Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Child Bearers in America

Photo: American Psychological Association

The day before I was about to leave Sweden to return home to America, one of my best friends that I had made in my time there told me that she was going to have a baby. It was a rare sunny day in Gothenburg, and we were about to have lunch at my friend’s favorite restaurant in the city. As my girlfriend and I approached the quaint street-side table, we could see that my friend was beaming. I thought she was just really happy to see me or happy that this trashy, loud American was finally going to get the hell out of Europe. Contrary to my selfish presuppositions, I leaned in to give my friend a hug and a kiss (on both cheeks, of course, because it’s Europe). To my surprise, she grabbed me in her beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed clutches and whispered in my ear, “I’m pregnant”.  For a brief moment, consternation, shock, fear, and sweating ensued—and I wasn’t even her boyfriend.

When I pulled away from the hug, I looked at her and asked frantically, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”. I had just automatically assumed that we were in the midst of a crisis, and I was ready for desperate action. But she responded to my question as if the answer was intuitive—“I’m going to keep it”—duh. She then went on to describe her plans for her new family. The baby was not as much of a human monkey wrench as I thought. As my friend kept talking about her plans, I became a lot less hysterical and a lot more apt to rationale. She and her boyfriend had just bought a new apartment, and she was not a child, as she would be turning 26 that June. This wasn’t going to be a real-life episode of Teen Mom: Scandinavia. After our farewell lunch that day, I thought about it more and more and realized that my reaction to her baby news had been so American. I was viewing her situation as a predicament rather than a blessing, an anxiety-filled burden rather than an exciting family adventure. That’s not to say that Swedes and Europeans in general do not agonize over unplanned pregnancies, or that Americans do not view unplanned pregnancies as a blessing. However, Europeans have support from their societies and governments. With the family care system in place in Sweden, my friend and her boyfriend would have the support they needed to raise and care for their baby, and that assuaged my anxiety. I came away from that day excited for my friend and her boyfriend, but it got me thinking that I am still thankful I am not a mom in America.

In Sweden, when a person becomes pregnant, there are special pregnancy benefits that they can collect from Swedish Social Security. Both parents get a lengthy, paid parental leave that lasts anywhere from 390 to 480 days.

Since my farewell lunch, I have often thought of that scenario and what I learned from it. I think of it each time I learn that one of my American friends is pregnant or a seasoned mother of two confides in me the previous challenges she’s faced at the workplace. I think about it and it fills me with frustration and anger because every person with a uterus should have the same support. In Sweden, when a person becomes pregnant, there are special pregnancy benefits that they can collect from Swedish Social Security. Both parents get a lengthy, paid parental leave that lasts anywhere from 390 to 480 days. While the parents are on leave, they collect about 80 percent of their salaries for the first 390 days and the rest of their days off are paid at a lesser rate. In addition, both parents are guaranteed their same position when they come back from their parental leave. There are systems in place for parents to be relieved of financial stress once the baby is born.

By stark contrast, pregnancies—planned or unplanned—are a source of stress for American families.  When an employed person learns that they are pregnant in the United States, they are instantly placed in a prime position to be discriminated against. The biological ability to become pregnant is perceived as a disadvantage in and of itself. And, while it is less common in 2017 for there to be overt discrimination, the systems in place (or lack thereof) for parental leave and the “live to work” culture in the United States are discriminatory enough. 

I have heard accusations of laziness because a mother was leaving 15 minutes early to go home and attend to her nine-month-old child. If she lived in Sweden, she would still be at home (with her husband, might I add) attending to her child in the most important months of her child’s cognitive development.

Recently, a pregnant friend of mine admitted to me that she felt guilty about missing work for her doctor appointments. She also had anxiety about the birth of her child because, at the time, she was unsure about how she was going to scrounge up enough days for maternity leave. She had just started a new job and she wasn’t guaranteed 12 weeks of maternity leave because she had not worked for the company long enough to accrue that time. In the end, she had to piece together a mixture of vacation time and sick time and file for disability to get the time she needed to take care of her newborn child. I don’t know about you, but pushing a fully-grown baby out of your birth canal, recovering, and then having to take care of it whilst sleep deprived does not sound like a “vacation” to me.  It’s not just systemic employment problems that are a source of trepidation, but also bosses, co-workers, and subordinates that have little to no sympathy for pregnant people or those people with children in the workplace. I have heard stories of gossiping co-workers ratting out their pregnant colleagues for leaving early during the workday because they were cramping or exhausted in the latter part of their pregnancy. I have heard accusations of laziness because a mother was leaving 15 minutes early to go home and attend to her nine-month-old child. If she lived in Sweden, she would still be at home (with her husband, might I add) attending to her child in the most important months of her child’s cognitive development. Another friend of mine felt she needed to hide her pregnancy for as long as she could, and she was right to do so. She knew that her supervisor would treat her differently if he found out. Once she began to show, he sat her down to talk about her “situation”, and she was not guaranteed her job after she returned from a short 12 weeks of maternity leave. After the news broke about her leave and subsequent job instability, the people that she managed took advantage of the situation and shirked their duties on the job. She wouldn’t be their manager for much longer, so what was the point of doing what she asked?

The stories I’ve heard from friends and family have led me to believe that people who have the ability to carry a child are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If you are a woman in the workforce who is concentrated on her career and not on starting a family, you are questioned about why you don’t have children. If you are going to have a baby or have children already, you are seen as a burden in the workplace. You are just another HR nightmare; you are a problem that needs to be sorted out so that, while you’re away, the wheels in the company machine can keep spinning.  It’s no wonder why shows on television catastrophize unplanned pregnancies. I used to think that an unplanned pregnancy was just a plot element used to ramp up drama, but Rachel was right to have a breakdown on Friends. According to the Urban Institute, 41 percent of people who had babies were not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 2012. Those who were covered by their employers for the full duration of their parental leave time earned a little over half of their salaries while they were away from their jobs. This, of course, was not enough to financially support their families for three full months. Thus, most parents either sought to patch together other forms of coverage or were forced to return to work earlier. If those statistics don’t want to make you pull your own hair out, I don’t know what will.  Currently, the systems in place punish those with the ability to carry a child for doing so, and Americans need to wake up. This is 2017, let’s give parents the time with their children that they deserve.