PUSHING Parental Leave
Submitted by Jim Haselmaier
My wife and I worked full-time while we raised our kids. We were at the same Fortune 100 company during most of those years, so in retrospect, our somewhat common work environment provided an interesting view of how one company treated working parents. We compared notes in a variety of situations, and by and large, we both felt like we were treated well and fairly. And we hoped, in some small way, we paved the way for other parents wanting to follow a similar path.
When our first child was born (1990), there was no FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) in the US. If an employee working for our company gave birth, she was offered a benefit that provided six weeks of partially paid medical leave, with an option to take up to two additional months of unpaid maternity leave. As we planned for our baby, we planned for the unpaid time off too. The benefit stipulated that upon her return to work, the new mother was guaranteed a job at the same level she'd had before taking the leave. It was a sweet deal, and we appreciated it.
While this benefit was attractive to us, my wife and I both wanted to spend time with our newborn. And while we appreciated the maternity benefits offered, my options were a lot more limited and my status was not as well protected. We decided that rather than take a lot of time off together, I'd take the majority of my time off when my wife returned to work. We thought that four weeks at home for me would work well.
We worked with the company to arrange a plan that made sense to us, and we were confused as we tried to understand why the company thought mothers should take time off with babies, but not fathers. As we were investigating how to make this happen, I vividly remember us sitting in the office of an HR manager discussing the situation. He very clearly told me: “You can take vacation time. And we might be able to find a way for you to take unpaid time off.” My response was immediate and clear: “When my wife finishes her medical leave there is no difference between us. Why does she get a maternity leave and I do not get a paternity leave?” HR’s response was, “That’s the way it is.” In an attempt to help us achieve our goal, the HR manager suggested that I could claim the time off would be spent caring for my father, who was ill at the time, but I had no interest in twisting the truth.
We pushed forward to make it happen, but conversations with my manager didn't go any better. He told me that if I took the four weeks off, he'd have a job for me when I returned, but I would be demoted from my management position, so I'd return at a lower level. That only strengthened our resolve to make it happen. In the end, I stayed home for four weeks after my wife returned to work.
The time at home alone with my baby daughter was fantastic. I mastered every aspect of her care, and we went on outings together. It was great to have that dedicated time with the newest member of our family.
Interestingly, things at work went better than expected in the end. During the middle of my leave, my manager called me and said, “We had a manager leave. When you return, would you be willing to return as a manager?” I told him, “Well, as a matter of fact, I would!”
In hindsight, this was one of the best outcomes I've experienced after being forced to make what seemed like a difficult decision (at the time). Twenty seven years later I'm not missing the four weeks of 1990 pay, I don't think it hurt my career, and I'd like to think that I may have planted a few ideas in the minds of HR and management that have supported new benefits that exist today.
It's easy to complain about things not being the way you want them to be, but if you want to be a change agent, you sometimes need to be willing to take at least a small hit so that things will be better for others in the future. We're glad that in hindsight we hope our small step back in 1990 may have helped change things just a little and hope you might consider doing something similar if an opportunity presents itself to you.
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