The Maternity Leave Mitzvah

The details may vary from patient to patient, but the scenario is usually the same. A mother and newborn baby come to my pediatric office for their first doctor’s visit when the newborn is three or four days old. As I speak to the mother, I always ask her if she has any questions or concerns. Even though her newborn is only a few days old, often the mother would like to discuss daycare options, or how she could pump and store breast milk for her anticipated return to work in a few short weeks. The first weeks and even months after a new baby is born should be spent with the mother, partner, and siblings bonding, but all too often, families use their limited time at home worrying about and preparing arrangements for when they return to work rather than relaxing with their newborn.

The United States has one of the poorest maternity leave policies in the world. In fact it is the only industrialized country with no law requiring paid parental leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mothers are entitled to take off up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth, as long as the company employs a minimum number of people and the mother has been employed there for at least one year. Many women use saved sick and vacation days to supplement the unpaid leave. According to the United Nations, the United States is so far behind that it is one of only two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) that does not have paid maternity leave. Many of these statistics are well known and thankfully there are many legislators and organizations working hard to rectify this situation.

Sadly, I have observed that many of the mothers and fathers in my office, and many of my friends who have unpaid, short, or no family leave work for Jewish organizations. Some of these organizations provide only four to six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, forcing many mothers to make a choice to return to work only a few short weeks after giving birth. Other organizations require new mothers to apply for short-term disability benefits, which provide only a percentage of one’s regular pay, in lieu of paying for maternity leave. Many fathers are eligible for only a few days off, if any. Even though these policies may be on par with other organizations and companies in the United States, Jewish organizations must consider whether these types of paltry parental leave policies are really in keeping with Jewish values. Aren’t we constantly praising our community’s emphasis on Jewish family life and the importance of raising and educating our own children? Yet do our own non-profits, federations, day schools, and other Jewish organizations really model these values? Do we show parents that time spent with their newborns is important and necessary? As a pediatrician, I see many mothers who have to give up breastfeeding earlier than they would like to because of an early return to work, fathers who feel stressed that they are given only a few paid days to be home with their families, and families who do not have the time needed to bond with their newborn. It is clear that Jewish organizations are not modeling the values that they preach.

To be fair, the primary reason many Jewish organizations give for offering only unpaid parental leave is that they are non-profits, so by definition have limited funds, and therefore cannot afford to pay employees during parental leave. Also, many organizations argue that they are unsure what standards should be included in an equitable parental leave policy and how to craft one. But this should not deter our community from finding a solution.

Through their “Better Work, Better Life campaign,” Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP) provides comprehensive recommendations, guidelines, and standards to help organizations develop equitable parental leave policies for their workplaces. Nearly one hundred organizations have joined the campaign and established family leave policies using AWP’s standards. Unfortunately, there are few Orthodox organizations represented on this list and it is time that the Orthodox community begins to examine their own attitudes and standards towards family leave. Women and men in the Orthodox community can begin by asking to meet with their synagogue, school, and communal leaders to ask if their organizations have an equitable family leave policy and if not, offer to help implement one. Additionally, organizations need to think creatively and consider increased work and job flexibility for returning parents.

It certainly may take some creative efforts to allow for better paid parental leave and more flexibility but as Jews, we should hold ourselves to our own standards that reflect our own values and beliefs and not simply provide our families and communities with the bare minimum that has become accepted as the norm in this country. Supporting Jewish families through strong parental leave policies provides an opportunity to model Jewish values and more importantly, directly impact the health and well-being of our individual members.

For more on this topic, you can watch a recording of a recent JOFA webinar titled “Work-Life Balance, Equal Pay, and Staying on the Promotion Track: Advocating for Yourself in the Workplace” or follow part II of the conversation that can be found at jofa.org/blogcast

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