Maternity Matters

this Mother’s Day write mommy a check

Allyson Loomis |

Mother’s Day. You know what to do: call; send a card; buy brunch; bring flowers. Even if your mother drives you batty, the woman has worked hard, and you owe her your life. Because you are not a clod (because your mother raised you right) you will come through with gestures of appreciation for your mother on Mother’s Day … which is more than I can say for some people.

I am a daughter (Hi, Mom!) and a mother. I have a pre-school-age son and a daughter not yet three months old. Currently, I’m on maternity leave from my job as an English professor at UWEC. Because I am a Wisconsin state employee working for the university system, my maternity leave is utterly unpaid. That’s right, little Missy! Not one dime for diapers.

Maybe it’s not fair to single out Wisconsin in its failure to support working mothers. There are, after all, only three states in the union – New Jersey, Washington, and California – which mandate brief, partially-paid maternity leaves. But must the Badger State leave new mothers in the lurch just because everybody else is doing it? Let the Federal government succumb to peer pressure instead; worldwide the only nations not providing for paid maternity leaves are Australia, New Zealand, Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and The United States of America.

Whence this global gusto for paid maternity leaves? My guess is that most sentient beings understand that paid maternity leaves are good for mothers and for children, keeping women in the workplace over the long term and keeping families out of poverty. Ours is not the only country in which a family’s middle-class status relies on the full-time employment of two adults, nor is ours the only country with a significant population of single parents. For all but the wealthiest families, unpaid maternity leaves are serious financial hardships.

And yet maternity leaves are necessary. If you don’t know why, then you’ve never birthed a child or lived with an infant. Obviously a mother’s body has to heal after delivery, but there are other biological imperatives: infants need their mothers and mothers want their infants close by, mostly because those babies need to eat every 1-2 hours (later every 2-3 hours), around the clock, for months. 



The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a full year of breastfeeding for babies’ health and brain development, so most informed mothers give breastfeeding a go. It’s no pleasure cruise. New mothers sit, day after day, night after night, shoulders hunched over their wee ones, nursing relentlessly. A burp, a diaper, maybe a brief drowsy sleep – almost never a hot shower – and then it’s back to the lactation station. In the meantime, Mommy sure has a tough time making it to the board meeting! 

And so, this nation’s mothers – for the sake of their children and for the sake of their own sanity – continue to opt for taking unpaid maternity leaves for as along as they can manage it financially. Single and divorced mothers, low-wage earning mothers and mothers who are their family’s primary breadwinners buy value-buckets of Similac and Enfamil and head back to the salt mines far too soon. Wealthier mothers – white-collar, professional women who are better able to afford full twelve-week maternity leaves – not only lose chunks of their salaries, but also pay a price for motherhood in deferred promotions and raises. Because these mothers make less money over the span of their careers, generally they earn fewer retirement dollars as well.

I have taken nearly two full semesters of unpaid leave, one for each child. My family has lost about $34,000 of my take-home pay, and I have delayed my being considered for tenure and promotion for a solid year. Because I earn about $15,000 more per school year than UWEC paid the teachers who replaced me, I effectively made a sizeable donation to UWEC during my maternity leaves – a contribution for which neither Governor Doyle, The Regents, nor the UWEC Foundation has thanked me with so much as a note, a handshake, or a cup of coffee.

Oh well!

You may speculate that this is just the high price one pays for the privilege of having children. Oh boy. That’s rich. You just wait until your father gets home and ask him how much he lost in salary, promotion, and retirement during the months after your birth. Yet he enjoyed his children. Ask yourself whether there might be an element of gender discrimination in the whole business of family leave. Is it at all fair that she who undergoes a c-section or an episiotomy must also suffer a pay cut? Will your flowers and brunch be enough this Mother’s Day? Or should this be the Mother’s Day – at last! – on which someone from your mother’s world of work finally writes her a big, fat compensatory check?