Just before I got pregnant with my first child, Australia’s paid maternity leave laws changed. Actually, they didn’t change - they were born.
Before I had my first baby in 2012, there was no such thing as government-funded paid maternity leave. It was only after many years of lobbying the government (including the efforts of marie claire, an early and very vocal proponent of universal paid leave) that women (and later, men) were able to breathe a sigh of relief when they went on maternity leave: because of this new law, they would have one less thing to worry about.
Everyone knows that having a baby is a seismic shift in your life. There are the well-documented sleepless nights, the struggles with breastfeeding, changes to your relationship with your partner…. the list goes on. It’s a huge adjustment and one that most parents struggle with, at least initially.
Which is why paid maternity leave is so important.
I was lucky enough, back in 2012, to receive both the government-backed leave (18 weeks at minimum wage, which is around $620 a week) and 10 weeks’ paid leave from my employer.
For six months, my partner and I did not have to worry about money. It was such a relief. I can’t imagine how draining and stressful it would be to be caring for a newborn as well as worrying about how you were going to pay for her next tub of formula. I think it’s unconscionable that anyone should have to worry about that.
So yes, we didn’t have to worry about money. But more than that, I didn’t have to worry about going back to work. I knew my job was safe, and that I was legally able to take up to two years off without risk of losing my position at the company. Again, this was a huge relief. I loved my job. I didn’t want to lose it. I didn’t want to even think about it while I was at home with my baby, and luckily, I didn’t have to.
The benefit of having both 28 weeks of paid maternity leave and a guaranteed job to come back to meant that I was able to bond with my baby. And it took a long time for that to happen. When my baby was first born, I felt that flood of love and gratitude that many mothers (and fathers) feel, but it took a long time for me to feel as if she belonged to me, and I to her. If I’d had to rush back to work, I fear that that may never have happened.
So the idea that it is somehow unfair for women to have both government-supported and employer-provided maternity leave really angers me. When it was announced yesterday that the government might extend the paid parental leave scheme by two weeks, the criticism began - in the comments section online and on air. Many critics are Baby Boomers, who never benefited from paid leave - and who are furious that this “entitled” generation does.
This makes my blood boil. Paid maternity leave is not welfare, and it’s not a handout. It is a benefit of living in a society that values families and the contributions of women. And receiving paid maternity leave from private employers is our right, too. When it came to choosing my employer, I looked very carefully at their maternity leave scheme before signing on the dotted line. I wanted to work for a company that valued women and said to them, “Take this time to be with your child - but we want you back when you’re ready. You’re important to us.”
"How many times have I heard that women who go back to work are “selfish” and “unloving”? Too many to count."Lauren Sams
The idea that our mothers and grandmothers got by without PPL is ridiculous. Sure, they did, but the world was pretty different back then, wasn’t it? My own mum was expected to quit work when she gave birth to me. She was 24, and it was 1985. She did quit her job and though she was happy to, I often wonder at what might have been if she’d stayed in her role. Maybe she would have had a career that she loved, and that fulfilled her. Maybe she would have gone on to higher education. Maybe she would have travelled overseas before she was 40. Who knows? But do we really want to go back to a world where women in their early 20s are told that they’re no longer required by the workforce? Can we even afford to live in that kind of world?
The thing that really gets me about the people who complain about women “double dipping” is that these same people often gripe about parents sending their kids to daycare (as if daycares were akin to, say, gulags). How many times have I heard that babies shouldn’t be sent off to childcare under the age of one? How many times have I heard that women who go back to work are “selfish” and “unloving”? Too many to count. The reality is that if we scrap “double-dipping”, many women will have no choice but to return to the workforce early.
My biggest fear about the proposed changes to PPL, though, is that if we don’t allow women to take advantage of both their employers’ schemes and the government’s policy, then what’s the point in having employer schemes at all?
I worry that companies will go backwards in their attitudes to women in general and working mothers in particular. I worry that the “mummy track” will grow larger and harder to step off. I worry that, once private PPL is off the table, employers won’t really care about mothers coming back to work, and they’ll stop offering incentives (at major accounting firm Ernst and Young, for instance, new mums are offered a cleaning service when they go back to work, and at Vodafone, parents returning to work can do a four-day week but be paid for their normal five for the first six months). If we repeal “double-dipping”, who knows what will be next? And who knows what the eventual cost might be to mothers, and to children?
I’m now pregnant with my second child, and in my four years of motherhood, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that kids actually don’t need all that much. They don’t need video monitors or iPads or organic food or anything from the Shopkins range (seriously, don’t get me started). What they do need is time. Time with their parents. Time to learn how to sleep, speak, walk and run. Time to be cuddled. Time to be read stories. Time to fall over and have a Band-Aid applied by a loving parent. Having time off work when you have a baby isn’t a holiday, or a chance to Kondo your house. It’s the opportunity to begin a lifelong relationship with your child. It’s the most precious thing in the world.