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The EU debates increasing maternal leave

Parental leave already generous by US standards, could grow even more. But at what cost?

According to a survey done by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Sweden tops the rankings for overall parental benefits, offering the most advantageous combination of both time and financial compensation. For each child up to the age of 8, 480 days of leave are available and can be shared between the two parents in a number of different arrangements at a high rate of pay, with a cap on the total. 

Nordic neighbors Denmark and Finland offer similar plans. Finnish diplomat Piritta Asunmaa says she took six months off with her first child, at full and then 60 percent pay, and her husband used the remainder of their combined leave. She received 11 months for her second child, using maternal and parental leave together. 

Estrela also wants women to be absolved of having to work night shifts and overtime for at least 10 weeks before the baby’s due date — longer if deemed medically necessary — and for the entire time a mother may choose to breastfeed. 

Fiona O’Farrell, an Irish mom of two who was working as an operations officer for an airline when her second child was born, says that measure alone would have made her life less of the “horror story” it was at the time as she tried to balance care of her newborn baby and split shifts at work. O’Farrell recalls she would sometimes have no more than eight hours off to go home, nurse the baby, sleep, feed him again and get back to the office.

All of these benefits would also be available to adoptive parents of a child under one year old and to unmarried couples.

Under Estrela’s proposal, EU governments would also be required to put more effort into recognizing the signs of post-natal depression, helping women cope and removing the stigma of a condition estimated to affect 10-15 percent of mothers.

One of the driving forces behind a delay — and an eventual rejection — of the proposal is Marina Yannakoudakis, a member of the European Parliament from Britain’s Conservative party and spokeswoman of the women's committee for the European Conservatives and Reformists parliamentary grouping. She says the proposals will be too expensive for government and business and that opposition will increase once the impact assessment is in. “I hope that, once they realize the damage that could be done to business, [members of parliament] will rethink the plans,” she said.

Estrela has economic arguments of her own. She contends that by the time the new laws would take effect after a five-year phase-in, member states should be out of the current financial crisis.

“On the other hand,” she said, “the birth rate in the European Union is low and families should not be penalized for having children, they should be encouraged.”

But Yannakoudakis has another point that strikes at the heart of the matter for proponents of the longer leave. She says that regardless of legislation put in place to guarantee new mothers get their jobs back, the prospect of longer leave times are all but guaranteed to increase indirect discrimination at the workplace and “make young women less employable.” That, she said, “would reduce a woman’s right to choose.”

Glory Francke says she did see that happen in Sweden, with women being inevitably stuck a few rungs down on the corporate ladder after choosing to spend such long periods out of the office.

And that’s why there’s a small patch of unexpected common ground between the conservative movement against expanding maternity leave and women in the countries that already seem to be so far beyond that: Some Swedish women have complained they don’t want to be forced to take the first six weeks off after the birth of their child.

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