There is no paid or unpaid maternity leave in the USA.
Everybody knows that. But knowing this sad fact about American life does not help pregnant ladies with making decisions about how to care for their nascent newborn. Even if the country in which you live does not provide maternity leave [and the US is one of two countries in the world that do not] and even if you’re about to become a first-time mother, you probably intuitively understand that you cannot leave an infant home alone while you go back to work the day after delivery. Whether your nation/employer likes it or not, you’re going to have to figure out a game plan for those first months of your child’s life – more often than not, this game plan includes taking time off work. I recently went through this process myself, that is, I approached my employer about various options for maternity leave. The reaction I received prompted me to write this post. Even though my individual situation with my employer has yet to be solved [there has been two days of silence from my department since I communicated my plans], I suspect it might be helpful for other graduate students who get “knocked up” to read about the different obstacles they might face when they decide to apply for maternity leave.
This post is thus motivated by 1) the intent to help others; and 2) feminist rage.
If you think maternity leave has nothing to do with feminism and/or equality, you can save yourself some time and stop reading here. If you feel like yes I knew the right to maternity leave was a feminist issue ever since the first time my period was late and I totally freaked out [turned out to be a false alarm but you get the general idea] then I encourage you to continue.
If you are a pregnant graduate student and want to take a leave for any amount of time from your employment, there are a few things you should know before you communicate with your employer/department:
If you are employed, even as a graduate instructor, your employer/department is required to give you information about the kind of leave due to pregnancy and/or birth you are eligible for. I did not know this, and I took my department’s reply that they “know nothing about leaves for graduate student instructors” at a face value. Don’t be me – don’t let them fool you. If your state has laws for temporary disability leave or even family leave, as my state [California] does – which here is 12 weeks of unpaid leave – this leave applies to you because even as a graduate instructor you are an employee, your department/university is required to provide you with this information upon your request. I spent approximately a month trying to find the necessary information about pregnancy-related leave on UC Berkeley’s website and the only information I found which clearly stated it concerned graduate students lead to the Academic Student Employee Union’s current contract. The caveat? My union was still in negotiations with the UC system at the time and the complete new contract was not uploaded until later the same day as I had my meeting about maternity leave with my department earlier this week. If you have a union contract, know it and show it [see below]. If you do not have a union contract, you would still be eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave in California and some other states. Your specific university may have an even nicer policy for graduate students who are new parents [some offer an entire semester off – unpaid, of course, because if this country were to pay its new mothers a percentage of their paycheck for a few months, how would it be able to afford such enormous military expenses? priorities, people, priorities…].
According to my union contract, I am entitled to four months of maternity leave. UC Berkeley has a specific maternity fund which reimburses a replacement for me in any course I teach for six weeks, which means that the first six weeks of those four months are paid for me without any financial damage to my department and/or other funding. The rest is unpaid, so I need to make sure I can financially survive without a paycheck for two and a half months. When I return from my maternity leave, I am entitled to my previous work position according to my current appointment letter [lucky for me I already signed my new appointment letter for the upcoming academic year] or, if that for some reason is not possible, entitled to the same financial support as my salary would have given me. Basically, you cannot be punished for taking maternity leave – either financially or academically – and your department/university cannot punish you in any way for your pregnancy- and birth-related absence as long as you inform them at least 30 days in advance about your plans.
I did not know any of this when I discussed my maternity leave plans earlier this week with my department. If I had known this, I would probably have been less likely to be convinced that my plans for maternity leave would inconvenience them. I don’t know if this is an example of American mentality or proof of the peer pressure in academia, but it is a strange idea to me that I should decide to have or not have children – alternatively, to take care of them myself or to place them in day care – due to the needs or demands or requirements of my department. I realize that many women in academia from the generations before me did not have my perspective on this choice but faced risking their careers if they had children. But this is 2014 and there are plenty of laws which protect us from this kind of discrimination these days. Because of my November due date, my intended leave would stretch from early November to early March, thus making it necessary to replace me as the teacher in two courses: for the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester. I was told that this decision of mine would make it difficult for my department, since it would be their job to find a replacement, and at the time I had no reply to this argument. I wish I had said this paraphrase of what my mother later told me: “I have full confidence that one of the top universities in the world and one of the oldest Slavic Departments in the country can accommodate a maternity leave request from one student.” My department suggested that I take the entirety of the spring semester off so as not to inconvenience them by forcing them to hire a replacement teacher for the first half of the semester – tentatively without pay during the whole semester because I declared that I could survive financially for two and a half months of unpaid maternity leave. This is not okay. Your employer cannot force you take a leave for pregnancy or childbirth which you have not requested – this means, among other things, that you cannot be told to stop working because pregnancy makes you pee once every 30 minutes [I suspect I’ll come to learn that this struggle is real when I start teaching 50-minute classes again at seven months pregnant in August]. This includes forcing you to extend your leave beyond what you have applied for.
In my case I have decided that I will file an official complaint if my department denies me the right to return to work or withdraws my financial support. Since I’ve heard a fair share about how it is no good to be a whistle blower or to report discrimination [I’ve been encouraged to overlook discrimination on several occasions by faculty, staff, and graduate students – I don’t know what they're afraid of, but something is seriously scary and I’m sorry I cannot see it], here’s another fact which I came across during my maternity leave research today: you cannot be punished for filing an official complaint, about discrimination or otherwise, neither by current nor by future employers. Even if you are found to be in the wrong. So what is there to be afraid of? I don’t understand the harsh atmosphere of fear that reigns in my miniscule department – and I will most definitely not let the petty drama in it influence the way I decide to take care of my family or raise my children. Could it be that my maternity leave would cost the department too much? First of all, as a graduate student instructor in the UC system I make double minimum wage – ain’t no educational institution gonna go broke by paying me or anyone else that. That’s a fact. Secondly, the first six weeks of paid leave are paid by the university – not my department. Any other argument they might have is by default void since I can easily access the salary of the dean of UC Berkeley online… I know it will never happen in this country, but if our superiors received normal salaries there would be no problem with providing graduate students with paid maternity leave and hire replacement teachers for them. I’m just saying. I’m not naïve and I’m not stupid – after all, I did get into one of the top ten universities in the world – and if anyone tells me I’ll cost too much I think the only imaginable reply is laughter.
1) Don’t take no shit from no one – including, but not limited to, letting your employer convince you to change your parenting plans because of how it would make it “difficult” for them. If your employer is confused about how to hire temporary workers, tell them to google maternity leave in Canada.
2) Know your union contract. Read it, print it out, and bring it with you to meetings. Include links to the necessary sections in correspondence with your employer.
3) When in doubt, don’t be afraid to contact your union. I wrote to my union because I feel like the treatment by the department was a little bit iffy [not to mention that it made me feel uncomfortable and I wish I had recorded the oral conversation because a lot of things were said that the law prevents me from needing to hear but I don’t want to linger on that in such a public post because I suspect it has to do with individual ignorance and personal harassment of me as opposed to an institutional practice which affects all graduate students at UC Berkeley]. I’m waiting for the response.
4) Know that Title IX applies to you as a pregnant and parenting student. It cannot help you with graduate student employment and your right to not be punished for wanting maternity leave, but this proposed bill will.
5) Don’t be afraid. Even if you got lots to lose, tell yourself I have nothing to lose. Words have power. Words create reality.
6) If you need to fight for your right – through official complaints or formal grievance procedures – know that as a woman you do everything to improve the lives of the generation of ambitious women coming after you. You owe it to yourself, your child, and those young girls you hope to inspire as a kickass professor to be fierce and call bullshit by its proper name. There is indeed a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Believe me, I’m a very religious person – you don’t want to go there.