Why I Support Paid Maternity Leave
About a week ago, a friend posted a status update that I found both saddening and offensive. The post related to speculation about paid maternity leave, and the offensive bit was her use of the term ‘breeders,’ but that is easily brushed aside.
The saddening part related to the assumptions it revealed about her attitudes to children and society. Basically her point was why should they get money to stay at home and have babies, and if they do why can’t I have extra recreation leave and money to travel? I would like to pick apart some of these assumptions, for they are quite common, and in doing so convey why I am in favour of paid maternity leave. First, a disclaimer: I do have children, but did not benefit from any form of maternity leave, paid or otherwise.
The underlying assumption in the statement is that children are a lifestyle choice concerning purely the individual and therefore should be solely the individual’s responsibility. Pardon my French, but that is a load of crap: every society needs to reproduce itself. The reproduction is not simply the replacement of physical bodies; we trust parents to raise children to reproduce the culture and values of our society. But children and young people are not stupid. Of course they can see the values that their parents and teachers model, but they are also acutely aware of the values of the society around them and the place that they are given in it. If we teach them through our attitudes and public policies that children are not appreciated, not welcome, are a burden on taxpaying individuals, then this is what will be reproduced. They will learn that it is every individual for themselves, that community and collective care are not important, and that you don’t have compassion for the weak. An African proverb states that “it takes a community/village to raise a child.” Children learn their place, values, and identity partly from the society around them. What, seriously, do we want them to learn? Nelson Mandela said something along the lines that you can assess a society by the way that it treats its weakest members. If we treat children like they are not wanted and are burdens, what kind of society do we have and what are we teaching them? That in thirty or forty years time they should not have compassion for the unwanted burdens of an aged population?
In reproducing children and thereby the culture and values of the society, parents are performing a social service and children are a collective asset. Not only do children replace the workforce, but they refresh the culture and challenge the ‘common sense’ of our thinking and practices, especially as they grow out of childhood and become young people. Yet too often young people are represented in our media as ‘troublesome’ or out of control, reflecting our own insecurities about the world that we are creating.
Let’s help parents to do the job of raising children well, as ultimately it benefits all of us. Even babies pick up on stress, so let’s help where we can to reduce the stress that comes either from parents having to go back to work before they and babies are ready, or from struggling to cope financially while taking time out of the workforce. The relationship with parents and other relatives, the patterns of discipline, and the dispositions of the child are all set in those crucial early years. So let’s give parents the chance to make the best they can of this time. But this doesn’t mean enforced absence from the workplace for a set period – the aim is to make it as easy as we can for parents to raise well-adjusted, healthy, social beings. Some parents will find that they can best do this by re-engaging with paid work earlier than others.
This brings me to another assumption that my friend made in suggesting additional recreation leave as compensation for non-parents: maternity leave is not a holiday. Parenting – properly looking after a child and teaching them appropriate behaviour and social skills – is darned hard work, requiring consistency of effort and energy that I suspect few people who have not raised children can truly appreciate.
The final assumption that I want to deal with relates to the economic side of the issue. My friend’s comments betray resentment that her taxes were being used to pay for benefits that she would not enjoy. We tend to explain taxes as the money that we pay to the government to provide the services that we use. I have been guilty of using this explanation myself, but it is wrong. Taxes are, or at least should be, about building the kind of society that we want. As a child I benefited from the taxes and distributive policies in place at the time and they contributed to my lifelong sense of identity and belonging in my society. My children’s generation are benefiting from the taxes and distributive policies in place while they are growing up and these will similarly have long-term effects on how they see themselves as citizens. Taxes are a pay-forward system, and there is a lag of about twenty years on the finer implications of most social policies. Taxes aren’t just about paying for what we as individuals use – they are about shared priorities and building a society that reflects the values that we think are important.
So this is why I support paid maternity leave. I still like to believe that we live in a society that can act collectively to express values of care and compassion, and not that we are simply gathered individuals looking out only for our own interests.