Employers: It's Time to Get Real About 'Real' Families

National Work and Family Month is drawing to a close. But in these last few days before month's end, can we please pause to consider exactly what we mean by "family"?

Adam Pertman has a bone to pick. The journalist-turned-adoption-reformer doesn't think employers or insurance companies are doing nearly enough for adoptive (or would-be adoptive) parents. Sure, the most progressive companies offer partial reimbursement for adoption costs, paid leave, and sometimes educational support and resources--as I know from my own work helping companies put together "great place to work" applications.

But what about all the other employers out there, the vast majority that provide no support for adoption? "That's not just the lack of a benefit, that's a statement of priorities," says Pertman. The author of a groundbreaking book, Adoption Nation, and President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, Pertman points out that most of those same companies provide all kinds of policies in support of pregnancy. And even those companies that do offer the best in adoption policies are rarely doing as much for adoptive parents as they are for employees who form so-called "traditional" families.

A look at this year's Working Mother 100 Best Companies list bears this out. While, by my count, 93 of the 100 companies offer at least 1 week of fully paid adoption leave and reimburse some portion of adoption expenses, all 100 companies offer at least 1 week fully paid maternity leave (in fact, it's a prerequisite for applying to the list). And of those 93 companies with paid adoption leave, only 20 offer as much time for adoptive parents as they do for women who give birth. (Interestingly, 42 of the companies on the list offer more paid adoption leave than paid paternity leave, raising the ironic possibility that while mothers who give birth are entitled to more paid leave, on average, than adoptive moms, fathers whose partners give birth don't fare as well as adoptive dads. I say "possibility" because at many companies, how much leave one actually gets depends on whether one is a "primary" or "secondary" caregiver, which raises a whole other set of questions I'll be addressing in my next post.)

One reason women giving birth get more paid time off than either fathers or adoptive parents is that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which mandated that employers treat pregnancy the same way they treat any other disability, has resulted in childbirth being treated primarily as a medical event. (Among other things, this allows companies to pay for at least a portion of paid leave through disability insurance.) But in today's world, when insurance company policies reflect the belief that most women have recovered sufficiently from childbirth to be kicked out of the hospital within 24 hours, how accurate or honest is it to classify pregnancy as a disability lasting 6-8 weeks? Sure, some physical recovery is required, but for women lucky enough to get at least 6 paid weeks off, most of that time is spent a) adjusting to and recovering from the lack of sleep/crazy new workload that having a new child around the house entails and b) bonding with said child.

In fact, I suspect most thinking people would agree that parental leave is much more about preparing, bonding and nurturing than it is about physical recovery. So if that's the case, why would adoptive parents (and fathers) get any less leave than biological mothers? As Pertman points out, children who are adopted today often have special needs that make preparing, bonding and nurturing all the more critical:

"Most children adopted from abroad have some level of special need, and most adoptions in America are of children from foster care. You have to convince me that bonding and taking care of your baby requires you to have six weeks, but taking care of, say, a sibling group with special needs only requires two. If anyone needs more time, it's the latter!"

Meanwhile, these same progressive companies are offering infertility benefits (all but 17 on the "100 Best list" provide reimbursement for in vitro and other fertility procedures; a growing handful are now even reimbursing women for the cost of freezing their eggs). They provide lactation rooms, discounts on breast pumps, and so on. Inequities like these go beyond policies. It's not just about the money, Pertman argues, it's about the messages they send. While companies may talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion, may frame work-life issues in terms of the value of family, may even talk about valuing and embracing different kinds of families, their policies say something else.

Companies may support a culture that de-values non-traditional families in other ways, too. Does anyone blink when someone makes a comment like, "Too bad Jessica can't have a real child," or asks an adoptive parent, "Do you know who his real parents are?" (Of course, an adopted child is still very much a "real child," and adoptive parents are real parents, even if there are other real ones out there, too).

If you didn't realize questions and comments like these could be offensive and hurtful, it's probably because few of us who have not had some direct dealings with adoption know much about it. Companies could change this reality, and foster a truly inclusive culture, by remembering adoption issues when planning their "lunch and learn" calendars, supporting adoption/foster care-related affinity groups, or taking more-active approaches to adoption-related inclusiveness in their work-life and other corporate communications.

After all, as Pertman points out, adoption figures in employees' lives in many ways that aren't always visible. Employees themselves might have been adopted. A family member might have been adopted. An employee might have placed a child for adoption, and might even have a relationship with that child. Adoption affects far more people--Pertman counts the number in the tens of millions (yes, you read it right)--than might at first be apparent. Maybe it's time that employers acted accordingly?

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.