Opinion | Family

What Maternity Leave Policies Have to Do with Christian Witness

Our institutions can—and should— lead the way in supporting new life and growing families.
What Maternity Leave Policies Have to Do with Christian Witness
Image: Philip Dean / Flickr

Women in higher ed are bound to raise the question: When is the most “convenient” time to have a child?

Is graduate school best? In the first few years of teaching? After tenure? For many of us the primary concern is not at what point in our careers, but at what time in the year. Will our bodies cooperate to allow us to give birth in the magical months of May, June, July, or August, when we have no teaching responsibilities? Will it be possible to maximize our time at home with our new infant without losing part of our salary?

Both of my children were born while I was in graduate school at Duke University. My first was born in May. I stayed home with her over the summer, returning to my graduate work in the fall. The timing seemed perfect. My second child came in March, during a dissertation fellowship, a year when I happened to have no teaching responsibilities. Even when I took time off to care for my newborn son, I didn’t lose any fellowship funding. At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual this was. Away from the privilege of Duke, even in the white-collar realm of Christian higher education, we see a surprising lack of paid maternity leave.

As President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union this week, the United States lags behind the rest of the world in paid parental leave. Even the 12 weeks unpaid leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has only been guaranteed since 1993. Despite evidence of its myriad benefits, Americans have been unwilling to mandate paid leave for new parents.

The policies at Christian colleges reflect the inconsistencies of the culture. In informal conversations with faculty colleagues across the country, I found maternity leave policies ranging from the 12 weeks unpaid leave mandated by FMLA to one semester of paid leave. Most policies fell somewhere in the middle, offering between two weeks and six weeks of paid leave. Some schools required faculty members to use accrued sick leave to pay their maternity leave salaries; some offered light administrative work so faculty could earn their entire salary while not teaching; and others offered paid leave as an additional benefit.

Given the limitations of many of these policies, professors at Christian and secular schools alike find themselves desperate for that summer baby, though it’s not always possible to time our pregnancies. What happens when our body decides, for example, to conceive a child that is due in February? What does this mean for a faculty member who gets only two to six weeks of paid maternity leave? What does it mean for her students?

Usually, a middle-of-the-year baby means she’ll have to find colleagues to cover the classes she’ll miss, planning courses that others can teach in her absence, and working until the last possible moment to get everything done. In some cases, she’ll schedule a C-section because waiting for natural labor is too uncertain.

After the birth, this new mother finds herself with a growing to-do list. Messages from students continue to fill her inbox, and assignments to be graded pile up. Since many daycares won’t take infants under six weeks, she must cobble together childcare from friends and family. Returning to work after just two or four weeks of paid leave forces a new mom to be back on her feet while her body is still healing (especially in the cases of C-section) and, if she’s nursing, while she’s still trying to establish a breastfeeding routine. She will often fumble through the remainder of the semester groggy and sleep-deprived.

Recent research suggests that mothers, infants, and the job market all fare better with paid parental leave. Numerous studies point out that mothers who have more bonding time with their newborns experience less depression. According to findings published in the Economic Journal and cited in Slate, “American babies whose mothers were back at work within 12 weeks were less likely to get doctors’ visits and immunizations and be breast-fed.” Breastfeeding, of course, offers a host of benefits to both mother and child.

Professors’ limited maternity leave also has negative effects on their students. Switching instructors in the middle of a semester brings inconsistency and uncertainty. Students may feel less invested in the course when their original professor is not there. Without sufficient time to build trust with a second instructor, some students may feel abandoned. They also worry the new professor and the old professor won’t communicate about what was covered in the class when it comes time for exams. In short, minimal paid leave shortchanges both the faculty member and her students and could potentially put the college at risk of losing students.

My concern is not whether Christian employers are within their rights not to offer paid maternity leave (or, paid parental leave for that matter). In fact, a quick search of parental leave policies at secular colleges reveals a similar lack of coverage. Rather, my questions are about what it says about their commitment to families when they fail to support families through their own maternity leave policies.

On this point, perhaps Christian colleges and universities could take a cue from our churches. The United Methodist Book of Discipline mandates that all clergy (men and women, full time and part time) are entitled to three months of parental leave (including leave for adoption). Of those three months, the first eight weeks are paid leave.

For Baptists, parental leave varies from church to church because of their autonomous church polity. My female friends who minister in Baptist contexts have been granted paid leaves by their churches ranging from six to twelve weeks.

As Christians, we claim to embrace and celebrate all life. We believe family to be sacred. We encourage adoption and expect parental involvement. We host baby showers and take casseroles to new parents. Why haven’t we urged Christian institutions (and outspoken corporations like Hobby Lobby) to provide parental leave, or, at the least, maternity leave? Christian employers could be trailblazers in our nation by offering generous paid parental leave. Such action would be a witness to our communities that we support families not merely with our words but also with our institutional actions.

With both children, I had ample time and space for my body to adjust to its new role as a mother. I am grateful to my doctoral advisor. He never gave me any reason to believe my babies were an inconvenience even when they extended my graduate study. In fact, he took great pleasure in announcing my first pregnancy to a room full of divinity students. I count myself among the fortunate ones. His outlook and that of my other professors reminded me that children are a gift to be celebrated whenever they come.

Here’s hoping that in the future there are fewer conversations about “convenient” times to have children and more about how best to welcome children and support parents.

Mandy McMichael is assistant professor of religion at Huntingdon College. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Chad Eggleston, and their two children.

November
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