Tara worked full-time and was already caring for a toddler when she had her second child. Like many American mothers, Tara was not granted maternity leave. Instead, she cobbled together vacation days to give herself a mere 20 days with her new baby following the birth. With money tight, “my family can’t afford the loss of even one paycheck,” she told the Atlantic last year.
In a country where 88 percent of women do not get a single hour of paid leave after giving birth to a child, Tara’s story represents the struggles of thousands of women. However, even when maternity leave is granted — as much as four months of paid leave in some cases — many women choose not to take it, for fear of hurting their careers and jeopardizing their standing.
In a study by Ohio State University, between 1994 and 2015, an average of 273,000 women took maternity leave each month in the United States. However, since 2004, this number has hardly increased, despite new state laws awarding leave to expectant mothers. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island now offer between four to six weeks of parental leave. According to Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, “it was surprising and troubling” that state laws had no impact on the national average of women taking maternity leave.
Unlike previous generations, women today are having children during the peak of their careers, when their earnings are critical to the financial well-being of their families.
Women comprise two-thirds of the low-wage workforce. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64 percent of mothers with children under six work. In 40 percent of households with children, women provide the primary financial support for the family.
When a family’s income is tight, it's no wonder women feel the need to go back to work immediately after having a child, especially when new mothers who choose not to work face stigma. A study by University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig found that an average American woman’s earnings decrease by 4 percent with every child she has. On the contrary, the average American man’s earnings increase by 6 percent per child. Researchers have also discovered that fathers are often perceived as competent employees and are more likely to be hired than mothers.
Some companies are making an effort to offer proper time off to new moms. Starbucks offers new mothers six weeks of fully paid maternal leave. Facebook offers four months of fully paid time off after a woman has a child.
Whether due to financial obligations or other reasons, many women do not take time off because they do not want to hurt their careers. A study by iCIMS Women in the Workforce Report discovered that 45 percent of office professionals believe taking parental leave would limit their opportunities for a promotion. Women become increasingly concerned as they move up in their careers about the potential consequences of maternity leave.
Until the culture and the laws around maternity leave shift in favor of working mothers, women will continue to struggle balancing their careers and their children.