By Abby Fisher
January 20, 1993—for most people the day Bill Clinton became president-for me, the day I became a mom. My husband and I met our son as President Clinton gave his inaugural address. We are adoptive parents. My children are my children, but I was never pregnant with them and did not meet them in a delivery room. When my son was born, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was but a gleam in Bill Clinton’s eye, so I took an unpaid leave from my post-doctoral fellowship. My husband was fortunate enough to get paternity leave, so he was able to stay home with pay for a month, and we stayed home with Jamie for the time required by the adoption agency.
Four years later, my daughter arrived. Now FMLA was the law of the land, and I worked for an employer large enough that it mattered. And my employer was generous; not only was I entitled to the 12 week leave required by law, but I was to be paid for 4 of those weeks! Great!
Then I noticed a disparity. My colleagues who bore their children also got 12 weeks of leave, and all of it was paid. They got the same 4-week family leave I did, but they also got 8 weeks of paid disability. Now don’t get me wrong; I am all for paid maternity leave, but this seemed unfair. It seems that the law requires that pregnancy be covered like any other “disability.” Okay I understand, but why, I asked, are women disabled for exactly the same amount of time no matter what? Do you mean to tell me that someone who delivers with no complications is disabled for exactly the same amount of time as someone who has a C-section with every complication?! And what about those women who return to work in less than 12 weeks? Are they miraculously less “disabled” than their colleagues?
No, I was told, but these women need time to bond with their babies. Now I was really mad. I need time to bond with my baby too! And I have to do it without pay! Now I wasn’t going to go hungry from lack of my paycheck, but the whole thing seemed so unfair. Not only would I not be paid for 2 months, but also my 401K and Social Security contributions would stop, leaving me with less money in my retirement kitty. All because I did not (and by the way, could not) bear my child.
In the end, I wrote to my congressman and senators, to no avail, but my boss, an adoptive parent himself, reported that I was “working from home” for the last 8 weeks of my leave, and I was paid. Too many others, however, are not as fortunate.
Now in no way do I mean to argue that women who bear their children should not get paid leave. Quite the opposite. As the family structures in our society get more varied, I cannot imagine this isn’t going to be more and more of an issue. Why should it matter how our children arrive in our families? We should be looking at paid leave, all of us, to bond with our new children and to adjust to our new family lives. It is time that FMLA gets an update, so that it will give all of us who need it time off WITH PAY.
Abby Fisher is Women of Reform Judaism’s Vice President of Advocacy and Marketing & Communications. She is also a member of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA.
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