The shaky world of employer maternity benefits…or lack thereof

It’s time to treat maternity leave less like a hot commodity reserved for the select few and more like the basic medical necessity it is.

You’ve probably seen the infographics already–the ones showing how every country pretty much ever gives more maternity leave to mothers than the United States does. Every time a sweet, gentle Canadian comments on a story to relay in their charmingly befuddled Canadian way that, eh, in Canada new mothers (or fathers) are given a year of leave, with varying levels of pay involved, I want to hunt down a Google Chrome extension that blocks all Canadian healthcare comments from my view. With President Obama’s new federal bill that would give federal workers six weeks of paid maternity leave, you’d think I’d be happy, but to be honest, it’s not that great of a step to me.

Have you had a baby recently? Or ever? If you have, you might remember the six-week mark, or maybe you don’t since it might be buried in a blur of memory the way my recollection of the six-week mark is. My baby was small–had she even reached seven pounds yet? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I was struggling with breastfeeding, and naturally I was not sleeping. I returned to work and felt as though I were swimming through a dense fog.

I was also the head breadwinner for my family. While people like to cite the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the law that requires certain employers to grant 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, I was not eligible for that benefit. Although I’d been working in my professional field for years, FMLA is only granted to people who (among other requirements) have been with an employer for at least 12 months. Having the audacity to pursue a higher position while pregnant came at a high cost to me in terms of FMLA protection, as well as accrued time off prior to giving birth. Many people talk about the way motherhood stalls people professionally because they get mommy-tracked, but the professional limbo can happen before the kid ever makes an appearance. I worked hard straight out of college, rarely took time off, and worked my way up ladders. But that didn’t matter. I wasn’t covered by FMLA, and while my employer was kind and generous and didn’t replace me during my unprotected leave, it was scary to take that leap of faith.

But enough about me, right? I’m by no means an isolated incident, and the plight of working women and their lack of reasonable leave and job security is well-documented. I really want to talk to you about a new breed of benefit appearing on the horizon: select companies wooing women with promises of egg freezing and generous maternity leave.

First, the egg-freezing. It’s the “great equalizer” crowed TIME back in October. But where some might see equality, I see a more pernicious message that hurts professional working women: promoting the freezing implies that having a baby makes you a problem employee. “We’re going to ‘help’ you take away that problem,” they seem to say. “Don’t have a baby on our time.”

And the “help” is not exactly helpful if you’re not fully cognizant of what using frozen eggs can entail. The majority of states do not mandate coverage for fertility treatments, or an insurance provider may cover some procedures (say, intrauterine insemination or “IUIs”) but not others (in vitro fertilization or “IVF”). During my time dealing with unexplained infertility, I had one insurance provider that refused any procedure coded with anything fertility-related. Maybe these select companies are offering sassy insurance benefits better than mine, but what if the woman wants to use those eggs later (as is clearly the intention) and she’s with a different provider?

Passing egg-freezing off as an easy solution for employers to present to their potential hires as a way to kick the can down the road kicks that can in directions women may not fully realize. According to the TIME article, “…on email lists and at dinner parties, women trade egg-freezing tips like recipe binders: which insurers cover what, the right terminology to use when asking for it, side effects of hormone injections that stimulate egg production and the outpatient procedure one most go through to retrieve the eggs.”  

In addition to being absurd–when was the last time anyone you know passed a recipe binder around?–this makes retrieval sound like a breeze and not at all like the act of sticking oneself with multiple long painful needles, begging your care providers to not use any codes that mention fertility because your insurance will deny the claim, and waiting on pins and needles to see if your frozen eggs, when fertilized, are even usable. Sometimes they aren’t. The “peace of mind” that the article suggests is promised by this benefit is a figment of collective imagination where IVF is involved. There are no guarantees. Nobody could find out the cause of my infertility, which is why I proceeded to IVF. I took all the drugs, did all the shots, had about 17 promising-looking eggs…and ended up with only three usable ones. I was freshly 27 years old–hardly advanced maternal-age material.

Maybe these professional women should be given credit for taking charge of their fertility.  But maybe it should also be clear if an employer is only covering the freezing, and not the procedures necessary to use the eggs. And maybe it would be nice if “just don’t have kids on our time” was not the presented solution to the “problem” of women being women.

So some companies employ the kick-the-can-down-the-road method of wooing female employees. But what about those darling tech companies like Google and Facebook?  It turns out they’ve got a pretty good package: Google offers as much as 22 paid weeks of leave, according to BuzzFeed. This is all well and good, but to be honest it has little impact on me. Google isn’t hiring me, or (likely) you, anytime soon. So we’re left to gaze into the window at the Other, much like I do when I think of Google’s famed free fancy meals. For the unwashed non-Google masses including me, perks like this might seem like magical fantasies.

But maternity leave shouldn’t be a magical fantasy. 

A person’s talent shouldn’t have to align with a very specific niche employer in order to stay home with a newborn while recovering from a difficult medical experience, trying to find a sleep pattern, and struggling to make breastfeeding work. I returned to work in a haze. I was still in a lot of pain, and looking back over my tax receipts made me realize how often I had to go back to VCU to see my doctor about my physical pain after returning to work, squeezing appointments in over lunch breaks since I had no PTO left to use. I all-too-often cried myself to sleep because of the pain I was in, saying to my husband that I would gladly give birth again because at least that pain had ceased

I shouldn’t have to daydream about becoming a coding wizard or moving to Canada to live life without that experience. Nobody should. Google can keep their cereal bars and massage services. When it comes to basic recovery time for a difficult, multi-layered experience that women across all walks of life go through, I think everyone should have greater access to that recovery time, not just the techies at Menlo Park or the federal employees covered by Obama’s new law (which is still insufficient). A person’s profession or time on the job doesn’t dictate how well she’ll recover from a birth; therefore her profession or longevity shouldn’t dictate how much she’s protected or how much time she gets. It’s time to treat maternity leave less like a hot commodity reserved for the select few and more like the basic medical necessity it is.

Photo by: Daquella manera

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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