2020, around 3 million women left the labor market in the United States, and as a result, women no longer make up 50% of the workforce. [7]
  • Women accounted for 100% of the 156,000 jobs lost in the U.S. economy in December 2020, while men gained 16,000 jobs in that same month. [9]
  • In Jan 2020, 275k women left the workforce in the U.S., compared with 71,000 men. [10]

How different countries approached parental leave during the pandemic

Having a baby can be stressful even during the most peaceful of times. In the challenging environment of a pandemic, there are tons more things to be concerned about for the entire family - from employment stability to physical safety to mental health. There’s some good advice out there on how to deal with giving birth during COVID-19, but one of the most pressing issues is being able to take enough time away from work - and that’s not something new moms and dads have much control over. 

Taking time off is super important for early-life bonding and having the security of paid leave is a big help towards making childbirth a less stressful event. Different nations certainly have different outlooks on this issue, though. Here are some examples of changes that were (and weren’t) made to parental leave in light of the pandemic. 

Ireland

In the Republic of Ireland, ‘Parent's Leave’ is the government's mandated paid time off for new parents, and it usually allows each of them 2 weeks' paid leave during the first year of a child's life.

We saw above that for babies born after November 2019 (those whose early life was disrupted by the pandemic), their parents were granted an additional 3 weeks of leave.

So it's increased to 5 weeks paid leave in total, and has been extended to cover the first 2 years of the child's life.

Parent's Leave works in addition to the maternity leave policy, which is 26 weeks (paid) and an optional 16 extra weeks (unpaid). Paternity leave is still short, at 2 weeks, but that's in line with many other countries.

United States

The US doesn't have a national paid maternity leave policy yet, despite the high proportion of women in the workplace - just over half of the country's workforce is female, but society has a way to go before making fair parental leave a priority. Parental leave is currently mandated by a "patchwork of state regulations, employer policies and short-term disability coverage".

This means new moms, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act, get 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their newborn children.

The pandemic didn't seem to influence this arrangement much - while the FMLA itself was extended to cover those needing medical leave due to COVID-19, it didn't mean that maternity leave itself was extended.

That said, in July 2020 some steps were made by the Department of Labor to solicit public feedback on the FMLA which may lead to reform under the new federal administration in 2021.

The positive side of this is that certain progressive employers themselves have stepped in to give provisions to parents who are responsible for both new and existing children - take Microsoft for example, who are offering a 12-week 'Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave'.

United Kingdom

The UK's maternity leave policy is relatively generous, compared with other countries. Statutory Maternity Pay is paid by every employer for up to 39 weeks, which totals 90% of salary.

Alongside this, shared parental leave was introduced in 2015, allowing parents to separate their leave allowance into blocks, and arrange them between each other as they see fit. Participation is surprisingly low, though - with less than 2% of eligible couples taking up the offer. During Shared Parental leave, parents could share 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after they have a baby. The parents can take time off separately, or can be at home together for up to six months. Some progressive companies took government mandates even further; insurance firm Aviva allowed all new parents the same amount of paid parental leave, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, on full basic pay.

During pandemic times, there were so many changes made to policies in 2020 we can't list them all, but there were both positive and negative developments. As we can see in the stats above, calls to extend maternity leave were rejected. New moms argued that children were denied important social bonding time during lockdowns - a crucial part of their psychological development - but the government didn't budge.

There are different rules for childcare leave (time off for caring for any child up to the age of 18) - businesses actually have to grant up to 4 weeks per year of unpaid leave for caring for children when they're sick or have other issues. Childcare leave is not available for those that have been furloughed in the pandemic, but that makes sense because they wouldn't be working anyway. 


On the 27th January 2021, the UK government announced schools would remain closed until at least the 8th of March, causing despair amongst parents around the country having to provide childcare at home for another few months.

The realities of maternity leave during the pandemic

Statistics can only tell you so much about the experiences of real moms, dealing with having babies during a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Elise Masella, executive director of global communications at life sciences company Merck, shared her experience after giving birth in February 2020, with both its highs and lows:

"In retrospect, the lockdown provided time for bonding our family wouldn’t have had with the normal swirl of friends and family bringing over meals and offering help."

This enhanced family time came to a (sort-of) end when Elise's 6-month maternity leave finished, but the lines between work and parenting were blurred due to WFH:

"I thought going back to work was going to be my magic bullet. But it turns out working from home in the middle of a pandemic is also not that easy...Instead of being in the office alongside my colleagues, leaders and teammates, I was still stuck in the house I hadn’t left for months. Instead of celebrating my return with hugs and high-fives, I logged onto video meeting after video meeting, call after call."

She goes on to describe how difficult it was being present for her son 24/7, and losing a proper sense of work-life balance when tempted to work at odd hours of the day.

This experience will have been shared by millions of new moms around the world - a strange maternity leave that doesn't offer the same feeling of being away from work that it normally does. There's no clear and obvious answer to fixing these issues; sacrifices were made by everyone, but at least it looks like we won't have to endure situations like this for too much longer.

It does beg the question, though: if there's a future pandemic or resurgent form of COVID, will companies adjust their provisions for new moms? Or is it so unlikely as to not be worth planning for?

The state of paternity leave and fatherhood during the pandemic

Paternity leave, as usual, has been talked about less than maternity leave during the last year. Uptake of paternity leave has historically been pretty low, with many new fathers not taking it at all, even when offered. Whether it's paid or unpaid, it's still a rare sight to see paternity leave made use of.

During the pandemic, there's been an increase in childcare being done by dads, but the idea of taking leave for it is still relatively unpopular. In fact, there doesn't seem to have been any major announcements by governments or companies about increasing paternity leave, so it could be a while before we see meaningful change.

It seems like there's still a schism of expectations around responsibility for fathers that's contributing to this issue. This CNN piece highlights the structural and cultural reasons that paternity leave isn't seen to be as necessary as maternity leave:

"We lack policies — at least in the United States — that allow parents to share work more equitably because the people don't demand them, and people can't embrace more equitable sharing because the policies don't allow them."

It makes sense; increased parenting time means Dad's company needs to dial down his workload and provide more leave. But for management, that's probably not going to be a priority.

In families where both parents are bringing home the dough, there's probably going to be a slightly more equitable housework arrangement than single-earner families. And of course, there are cases where women are the sole breadwinner alongside a stay-at-home dad, although this seems to be rare - in fact, only 7% of US fathers are stay-at-home dads. (In 2020, of course, way more dads stayed at home, although not necessarily by choice.)

The pandemic has certainly given men and their families plenty of time to think about these things. Increased exposure to their children may have caused a shift in perspective towards more involved parenting. If that's the case, it could lead to more enthusiasm for parental and paternity leave for dads who really want to make the most of time with their kids. This could be a really positive thing for family health, but it'll be a while before it's reflected in demographic trends.

One positive step towards paternity equality, at least, has been provided by individual companies bringing in new caregiving policies. It's been most visible in service and tech companies that have a relatively equal balance of male and female employees; Google for example provided 14 weeks of paid leave to full-time employees to take care of family during pandemic lockdowns, which would have included newborn children. Other tech giants have offered similar programs, although it's yet to be seen what long-term policy changes this results in.

As we saw in the stats above, modern dads in the USA now do three times as much childcare as they did before, and 57% of them see parenting as central to their identity. So it'll be interesting to see whether this drives meaningful policy change for leave rights in the long term.

What's the future of parental leave after the pandemic?

There are so many factors that go into deciding parental leave, it's difficult to make predictions. One thing's for certain - it's given parents, businesses and governments around the world a lot to think about.

Pandemic lockdowns have caused a huge increase in responsibility for home parenting alongside work causing unprecedented stress for many parents who have to take care of their kids 24/7 with no respite. But people haven't stopped reproducing, with plenty of people due to have children facing uncertainty around their pregnancy and childbirth during a rapidly evolving global situation.

Various interests have to be catered for; the wellbeing of parents themselves, the wellbeing of the children, the economy in general, and businesses that rely on employing the parents. What's probable after this pandemic is a shake-up in how parental leave is allocated, now that childcare has taken center stage in public consciousness.

It's not easy bringing a new life into the world, for either parent - and that's being reflected in broader socioeconomic trends.

Economic growth is tied to a healthy birth rate, and governments can't neglect the wellbeing of children and their parents. Whether people are having enough children to sustain growth is another question - the stats above show millennials (and to some extent, zoomers) are becoming less interested in starting families due to a number of different concerns, including pandemic-induced economic strife, political instability, anxiety over climate change, and so on. 

With the threat of population growth lower than necessary for economic growth, Western governments might have to intervene and offer a much more attractive maternity leave policy and support packages to up their nations' fertility rates.

What will that include? Hopefully, a fairer and more balanced share between maternity and paternity leave. Greater understanding that good parental leave policies are necessary for a healthy society and more successful businesses in the long-term (as it increases employee health and loyalty). Shared parental leave would ideally become the norm, too.

Governments need to work hand in hand with businesses to rebalance the unfair, outdated legislation that doesn't reflect the pressures that new parents are under in today's working life.


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