A person called Ellie left a comment this week on a previous post of mine calling for universal paid maternity leave in Australia. Ellie has raised some questions, and she’s done so politely, so it’s nothing personal against her but one of her points is a particular irritant of mine and I’ve seen this stuff come up elsewhere on the net so I’ve decided to tackle this as a post.
Here is Ellie’s comment:
I think the national maternity scheme for Australia is a great idea, but it needs to be worked out differently. It does seem unfair to make all workers pay for this as many may not be able to have children and some also decide (for whatever reasons) NOT to have children. This type of scheme would be ignoring this minority, taking money that they will not benefit from later. Maybe one idea to improve this is to offer people that aren’t having children a few months of general paid leave (sort of like long service leave). Then if people who have taken this leave ever change their minds and have children, they will not get the offer of this maternity scheme and need to do it on their own. Does this suggestion make it a fairer scheme for everyone? What are your thoughts?
Thanks for your comment Ellie. Here are my thoughts.
Maternity leave is not a holiday – it is paid leave to physically and mentally recover from an extremely taxing biological experience – childbirth, as well as time to establish a bond with the baby. Don’t underestimate the second of these. The baby’s very life depends on its bond with the primary care giver (in most cases a mother). It is essential for the physical and psychological health of the baby (and indeed the adult it will become one day) that it has a secure bond with its mother (primary care giver). We all have a vested interest in this outcome because we have to share our planet, if not our neighborhood with them. As I’ve said previously, it is women and only women (or men like Thomas Beatie) who can give birth and (generally speaking) provide the baby’s first nurturing. It is women, almost exclusively who suffer the loss of income and workplace entitlements associated with our species’ reproduction.
It is long past time that Australia (and the United States of America) joined the rest of the world (or at least the OECD countries) and finally established a universal paid maternity leave scheme. It won’t send our economy broke, at least it hasn’t sent Great Britain or Iran broke yet. Paid maternity leave is already paid to some mothers, I was one of them. But it is the better paid and higher qualified mothers who are currently more likely to have a job with paid maternity leave entitlements. Poorer working women are usually left out. This is not fair. All women deserve the opportunity to take at least a couple of weeks from work to recover from childbirth and establish themselves with their baby. It is grossly exploitative of women to do anything else.
Paid maternity leave is about time to recover from a birth and establish care with an infant. In spite of popular mythology, birth is not generally an easy task and there are few paid jobs in this country which could be performed safely by a woman who, for instance, has just had a cesarean (for starters they’re usually on some serious pain medication, and they can’t drive a car or lift anything either), or who is coping with an infection following her episiotomy (she will consequently have difficult sitting or walking on top of feeling very ill). Sick leave is not holiday pay and neither is maternity leave. The failure to provide maternity leave stems from two wrongs. First, we have an out-dated and sexist view of women as financially provided for by a bread-winning male partner. And yet the economy is dependent on its female labour force, and we, the workforce face living costs which increasingly necessitate two income households. Second, women’s work is not valued in our patriarchal culture and we’re not used to compensating it. Women’s lives are ‘the other’, they are not the dominant life cycle around which our economy is structured. If they were we wouldn’t have long service leave which rewards a male life cycle of uninterrupted working years. Because women’s lives are an exception to the rule, an after thought, a common-place, natural occurrence like childbirth is either over-looked or treated as an extravagance in the workplace.
Women who aren’t in the workforce don’t get maternity leave and yet they still face costs associated with raising a new child. This is NOT an argument against paid maternity leave. Means tested assistance should be provided to all families who really need financial support. Sick leave entitlements aren’t paid to people who aren’t in the workforce either, but this doesn’t make sick leave entitlements any less legitimate.
Now to the heart of Ellie’s comments. Some of us may never have a baby and therefore never directly benefit from that tiny portion of our taxes that has gone towards a maternity leave scheme. Some of us may never be seriously injured at work and use the workers compensation scheme either, and some of us rarely even use sick leave. Is this fair? Getting closer to home, what about carersleave? Some of us won’t ever use carers leave, but you know, those of us who never have to be responsible for taking our father to his Alzheimer’s appointments, and who never have to sit at home tending to twin seven year olds exploding from either end with gastroenteritis could maybe think of ourselves as lucky rather than missing out on some entitlement. Because this leave, like maternity leave, is NOT a holiday.
We live in a society where we contribute a certain amount of our incomes towards a pool of money which can be used to provide big expensive services and infrastructure that we could not possibly provide for ourselves as individuals. Because we live in a society made up of lots of different people and not just clones of ourselves needs vary, and some of the stuff our taxes contribute to won’t be used directly by us. That’s ok, because this risk is shared by everyone in society. And while we’re worrying about the accounting, keep in mind that you will need to work a great many years to pay back your own use of the system – your health care, schooling, policing, road use, enjoyment of parks etc etc.
Babies are not lifestyle choices, even though the marketing of baby products sometimes indicates this. Babies are not even real choices (see here and here for a good discussion of what I mean). A lot of pressure is put on women to back away from pursuing paid maternity leave. You’ll be told that the economy will suffer, that businesses will go broke, and that it will undermine the goodwill towards women in the workforce. You may also be told that you’re selfish and greedy for wanting paid maternity leave. Rubbish, these are the same arguments that were used against the women before us who fought for equal pay for equal work. Paid maternity leave is not only increasingly necessary, it is just plain fair. Mother love alone won’t buy the food and pay the electricity bill. We need to keep the support up for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick in her campaign for, as a minimum, a government-funded 14 week paid maternity leave scheme paid with two weeks paid paternity leave, at the level of the federal minimum wage.
P.S. I lost my first shot at this post (thanks WordPress) and I have forgotten some of my points. I may revisit this post over the next day or so and add to it as I remember things.