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The downsides to having a long maternity leave

Women's careers can suffer, especially without employer support
benefits
Leaving for 12 to 18 months leaves professional women vulnerable to all kinds of professional setbacks. Shutterstock

By Shauna Cole

When it comes to maternity leave, I feel for America, I really do. Going back to work just weeks after having a baby is something I can’t even fathom. 

I remember those early days post-partum so well. I was a completely sleep-deprived, lactating mess. I can’t even imagine adding the stress of fitting into my fancy work clothes weeks after birth —  I wore yoga pants for a solid six months.

So many people think we have it made here in Canada. Sure, if you talk to most Canadian women, you’ll hear an expression of gratitude over the opportunity to stay home with baby and experience that first year.

But, dig a little deeper and ask that woman what her return was like. You’ll get a true picture of our maternity leave experiences.

So while Americans might be swooning about how great we have it in Canada, consider these five maternity leave realities that are cold like Canadian winters.

Maternity leave is not a free gift from the government of Canada: I know there’s a lovely notion that our government is paying for us to be at home raising friendly, hockey-loving humans. This just isn’t the case – at all. Maternity leave compensation is part of the Employment Insurance Program that working Canadians fund. So, through maternity leave, we’re really just collecting money that we paid into the system over the years. And, honestly, the maximum pay amount is not even close to the annual earnings of even a mid-level professional.

There’s little to no support beyond the compensation: Maternity leave in Canada has been around since the 1970s. But still, there’s a lack of formal programs and accountability measures for employers. If you’re going on leave in Canada, you can basically expect to fill out a form, go out for a farewell lunch with your team, turn on your out-of-office reply and hope everything works out when you come back in 12 to 18 months. I’m sure there are exceptions here and there, and employers working to improve this. But right now, the process is definitely missing some rigour and consistency.

Long leaves take a toll on careers: While women are guaranteed a job after their maternity leave, they are not guaranteed the same job. This basically means a junior-level professional could be moved to any other junior-level professional role in the company, as long as the pay is the same. For example, an administrative assistant in HR could return as an administrative assistant in accounting. What if that assistant dreams of being an HR manager? She was moved to accounting so her career goals are definitely set back by moving to a new department.

On top of this, there are missed opportunities for promotions that result from being “out of sight, out of mind” and there’s always the possibility that your nemesis is hired as your backfill. Leaving for 12 to 18 months leaves professional women vulnerable to all kinds of professional setbacks.

There’s no real data to hold employers accountable: It seems pretty universal that employers don’t go beyond their legal requirements when it comes to managing maternity leave. Plus, there’s zero accountability for anything maternity leave related. For example, no national organization tracks complaints and court cases involving parental leave discrimination. This sends a signal about our country’s focus on managing maternity leave experiences.

It’s a catch-22: While it feels like the country supports new parents and their babies, the lack of employer accountability and engagement in the process sends an opposing message. A lack of formal transition planning from employers discounts the significance of this transition for mother and employer. As a result, maternity leave ends up causing real career anxiety.

As a Canadian mom, I felt obligated to take a long maternity leave. At the same time, I felt a pit of anxiety in my stomach over my career throughout the entire leave.

Gone are the days where women have to choose between family and career — but the system has yet to catch up to our new attitudes of growing baby and career together. So, yes, we have long maternity leaves and we are grateful for this — but long leaves have problems too.

Shauna Cole is a career and human resources expert based in New Brunswick. She can be reached at hello@shaunacole.com or (506) 643-1057.

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