The average age at which working Americans now expect to retire is 66. Assuming many of them start working in their late teens or early 20s, that means men and women in this country are spending upwards of 40 years in the workforce, putting in thousands of hours, day after day after day.
All which can make it feel like an extreme affront when many mothers and fathers, after what is perhaps the single biggest event of their lives -- the birth of a child -- are unable to take any meaningful time off to be with their newborns simply because they live and work in the United States, the only remaining industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave (let alone paid family leave).
And less than 60 percent of workers in the U.S. qualify for any protected leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) extends only to employees who have worked at their company for at least 12 months, put in at least 1,250 hours and only if their employer has at least 50 employees. Others qualify, but simply cannot afford to lose that salary.
"That is not the list you want to be on -- on your lonesome," President Obama said at the recent White House Summit on Working Families. "It's time to change that."
Because having that time off -- basically, a blip in many long careers -- matters. Here, in their own words, HuffPost Parents readers share their own personal accounts of how family leave (or in many cases, a lack thereof) has affected their lives.
I am expecting my first child in August and am currently trying to figure out my finances. I work two jobs and have been at both for a year now. While one supplies me with health insurance and both provide a 401k, neither provides paid leave for part-time employees. I have been banking all my sick and vacation time since January, and that will provide me with about three weeks paid leave out of what, I'm assuming, will be six weeks total. We tried to go to the bank to secure a small loan to cover our finances, or one to consolidate our credit card debt so that we can manage our monthly payments better and make our money stretch, but our student loans kept us from getting any kind of personal loan that might have helped us through this rough patch.
Neither of our families have much money, so we can't rely on them for help and the income from our three combined jobs is high enough that we can't rely on WIC, food stamps or state-assisted child care. I know these are separate issues, but can you see how having paid maternity leave would make a huge impact on our lives? If our landlord doesn't work with us we could be homeless. If the utility and bill companies don't work with us, we could get into major trouble on our credit card debt. All I need is six weeks. I keep my head held high, but I am terrified on the inside. -- Elizabeth, 28, Iowa
My son, who is three, was born 10 weeks early, so I hadn't even done all of my research into my leave benefits. My manager at the time actually helped me sort everything out while I was in the hospital.
I was lucky enough that I got eight weeks paid (and then up to 12 under FMLA), but my son was in the hospital for those eight weeks, so I only got four at home with him. I checked with the company that [my office] outsources maternity benefits to, to see if I could go back to work after his birth (because there's only so much you can do when they're in the hospital) and then use more time once he came home, but it wasn't allowed. It's too bad, because in a lot of ways, it really felt like wasted paid time off. When he was home, I was able to do everything with him, all the normal stuff -- feeding him, changing him, going for walks with him, bonding. I just wanted more. -- Natasha, 32, Massachusetts
At my work -- I'm a teacher -- you have to use all of your sick days first, then everything else is unpaid. We have three little girls. Our oldest is four-and-a-half years old, our second is 3 and the baby is 10 months. When I went back to work last November, I did not have a single sick day left to use until the end of the school year. Our eldest came down with strep and had to miss two days of school, and the baby had a few fevers throughout the year, which meant she could not go to daycare. At 3-weeks-old, she was admitted for a three-day stay at the hospital due to a respiratory infection, so now I get very anxious she has even the slightest cold. Perhaps it's overly dramatic, but each time one of the girls gets sick, all I can think about is not being able to be there for them when they need me most.
I remember texting a family member, who is on the school board, saying, "I just would have preferred taking more unpaid days, rather than having to use all of my sick days." But our policy at work isn't actually the problem. The problem is that our country does not value the role of a mother, especially in a child's first year of life. --Kim, 28, Pennsylvania
Both my husband and I took 12 weeks of unpaid leave when our daughter was born in October 2012. We definitely had to do a lot of finagling -- I had just put in 1,250 hours at work when I had her (I'm a librarian) and he worked full-time plus so he could afford to take the time off (he was working in the produce department at a supermarket at the time). We're lucky in that we have the normal expenses -- rent, utilities, groceries -- but no student loan payments to make.
It was great. It was really, really important to us. We talked about whether we should stagger our time off so we had more time before she had to go to daycare, and looking back it would have been good if we had done some of that, but not having any experience with newborns, it was so important for the three of us to be together during that time, learning. -- Clara, 27, Massachusetts
My husband and I recently adopted a newborn and because I was not "physically disabled" from the birth, I did not get any leave time from work. Many people were quick to say "take FMLA time," but there was no way we could afford for me to take unpaid time off from work with a mortgage, an adoption loan, student loans, utilities, etc.
My husband and I worked out a plan to piece together six weeks of leave, until our baby was old enough for daycare: I took two weeks of vacation up front, followed by one week of vacation for him, both of our mothers came for a week and then I took one more week of vacation off. We did luck out in that our daughter arrived at the end of the school year, and my husband is a teacher (though he does have a job during the summer months), so we were able to be together for those first two weeks. And I'm very grateful that my job is letting me work from home one day a week.
Of course I would have loved more time at home with my daughter. I just make sure to spend as much time as I can with her in the morning and then rush home to her at night, and we're working to ensure we can spend more time with her in the future as well. I just wish we didn't have to choose. --Melissa, 33, New York
The university I worked for offered incredible benefits, by U.S. standards: Mothers received 16 weeks paid at 100 percent of their salary, and if both parents worked there, they both got paid leave (my husband did not). I was surprised to learn it was an option to resign from my position and still qualify for my full benefits. I did that with my second pregnancy, when I officially resigned from my hospital bed!
I had pre-eclampsia with both pregnancies, which required early inductions and bed rest. Knowing I had a full 16 weeks of 100 percent paid leave meant I didn't feel stressed about adhering to bed rest, and I credit that peace of mind with helping me get both of my babies to term. So many women are absolutely devastated financially by a long bed rest, which cuts into what little leave they have after baby arrives.
With my first child, breastfeeding did not come naturally or easily, and I absolutely would not have figured it out before returning to work if I had the standard six-week leave. I also experienced some symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety that I was able to resolve with my OB and other providers long before being required to return to work. I was able to give my job my best having had adequate time to take care of my family.-- Kristin, 33, Tennessee
I started as a temp with my current company and was hired a few months after that, but because of the "job change," I was not eligible for fully-paid family leave. I received my 45 percent of the average previous year's earnings, for six weeks, which devastated our family financially. My husband was only able to take one week off of work, which was pretty tough.
My HR department at work did let me know that I could be eligible to take additional weeks off to bond with my son, but it would be unpaid. At that point, we were already a month behind on bills and medical bills were starting to come in every single day.
My son is now 6-months-old and we still haven’t recovered from my loss of income. It is really unfortunate that this is our first child and my mind is constantly consumed with money and bills that we can’t pay. My husband and I did the best we could to set aside money before our baby was born, but it will never be enough. If I had been able to have full pay even for those six weeks, it would have made a world of difference. I’m not demanding a year off plus full pay, but a little more could have gone a long way. -- Katie, 23, California
I had my twin daughters prematurely at 30 weeks last May. Prior to their delivery I was on bed rest for two weeks. My current employer has what is considered a good policy here in the U.S. and I was able to take 13 and a half weeks. During eight of them, I received two-thirds of my pay (it would have been six if I had a vaginal birth).
Unfortunately, my daughters each endured long hospital stays before coming home, so I chose to go back at 10 weeks to allow some time once they were out of the hospital (eight weeks postpartum was the earliest I could get the doctor to medically clear me to go back). I used the remaining three and a half weeks for some bonding, but primarily for taking them to doctors appointments.
Once I went back, I worked from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and then took off for the children's hospital. I arrived at 6:00, spent a few hours with one twin, took a quick break for dinner, then spent a few hours with the other in the connecting hospital. We would arrive home around 10:30, 11 p.m. every night and then prepare to do it all over the next day. I shut my office door and cried daily. My husband and I were -- at all times -- emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted. We felt like we were being pulled in a million different directions. --Chelsea, 28, Virginia
These accounts have been edited and condensed.