Happy Mother's Day: Academia and Maternity Leave

I'm about half-way through my second pregnancy right now.  I gave birth to my almost-4-year-old daughter while in grad school, right after I accepted a fellowship to complete my dissertation.  It was a fairly traumatic delivery, and it was tough completing my degree with a nursing infant, but I did it thanks to the flexibility and funding that the fellowship provided.  This time is different, though.  Now I am employed as a tenure-track assistant professor, and negotiating a maternity leave at my university has been eye-opening.

I'd naively assumed that I had all the information this time.  After all, I knew that my university offers no paid leave, and I had asked HR about FMLA early last fall.  The FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) policy, however, is the only one my university lists under information for parental leave; there are no policies at the university level going deeper or beyond this, including no policies for stopping one's tenure clock.  So how does a faculty member due to give birth in early October deal with FMLA, which gives employees of my public university up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave?  Teaching a full load of classes is not a great option; I'd have up to 7 weeks with my students (provided I don't deliver early) and then have to find someone(s) willing to take over my three courses for little or no pay.  Taking a course reduction, though, means taking a reduction in pay, as our salaries are mainly tied to being able to complete our teaching duties, regardless of the fact that we also have research and service requirements.  For other university employees, FMLA likely isn't as big a deal -- if you're an admin assistant, for example, you could work until you're due, and then a temp fills in while you're on leave.  For faculty giving birth in the middle of the semester, being able to take FMLA requires a great deal of flexibility from your chair, dean, and the administration, as they have to OK a series of "alternative work assignments" to teaching.  At my institution, in order for the university to keep subsidizing your health insurance benefits, you have to work full-time -- which means even if a faculty member is willing to work half-time because alternative assignments can't be found, it may not be in the faculty's best financial interests, as insurance premiums skyrocket when the university is not subsidizing them.

I am very glad I don't have to deal with the issues concerning FMLA and health insurance premiums, as my whole family is on my husband's insurance plan, which has much better coverage and is fully subsidized by his employer.  I also worked out a compromise for my maternity leave with the help of my chair and the dean: my chair found me an alternative work assignment for this summer and the fall, and I am working a reduced course load (two instead of three classes) in the spring because of my concerns with returning to work full-time with a nursing 3-month-old (that I can't have on campus, as our daycare prioritizes students and won't take infants until 6 months).  This compromise ends up with my working 60% time, so I get 60% of my annual salary.  And it's literally the best solution I could come up with.

Map of paid maternity leave around the world.
(Credit: ChildrensChances.org)
Women in academia are starting to have conversations about maternity leave and work-life balance around the U.S.  (And I specifically mention this country, as we are the only industrialized nation to provide no guaranteed paid leave for working mothers.  I suspect most women in other industrialized countries don't have these conversations.)  In a related vein, American funding organizations are asking how to retain women faculty and teachers in STEM fields in particular.  My university has a several-year-long grant from the NSF to study issues related to female STEM faculty at my institution and to implement changes.  A new program from Elsevier offers funding for organizations willing to find solutions to work-life balance problems for female faculty, as attrition at the assistant professor level for female faculty is high.  Programs to help with childcare could make our lives better (it would be great if I could have my infant on campus with me for better bonding and breastfeeding, for example).  Programs to form parent groups could help with emotional support.  What we need in order to retain female faculty, though, is paid parental leave.  What we need are clear policies at the university level that are fair and equitable for all working parents. What we need is the realization that faculty with PhDs have so many more skills than standing in front of a classroom and talking and that we can be paid for these skills.

I'd like to survey universities around the country, via their HR websites, to see what parental leave policies they have on the books.  (Maybe this has already been done?)  Who provides paid leave?  Who provides alternative work assignments?  What is the retention rate of female faculty there?  Are faculty who are parents happy, successful, and supported?

Until then, here are some tips and suggestions about academic maternity leave gleaned from my months' worth of information-gathering at my university and elsewhere:
  • Know your rights under FMLA.  This government policy covers employees at companies with 50 or more employees.  At the very worst, you likely have up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave available, with the right to be reinstated to your position at full pay without any change to your original terms of employment.  From what I understand, though, employers cannot require you to take more than 6 weeks of unpaid leave; they are required to find you alternate duties if you can't perform your normal ones due to pregnancy or post-partum/nursing issues.  In reality, though, it can be difficult to convince universities that you have skills other than teaching that you can be paid for.
  • Find out if you have disability coverage or insurance.  Many women in the U.S. take short-term disability (6 to 8 weeks) to cover maternity leave.  Most plans will pay you 2/3 of your salary for the period of disability, and many employers specifically do allow maternity leave as a covered disability (which is a whole other conversation, of course).  At my university, disability coverage is not automatically provided and is a separate insurance plan for which I would have to pay full premiums. This was not made clear to me during benefits orientation or an early meeting with HR. Once I found out about this option, I wasn't eligible, as I was already pregnant.
  • Contact your faculty union representative.  That is, if you have a union.  Here in Florida, we have the UFF.  I'd naively assumed I was automatically a member of the union, as I was in the last state I worked that had a faculty union (NY), but here enrollment is not mandatory and requires dues of 1% of your salary per year.  The union may not be able to do much, but they may be able to offer solutions and advocate on your behalf to your dean.  You may also be able to contact the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for help.  We have only one chapter in the entirety of Florida, though, so I didn't look into this further.  The American Association of University Women (AAUW) may have suggestions as well, but again, since we don't have a chapter anywhere nearby, I didn't pursue this.
  • Take sick and/or vacation leave.  If you have paid sick and/or vacation leave, you can likely take this during a maternity leave, generally in concert with FMLA.  I accrue sick leave at a rate of about 2 weeks per year, which means to earn a full semester's paid maternity leave, I'd have to be here 7-8 years first.  We have a sick leave pool, where people can deposit unused leave and others can take that leave, but I am not eligible for that because I haven't been here a year yet.  So check into the rules and regulations for taking leave.
  • Identify alternative work assignments.  For me, this was the most difficult task, since I am new to the university and confused about navigating all the policies (or lack thereof) in front of me.  I talked to my department chair, but I also talked to two other department chairs (both of whom are parents), emailed several women at my university about their experiences, and talked to friends who are faculty at other institutions for suggestions.  These days, online or blended/hybrid courses are a reality on most campuses, as are MOOCs, so perhaps teaching a full load could work for some female faculty.  If you've been at a university for a while, there may be administrative tasks you could take on: help with getting information in line for an upcoming department or university review (e.g., SACS accreditation).  But for new, un-tenured faculty, your best bet may be to ask your department chair what can be done: revising and updating labs for a popular class; taking on extra advising of students; creating and hosting a mini-conference; working on and submitting a large grant proposal; redesigning and updating the department's public-facing marketing (e.g., website, brochure, newsletter).  For what it's worth, I will be doing this last option for my alternative assignment.
  • Consider stopping your tenure clock.  Many universities have policies for tenure clock stoppage, for reasons such as parental leave or illness of yourself or a family member.  If you are eligible to stop your tenure clock for a semester or a year, consider doing it.  But do ask if you will still be able to go up normally if you stop it, or will that count as "early" (and does your university allow for early tenure)?  If your university doesn't have a policy, as mine doesn't, there are still likely ways to stop the clock, provided your chair and dean agree and put it in writing.  I will be navigating the clock stoppage issue once I get my maternity leave plan in writing.
  • Look into childcare options on or near campus, particularly if you're returning to work while your infant is still nursing.  If there are insufficient childcare options on campus, as on mine, bring these concerns to the administration.  Retaining female faculty is a priority of many campuses today, but solutions such as better access to childcare and on-campus parent organizations don't often cross the minds of administrators.  If you have flexibility in your schedule and duties, bring your infant to work with you during the week -- the world will not end if your infant is nursing in a faculty meeting, and it may even open many people's eyes to the challenges of work-life balance with an infant.
  • Find out if your university has a parent (support) group.  At my grad institution, there were parent groups for the entire university and also for the grad students.  The grad student one was supported by a dollar or two of our student fees each semester.  (Then again, my grad institution offered 6 weeks of paid maternity leave to graduate TAs, so it's fairly progressive, particularly for a public uni in the South.)  There's no parent group at my university now, so I'm starting one.  Being able to talk to other faculty parents about the challenges they face, about the school system, neighborhoods, family-friendly activities, etc., really helps new faculty settle in to the area and the university.  I'm hoping to meet a lot of great people through this organization that I might not otherwise see, as parents of young children in particular tend not to go to faculty happy hour at 6pm on Friday evenings, for example.  A 10am bagel-and-OJ "brunch" on a Saturday at the gym, where my kids can run around while I chat with my colleagues?  That's much easier for me to do.

Finally, please please please start talking about these issues on your campus.  I've gotten advice--well-meaning, I'm sure--to keep my head down since I'm new and un-tenured.  Many women feel the need to stay under the radar and not make waves while they're pregnant, for fear of losing their job or health insurance. But that is no way to effect change.  If you are in a position to speak up or make changes at your university, even if it's just to open up a conversation with your fellow faculty members, do it!

So this Mother's Day, check into your university's parental leave laws, and start agitating for reform.  And feel free to add your personal experiences in the comments below!


Lynn said…
Back in the day when your husband was the nursing infant, the dean just pretended not to know me. I had to fight to get a disabled parking permit, but what I really needed was a loading zone permit, schlepping the stroller, baby, and all related paraphernalia to the office for four months. Their policy was full pay for full work, and put our head in the sand so we don't see the crib in the office. My chair's accommodation was two classes back to back so I could minimize time in the office. Considering the nightmare that daycare was, I'd probably do it again that way.

Happy Mother's Day! From this vantage point, I'd say it's worth every struggle.
Sooo, what you're saying, Lynn, is that basically nothing has changed in 35 years. Sounds about right, unfortunately.
Sian said…
Just some points of information. You can still get subsidized healthcare if you work for the State Of Florida half time. The subsidy is only for 50% of the premium though. I believe there are several active AAUW chapters on the west coast of Florida. I know there is a very active chapter in Naples.
Good luck with your pregnancy and it is amazing that there is no paid maternity leave.
Anonymous said…
My colleagues and I compiled a list of best practices for our university --we surveyed 10 top-tier public and private universities with "family friendly" policies-- and what we found was that only one of these institutions had paid parental leave (faculty had the option of doing either modified duties/teaching release at full pay OR six weeks of paid leave). If you are interested in seeing what we came up, let me know how to contact you and I can send it along. We are also starting up a faculty parents mentorship program, matching experienced faculty parents with faculty who are getting ready to go on leave or are just returning. I also created a closed facebook group for faculty parents, which has been fairly successful. While we still have a long way to go, it has made things easier.
Sian - Yes, FL does still subsidize healthcare when you're working part-time. I didn't mean to imply that it's not. I don't know the details, but at least one of the women I talked to mentioned she couldn't go half-time because the insurance premiums were too high -- she couldn't meet them and her normal bills. So she was going to need to work at least 3/4 time during the semester of her leave. That's one of the realities of lacking a single-payer health insurance plan in the U.S.

Beatriz - I would love to see what you came up with for best practices! Thanks for offering to share. You can email me at poweredbyosteons@gmail.com. A mentorship program is a good idea too - we sort of have one here for new faculty (but it's by department, and mine doesn't do it), but this could definitely spring out of the faculty parent group I'm trying to create here.
Anonymous said…
An excellent blog post, helping to raise a deeply relevant issue in American academia. I hope you get the support you need, and good luck with the pregnancy :)
Anonymous said…
Thanks for writing this. It sounds like your university is long overdue for a serious reconsideration of its policies on maternity leave, and I applaud you for raising the issue despite being untenured. I thought it was fairly normal for faculty maternity leaves to be arranged via some form of paid medical disability, but without requiring a separate disability insurance policy to kick in. "Alternative assignments" like the ones you mention also seem standard for filling in gaps created by the timing of the birth relative to the academic calendar.
Stopping the tenure clock is essential for retaining faculty who have children before undergoing tenure review, but as you say, it shouldn't be necessary to commit to that option in place of going up "early".
A good resource that was forwarded to me comes from the AAUP. I learned that "pregnancy disability leave" is different from "parental leave." The former usually involves 6 weeks of medical leave to recover from a standard (vaginal) delivery without complications. This is generally covered by a university's medical leave policy (e.g., sick leave in the case of my uni). Then there's parental leave, which applies to *both* men and women, and is at least as generous as FMLA (up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave). Good to get some of these terms sorted!

Here's the link (PDF) from AAUP - http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/Pregnancy-in-the-Academy.pdf.
Michelle said…
I am British, tenured at a UK university but reading your post brought back many memories as I had my daughter whilst doing my post-doc in Phildelphia 17 years ago. I managed to pull together 6 weeks of sick time, personal days and vacation days but that was all I could get. The day before I gave birth I did a 10 hour stint in the lab freezing samples for my next experiment. On my return I pumped milk in the rest room in between running assays. I feel for you, it is so crazy that the richest nation on earth can't see fit to support women and families in a way that is viewed as a basic human right here in Europe. I had my son here in the UK and as a minimum I was entitled to 6 months paid leave, could return to the same terms and conditions, someone covered my duties in my absence, and full support for continued breast feeding on my return. What you have to deal with is inhuman and women in academia across the world should champion your cause.
Sandy said…
OH! Many many congratulations to you and yours! How exciting :) I love that t-shirt! I wish I could have found one like that for my daughter LOL! She's just over a month off having her second son and that shirt is right up my alley LOL

Hoping your hassles disappear fast!


All the best in your organization drive - I fought similar battles at Duke, where I worked when my children were born. Faculty had a semester of paid parental leave (including fathers), thanks to faculty advocates of the 1970s-1980s. Parents At Duke got 3 weeks of paid parental leave for staff (and 5 campus lactation rooms!) and did great stuff for child-care issues but was still working on clarifying/creating policies for graduate students, post-docs, and contingent faculty when I left. We did some looking at peer/aspirational institutions' policies, but that research is now 10 years old.
Chloe said…
I just came upon your post as I research maternity leaves for grad students in the USA. I am planning my graduate applications, and whereas I was offered admission in the past to US universities with fully funded PhD programs, I am thinking of staying in Canada ( I'm Canadian) to do an MA first and work. This makes less sense "academically" but more sense holistically in the parent, finance space.

I have been STUNNED to read about the TINY leaves with very poor terms in USA's best universities. In Canada one full year of parental leave is the LAW. This is funded through insurance which all workers pay ( this also covers other unemployment leaves which people need to take at times, regardless of gender) A woman receives 67% of her salary for a year via this insurance program, and their employer in some cases will top of the rest for a period of time which varies. In all provinces paternal leave is also offered, but only in Quebec is it truly progressive, rendering it lost if the father does not utilize it. As a student, a year of leave is the norm, although not paid, and with the expectation that no academic work is occurring.

This programs work well from a labour standpoint ( I work in HR): the annual leaves provide excellent openings for new staff to get experience and exposure in their field or in an organization--so that they more easily transition into a new role with the company after the leave, or stay on if the mother/father decides to take on a new role.
So many studies show that the first year is tremendously important for child development, and that parent bonding ( not just mother bonding) is key during this period. In general the father can choose to take the leave if the mother is the primary earner or any combination of families regardless of genders.
We are not perfect however: We don't do much in terms of childcare or daycares on site or near workplaces, so it remains difficult for women to excel in their careers relative to men, and parenting still primarily falls on women, but this is changing..as more women earn more and more men are comfortable parenting.

Also it is tied to employment. If a woman works for 15 years full time but then takes a year off to go to school and then gets pregnant, she does not receive any funding despite all her contributes to the public employment insurance plan. It is tied to your last year's earnings, which it should not be. In some European countries it is not tied to employment, which is better for those already at risk , under the poverty line, or unemployed.

I honestly do not understand how children grow to be so healthy and capable in the USA with these horrendous leave policies...how do professional women have children? Is the system based on having some affordable (illegal?) help at home? I only say that because this is not available in Canada, and it seems to be a major underpinning of the US economy in so many levels.

I sincerely hopes this changes soon, along with your health care system. It is criminal and you all deserve better.

these student parental leave policies I've been reading about in the USA are so brutal, they give me the impression these grad programs are more designed for men---who can have a child, but have a wife at home caring for the child, and who can retain his funding and do his work. The only way this policy works for a woman is if she also have a "wife" type husband, which socially is a tall order for all involved. It sounds as though these schools presume male students. YIkes!
Kate said…
I have no idea if you'll see a comment on such an old post, but honestly, academia is such a miserable system. Think of the hurdles and hoops to jump through that you had while tenure-track and with a husband. You were so LUCKY to be in such a (relatively) good position!

I, in contrast, am a visiting professor and single (a string of temporary jobs hardly leaves you in a good position to date/marry). And I'm 35 years old, with little if any time to attempt motherhood via sperm donor. Given my job, it feels utterly hopeless. How can I take a 1 (up to 3) year position to teach specific courses and then essentially back out to take maternity leave? How could I be so irresponsible to try to have a child when both my, and the potential child's, health insurance relies on having said temporary job that could probably just get yanked/not renewed if I am not able to teach what they initially hired me to teach? And all of this with no partner to lean on for income, insurance, tag-teaming child care, and just plain old support?

It's miserable and hopeless, and academia is broken, because I'm a decent enough candidate that I've gotten a couple of handfuls of tenure track interviews and have been explicitly told I'm a really close second choice on more than one. But I'm out. One more year and I quit to go teach high school in the hope that I could teach there for a year, still maybe get pregnant at 37, and still have that high school teaching job waiting for me afterward.

(And don't get me started on people who told me to freeze eggs for $10k in my early 30s as a postdoc barely making ends meet. Impossible.)

I never should have gotten a PhD. And it's really sad that it comes down to that simply because I'm a single woman who'd like to have a child.

Still, I hope things have gone well for you and your family. Jealous as I am, it's still good to know that things do work out for some people :)
Oh gosh, yes -- we need to hear more in this conversation from women like you, Kate! Academia is indeed a broken system. I've known several women wait to have kids until tenure -- which means in their early 40s, and now with the job market tanking even more would mean... mid 40s? late 40s? It's untenable. Yes, I found a partner at 18, married at 23, and we had our first kid when I was 32. I was pretty lucky in that regard. And lucky that financially and health-insurance-ly we could support two unpaid maternity leaves for childbirth and recovery.

I wish you luck in your job and personal life! I'm sorry it's so hard. And I really hate it when people say things like "are you going to have kids?" "When are you going to have kids?" "You don't have a lot of time, you know." and, my favorite, "Why have kids in grad school? Focus on school!" Can't have it both ways, people.

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