Maternity leave

By Legal Eagle

The law firm for which I worked when I had my daughter did not have paid maternity leave unless you were a partner. As far as I know, only one woman ever met that hurdle. It is a really short-sighted position to take when you are a profitable business with a pretty good turnover. I think that if I had received maternity leave, I would have returned to the firm, at least for a year. I would have felt a moral obligation to return because they had supported me financially while I was off work. I would also have felt that my contribution was valued, and that the firm wanted me back.

Thus, if a company or business has the resources to be able to pay a valued employee maternity leave, I think it should do so. The short term pain of paying the maternity leave will be balanced by the long term value of getting the employee back. Of course, many law firms aren’t that concerned about keeping their people, so it’s not surprising that they’d skimp on maternity leave. Many treat staff so badly that they quit, and just get new cannon fodder in, rather than changing their practices. Thoroughly unenlightened, if you ask me.

I was interested to read about the Rudd government’s latest proposals for government-funded maternity leave. Of course I would like to be the beneficiary of such a proposal. It would make surviving on one income much easier. At the moment, I think many women are forced to go back to work earlier than they planned because of financial pressures, myself among them. I was planning to take a year off after having my daughter, but the money ran out after five months (on reappraising my budgeting, I had massively underestimated the cost of groceries). The baby bonus all went towards the obstetrician bill. At that point, we didn’t even have a mortgage, but it was still hard enough. This time, I’m much better planned.

I can understand, however, that some people might look at the new proposal and think, “Why should I pay for some other person to stay at home with his or her child?” Particularly if the person works for an employer who can afford to foot the bill, but is too stingy to do so. In order to believe that such a payment is a good thing, it is necessary to believe that increasing the time which parents can spend with a child is a societal good for which we all must pay a little. It happens that I do believe that: but of course, I’m biased; it’s something from which I benefit. Nonetheless, I like to think that even if I didn’t want to have children or couldn’t have them, it’s still something for which I’d be willing to pay. After all, it’s about making sure that future generations are well-cared for and healthy, which is something that society as a whole will benefit from. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if there are some commenters on this blog who disagree with me virulently! 🙂

Returning to my original line of thought, I still think that a wise employer who can afford to do so should also help a parent out financially with a view to retaining their valuable services when they want to return to work.

I wonder what the position would be for someone like me who is on contract, and therefore technically does not get “maternity leave”. For the moment, my contract has ended, and I’m unemployed. I’ve just got to hope it will be renewed when I want to return. I wonder if I would get government-paid maternity leave? I suspect not, even though I do intend to return to paid employment. Some friends and I were discussing the prevalence of short-term contracts for working mothers with young children. The advantage of short-term contracts is that working hours tend to be more flexible and shorter (the big bonus when you want to spend as much time as possible with your child). The disadvantages are numerous (low pay, lack of financial and job security, lack of benefits and sick leave). It’s a trade-off.

Then I also wonder about women who want to stay at home and look after their children. I note that under this proposal, they get substantially less than working mothers. Are we saying that women who return to work are more valuable to society than women who choose not to return to work? Is this fair? I can tell you that raising small kids is one of the hardest jobs ever. Indeed, when I first went back to work after having my daughter, I used to feel that my office was an oasis of calm compared to home, and that the challenges were so much easier. This really surprised me. But I guess there’s no real break from small babies and toddlers, unlike work, when at least you get to go home or have a lunch break. Many partners are gobsmacked by how difficult it is when the primary carer first leaves them alone with their child for a day. I do tend to think it’s something every partner should experience.

Well, I’ll watch developments on this front with interest. And I look forward to hearing your comments.


  1. conrad
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    I think it would be a good idea to add all of the family benefits together some time. At present, it seems to me that most of them are simply argued for ad-hoc. If people had any idea of what the overall amount really was, it would be much simpler to argue for this, that, or the next thing, as you could simply divvy up the amount that was there and offer divisions of it based on what was best. Maternity leave, for example, might be more important than some other benefit. If people traded off these benefits, I imagine those that don’t think it is a good idea would be much more happy to pay for it than if people simple ask for it as yet another ad-hoc government freebie (like now).

    Incidentally, the other group of people that are going to miss out on maternity leave are those that don’t work in big companies (a huge group). I find it hard to imagine that the government is going make small businesses abide by this sort of legislation, since it would simply be impossible for many. If they do in fact force small business to comply, it is going to lead to a large amount of discrimination, as I believe happens in some parts of Europe (don’t be a 30-40 year old woman without children!).

  2. Posted October 1, 2008 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    If they do in fact force small business to comply, it is going to lead to a large amount of discrimination, as I believe happens in some parts of Europe (don’t be a 30-40 year old woman without children!).

    In some places they just ask – legislation be damned – and expect an honest answer. I don’t blame small business for doing that – there’s a difference between the local grocer and a large law firm.

  3. K
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I’m torn. From what I’ve read it seems as though people who work for companies who DO pay maternity leave get both. That irks me.

    I still think a self-contributing scheme (similar to superannuation) which allows for savings of pre-tax income for use during maternity leave. This fund can be paid into and utlised by fathers also.
    The Govt could do a dollar for dollar contribution or something.

  4. John Greenfield
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    The notion of the state legislating compulsory maternity pay for businesses is insane and fascistic. If pollies think it is so wise, why not have the guts to declare themselves socialists and start nationalising away. See how long there’s enough wealth to pay mothers to stay home!

    There are of course heaps of issues here, but we must never forget that it is private capital that creates the wealth that we all get to share in.

    1.The more the state mandates costs to private capital, the more that wealth creation is threatened.

    2. If in fact paying employees to stay at home while their children are young is a sensible investment, I think we can rely on companies to work that out themselves, rather than being lectured by such investment gurus as Sharon Burrow on the matter!

    3. We have to decide whether maternity pay is justified on a liberal or social basis. I think its only justification can be social. That is “it is good for society” for both young children and their parents to be raised by raised by the parents. Cheaper than rehab and prison later.

    4. We are not even two generations away from the feminist revolution and signs are that it is not travelling in the linear way to denial of biological restraints that so many presumed. Young women now dare to insist they WANT to stay at home with their young children. Of course this appalls their older feminist firebrands, but tough titties to the old boilers, this is what people actually want.

    5. These young mothers also want to shave their legs! Gender traitors! Off with their false eyelashes!

    6. If the issue is social rather than liberal, then the cost should be met socially, which means through Centrelink. But there is no reason for us socially to decide the appropriate rate should be that determined in their employment agreement. The average weekly wage is perfectly reasonable.

  5. Posted October 1, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    The time has come to eliminate parenthood. It is an unproductive drag on the economy and produces little or no substantial profits. This is essential. The next step of course is to stop people sleeping. Apparently some people sleep up to 6 hours a day costing the country billions in lost productivity.

  6. Posted October 1, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    America and Australia are the only liberal democracies without a government mandated maternity leave scheme.

    The sky hasn’t fallen down in countries with such schemes, including Sweden with its 16 months parental eave, so I doubt it will fall down here.

    I think such a scheme is better for both parent and child and in the long term is unlikely to have a significant economic net cost or any cost at all.

  7. Posted October 1, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Young women now dare to insist they WANT to stay at home with their young children. Of course this appalls their older feminist firebrands, but tough titties to the old boilers, this is what people actually want.

    There’s a lot of truth to this. My brothers are both fathers. Married to women who would be described as feminists in the sense that they styrongly support feminist principles. However as mothers of young kids they want to stay home – moptherhood is a full-time occupation after all.

    However in their experience the standard wage isn’t enough. One brother’s a highly paid IT nerd and he’s jake. The other’s a technoserf and not so much.

    I’ve got mixed feelings about compulsory maternity leave. A lot of small businesses simply can’t afford it. On the other hand people don;t live to work they work to live. And having children is something that almost seems offensive these days. There’s also the fact that women have been and continue to be punished at work if they have children. IN certain industries in America women who take off very minimal time at their own expense to give birth find themselves demoted returning to work.

    Again a lot of it has to do with ethics. When WorkChoices was released there wa a lot of hubrus about ‘freedom’ but the freedom really only went one way. If people in private circles behaved more humanely, if not-so-common decency was reintroduced I’d wager there wouldn’t be any call for this sort of legislation.

  8. Posted October 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    . If people in private circles behaved more humanely, if not-so-common decency was reintroduced I’d wager there wouldn’t be any call for this sort of legislation.

    Exactly, that the nub of so many problems. Since the 1980’s we have moved towards a much more competition based society. Competition can drive a society forward and co-operation keeps a society stable, finding the right balance is the trick. Given the change in values over the last 20 odd years I think we have moved too far into a competition mould. Beyond a certain level competition mitigates against co-operation and encourages unethical and criminal behavior. That’s one of my big issues with the neoliberal agenda, it treats life like a mad race.

  9. Posted October 1, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    In my experience John there’s destructive competition and constructive competition.

    The latter is that that talented people use. The former is for people like Hollywood studio execs, directors of marketing, senior public servants, and about 82% of those sitting in parliamentary chambers. 🙂

  10. Posted October 1, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Is there such a thing as creative competition? Our previous discussion prompted me to have another look at creativity

  11. Posted October 1, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    People are paid a wage by a boss to turn up & do some work.

    WTF would be the rationale behind the boss paying someone to NOT do any work? (ie, stay at home saying “kitchey kitchey coo” to a newborn?

  12. Posted October 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Aw gee Steve. And I was gonna apply for a job at your pub. I thought it was the kind of place where I could spend the day out the back pulling bongs.


  13. conrad
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    “The sky hasn’t fallen down in countries with such schemes, including Sweden with its 16 months parental eave, so I doubt it will fall down here.”

    It’s really hard to know what the effect is once you mix in culture. For example, perhaps Swedes are left wing socialists and accept it, and Australians don’t, which would make all the difference. I personally have friends in some parts of Europe who constantly complain that they do or did get discriminated against because of this (obviously the type of workplace matters a lot here, and my sample is biased to those types of workplaces where finding stand-ins for, say, six months isn’t easy). Try asking someone from, for example, Belgium or Germany whether they think what you are saying is true of their countries (or just look at the percentage of women without children stats for Germany — this isn’t because their countries are children friendly, although obviously there’s a few factors at play there).

    “I think such a scheme is better for both parent and child and in the long term is unlikely to have a significant economic net cost or any cost at all.”

    I believe there probably is a cost, since (1) it encourages women to stay out of the workforce for longer; and (2) as far as I know, there’s no real evidence to show that kids whose parents return to the workforce relatively quickly are worse off than kids that don’t. Obviously if the size of the effect isn’t big, it might be a good trade-off.

  14. conrad
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Sorry the second last sentence should be
    “than kids with parents that don’t”

  15. lomlate
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Is it worth considering the global warming consequences of any policy which makes it easier to have children?

  16. Posted October 2, 2008 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I will bet that enlightened self interest will produce better arrangements than any government mandates. Legal Eagle would have stuck with the firm if they valued her enough to kick in but they lost her. If she is good then that is their loss.

    Maybe the state should mandate savings to be put aside for maternity and patenity leave (and for housing) and the savings could be used otherwise if not needed for leave. That is a relatively benign form of intervention, unlike mandates for benefits provided with other people’s money which undermine personal responsibility and and also the democratic process though the process of vote-buying. OK the sky has not fallen in Sweden, but it came very low a few years ago and the Swedes have got some classical liberal benefits like low tarrifs, a work ethic, and secure property rights which tend to support the sky and sustain policies that would be ruinous otherwise.

  17. pete m
    Posted October 2, 2008 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    K and LE have got it right.

    My wife and I made a tough choice and sold a property to help fund time off work, as well as saved like mad. All the mothers’ group people we’ve met did something similar – self -sacrificed to have children. To us I guess it is worth it.

    The contrib to super would work quite well, and can generate $10K fairly quickly – 5 yrs at 2% on average wages. I think it is fair for employers to come to the party with flexible work arrangements, but to ask them to pay for someone to sit at home for a year is too much. Some employers can’t afford a month of that, let alone the proposals talked about now.

  18. Posted October 2, 2008 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I agree that the State rather than employers should have to foot the entire bill.

    “I will bet that enlightened self interest will produce better arrangements than any government mandates.”

    Since two-thirds of employees are covered by voluntary parental leave schemes you’ve just lost the bet.

  19. Posted October 2, 2008 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Damn. That should read :

    Since two-thirds of employees are NOT covered by voluntary parental leave schemes you’ve just lost the bet.

  20. Posted October 2, 2008 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    As an (ex) single dad, (who worked in a small/medium non-profit with my daughter in a sling), it annoys the hell out of me when calling parental leave “maternal”, and makes me sad when the focus is on fairly new infants, who are no trouble (I feed her at my desk – typing one-handed, and changing her took less time than most people spend on smoko breaks), whereas the real time-off that needs to be supported is a few months later, when they don’t want to stay still or quiet.

    I’d hope that more businesses considered the flexibility of such arrangements where this is practical – and can you imagine in retail businesses that half of the customers would probably stay longer in the shop longer cooing at the baby – which is probably GOOD for the business.

    When they get to the wanna-climb stage, THAT’s when you need to keep a constant eye on them, and that’s when I’d want time off.

    Of course, if you’re working in a factory, such arrangements are near impossible compared to an office/shop (or giving tutorials to students!).

    Let’s hope the arrangements encourage flexibility, including part-time “leave” support.

  21. Posted October 2, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “The problem with a voluntary scheme of maternity leave savings is that you’d have to opt in well before you knew whether or not you were going to have kids. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be married and have one kid with a second on the way at this point in time, I would have laughed at you.”

    It would also mean women delaying childbirth. Since the chance of birth defects climbs astronomically after a women reaches age 35 both the human welfare costs and economic costs (health and welfare payments) are also a factor.

    Unfortunately libertarians are by their very nature myopic.

  22. pete m
    Posted October 2, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    mel, LE – As I showed the money could be gathered within 5 years, so from age 20 to 25. Also, if you decide not to have kids, it could stay in your super.

    Anyone wanting kids before say 25 can “owe” the benefit and repay it like hecs.

    it is possible to work something out that meets anyone who can work circumstances. The real drama is extending it to the welfare dependent – since they are already paid to stay at home, then shouldn’t they just get the higher benefit? What about child support? etc.

  23. Posted October 2, 2008 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    LE said: “Dads who care or share deserve paid leave as much as mothers.”

    Actually, forced paternal leave is good for (statistical) career progress and wage equality of females. (See the VoxEU research articles I’ve pointed to in Paid paternal leave might fix gender wage inequity.) Thus, well-thought out parental leave arrangements (and things like creches at work like Westpac has started introducing) help not just mothers, but women generally.

    The other thing that is forgotten is that with the advent of the internet, teleworking (which may involve a shift in the focus of work), particularly for knowledge workers, allows a happy medium, and sometimes an increase in productivity because work at home after putting the child to sleep can often EXTEND the hours in a given day spent making money for the employer. If the government wants to address care of children (and parental stress), it should put together a holistic package, – although this wouldn’t have a media-friendly and politically advantageous title of “parental leave”.

    In the case of lawyers, looking after youngies while teleworking is not dissimilar from working with a chronic and unpredictable illness – a mate suffers from regular migraines (almost every day), and so focuses on contract preparation and precedent research rather than consulting with punters, working at all hours of the day and night whenever his migraines have receded somewhat.

    OK, so this applies mainly to highly-skilled knowledge workers, but such parents are probably BETTER at providing stimulating care for kids than a child-care centre or a babysitter.

  24. lomlate
    Posted October 2, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    #25: Yeah, it sure does open a can of worms but I think it’s worth considering. If we accept population growth is good for gdp(which seems to be the basis of the baby bonus) yet realise that global population levels are unsustainable for environmental reasons then immigration seems to be the only viable option.

    I’m not suggesting a one child policy, but in the long term alternative energy can’t be the only solution to environmental problems. carbon emissions, resource scarcity etc mean encouraging parenthood might not be a good idea; especially if we want to bring the third world out of poverty.

  25. TerjeP
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I think that if I had received maternity leave, I would have returned to the firm, at least for a year.

    Don’t forget us fellas. I want to be paid to stay at home with the kids for a year also. If they did that then I’d be willing to work an entire year on full pay in order to reward the employer.


    You people have lost your brains and turned socialist. Paid maternity leave is a stupid idea. How about paid surfing leave. How about paid retirement.

    50% of Australians (and presumably 50% of women) work for small businesses that employ under 25 people. Shall we herd all the women of child bearing age off to work only for the big companies?

  26. TerjeP
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Fertility is in decline across the world not just in the west. China was below replacement level even before the one child policy was introduced (but still grows due to demographic inertia). India is headed in that direction really fast and will easily be there within the next decade. The only significant place where fertility is high is in Africa, however mortality is high there also.

    The world does not have an excess of fertility. It has democraphic inertia from earlier baby booms.

    You can find and chart the history on fertility in various countries on the following interactive system:-

  27. TerjeP
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    p.s. Today Indian women are expected to have 2.54 children. Chinese women have 1.76. My wife and I have more kids than the average woman in Zimbabwe or Botswana.

  28. conrad
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    “That’s why I’d rather it came straight from the government or straight from a superannuation-like fund.”

    I doubt it’s even the cost of the actually salaries that matters for many businesses — it’s the training cost of the new person — that can add up considerably in many areas where it takes months to get up to speed. You also have advertising costs, administration costs, and because the person you get knows they will get terminated quickly, they usually cost much more too (if you can find them). Because of this, you’d far better off offering, say, 5 weeks on full pay (within limits), than, say, 6 months on minimum wage. Where I work, for example, we have people disappear for 1 year, and the main effect is that someone else gets overloaded, and something gets poorly run for a year. That’s okay where I work, because it’s a university with no real bottom line, but it wouldn’t be okay for many businesses.

    It seems to me the interesting thing to know would be how long most small business can put up with missing people for. I imagine this is probably very non-linear — Most business can probably put up with losing people for a month or so, but once you extended it past a certain point, its easy to see it being a real disaster for many firms, since then you really do need to get someone else.

  29. Posted October 3, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Mel, the only money that the state has to provide things comes from other people, So don’t make out that the state is a giant resource that can be tapped without other people getting stuck with the bill.

    Legal Eagle, I think it is scandlous that you were prepared to live to the hilt when you were young and later on you expect to put your hand into other people’s pockets to help you. And someone suggested that libertarians are myopic.

    The universal contribution scheme (as I heard) would permit people to use the funds for other purposes if they did not have kids, so it is just compulsory saving. Should not be necessary but apparently in the world of the myopic we can’t expect anyone to look ahead and make provisions.

    In the absence of universal compulsory saving I suggest empoyers should be able to pick and choose who they want to help (that is, to keep) provided they can afford to do so.

    The only hope for a decent future is to pay more attention to the long term but if intelligent folk like Legal Eagle found that too hard then it is going to be really interesting to see how things pan out.

  30. Posted October 3, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    “Mel, the only money that the state has to provide things comes from other people, So don’t make out that the state is a giant resource that can be tapped without other people getting stuck with the bill.”

    Actually the money is printed by the state and the right of a citizen to possess it is a mere privilege. What the state gives the state can take away.

  31. Posted October 3, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    “Rafe, Not so much that I’m stupid now, but I was pretty stupid and screwed up in my early 20s and certainly not foresighted or thinking in the long term then.”

    I think it’s pretty well excepted now that our brains don’t mature until about age 25.

    But in any event, in the real world most of us are highly imperfect and that’s one of the reason’s why prudent welfare ends up benefiting most people.

    If Rafe’s libertarian ethos was the ruling paradigm life for normal folk would be reduced to a game of snakes and ladders.

  32. conrad
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    “and that’s one of the reason’s why prudent welfare ends up benefiting most people”

    I think the word _prudent_ here is important. Lots of people would argue that a lot of what is given out doesn’t exactly fit that description.

  33. Posted October 4, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I’m fascinated by the analysis of John @ 6. As an ‘old boiler’ I strongly object to these generalisations. I stayed home when my children were young (in the 70s) and only returned to work when the youngest was at school, as did all my feminist friends. We sewed and knitted the family’s clothes, preserved food, eschewed holidays and generally scrimped and saved so that we could do that. I feel sad when young women don’t want to spend time at home with their kids for the first year or so – and lots don’t. Many are forced back to work, but don’t underestimate the number who actually want to. And please don’t assume that all old hairy-legged feminists are mindless supporters of particular viewpoint, any either. We’re as riven by difference as any other social movement is.

  34. John Greenfield
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


    Well first of all I did not intend to offend you personally, however I was certainly not offering any olive branches! I am curious as to why you personally would feel offended by a post on a blog by somebody you don’t know and which was not addressed to you personally. Perhaps you identify as an “older feminist firebrand” very proudly?

    If so, my dear, we have a problem. You say you old boiler hairy-legged feminists are as riven by difference as any other social movement is. I say bollocks! And rather than celebrating this wonderful “diversity” I would argue that more appropriate labels would be incoherence and/or hypocrisy.

    You, yourself, just in this post come across as lovely, intelligent, committed, reasonable, etc. and to that extent I do feel a little bad if I am responsible for you feeling hurt or upset.

    BUT, my admittedly rash and polemical assessment (and come ON, you knew that 😉 ) is nevertheless based on quite detailed observation of the Hairy-Legged- Sphere.

    Girlfiriend, perhaps you just don’t realise you are no longer one of them! Buy some Nair, embrace the smoothness, throw the boiler suits out, buy a nice dress, and you have a lovely day, sweetie.

    Me? I am about to get my ass waxed ready for tonight’s Sleaze Ball! 🙂

  35. John Greenfield
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and you might at least comment on the rest and most substantive parts of my post, which surely must redeem me a little? 😉

  36. Posted October 4, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m not offended personally – why do you think I am? As you don’t know me I don’t really care what you think about me, but I was irritated that you assigned a shitload of characteristics to people in a social movement that I have lived for about 40 years. You may say bollocks to my assertion that lesbian feminism has been riddled with diversity for those 40 years. ::shrug:: I once wrote a Masters thesis about difference and division in New Zealand lesbian communities in the 1970s and 80s, so I have thought about all this quite a lot and have a widely informed view on it.

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