Melissa Carter: U.S. a late bloomer when it comes to maternity leave

My girlfriend, Katie Jo, and I welcomed our son into the world Oct. 1, and this week I returned to work after six weeks of maternity Leave. Well, I call it “maternity leave,” because otherwise explaining the complicated issues surrounding my time off is much more confusing.

The truth is I wasn’t on maternity leave, because I didn’t qualify for it. Katie and I used a surrogate for medical reasons, and since I didn’t physically give birth to Mr. Carter, I was unable to receive time off with compensation. Under federal law, I was able to take 12 weeks off without losing my job under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but they would have been unpaid. This knowledge made me realize I misunderstood what maternity leave really is.

I always envisioned maternity leave as the time for a mother to get a handle on her new position in life. How often do I feed this child? Does he get sick easily? How soon will he sleep through the night? Should I pick him up whenever he cries, or force him to self-soothe? There’s a lot to figure out before going back to work, and I thought giving a new mother time off was an employer’s way of allowing that adjustment to take place before bringing her back into the 9-5 grind.

Nope. The reason for maternity leave is to allow time for the mother’s physical recovery, and has nothing to do with emotional support for her or the child. That’s why paternity leave is unpaid; the father’s not the one who went into labor. And the cost of the mother’s absence from work is paid for through her Short Term Disability benefits.

So how did I get to take time off? My company allowed me to cluster vacation and sick days, and gave me the opportunity to broadcast from home briefly when those days ran out. I am very grateful for their generosity, even though six weeks is just a blink of an eye in regard to Mr. Carter’s development. And when compared to the rest of the world, so is the standard three months of paid time off many mothers receive from their companies. The U.S. government offers no mandated paid maternity leave.

According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) analysis conducted this year of 185 countries and territories, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries that don’t offer cash benefits to women during maternity leave. Deepening that divide with the world is the fact that most of those other governments also offer paid paternity leave.

If we’re dead last in this competition, who does the ILO say is in the lead? The United Kingdom, with 40 weeks mandated paid maternity leave. Vietnam and Ireland give 26 weeks, while Singapore and Bangladesh offer 16. Women next to our borders also get paid to take time off with their new families: Canada offers 15 weeks, while Mexico provides 12.

There is a strong effort underway to change the way our country handles this issue. In June, at the White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama called for the U.S. to play catch-up and offer paid maternity leave. According to the Summit’s website, the June event was the beginning of a larger movement to create change in our laws, our business practices, and our society, “Because all Americans should be able to have both a job and a family.”

We’ll see, Mr. President. Until then Katie Jo and I will continue to run the gauntlet of following professional ambition while figuring out the mysteries of motherhood, all on no sleep. It is, of course, the American way.

Melissa Carter is one of the Morning Show hosts on B98.5. In addition, she is a writer for the Huffington Post. She is recognized as one of the first out radio personalities in Atlanta and one of the few in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter