As a child, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, though I quickly tired of the starting sections and skipped ahead to the middle, where adventures really picked up speed. As soon as I saw where one choice would lead, I would flip back to where the path diverted and try the other direction. What decision got characters to which endings? The plotline mattered less to me than knowing how choices impacted the rest of the story, and what ending followed.
As an adult, parental-leave policies have begun to read like the footers of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, only based on past decisions. I had always wondered how parents made it work. But when I began to consider having a baby as I approached turning 31, the paths ahead began to look foggy and foreboding. Does your employer have a statutory plan? Have you had at least 14 weeks of employment in Hawai‘i during which you were paid at least $400 each week? Did you complete Part A of the claim form and have disability certified by a doctor in Part C? Are you a domestic worker or insurance agent? Did you reside in two states in the last two years? Are you a contracted employee? Can you truly afford to have a child? How can you measure a child’s life in dollars, see their future through the lens of lost opportunity? A child is a blessing, no matter the cost, right?
In the United States, there is no federal paid parental leave policy. There is only an unpaid one, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, for parents who work for a public agency such as federal or state government, a private company with at least 50 employees (within 75 miles), or an elementary or secondary school. The lucky souls who have followed this path of employment for at least 1,250 hours in the past year and at least 12 months overall are given 12 weeks of job security in the form of time off without pay to nourish their newborns or bond with their adopted or fostered child, to begin to heal their bodies and adjust to new sleep schedules and lives. Can you take this path? Add up your fellow employees, measure their distances from you, calculate hours and months worked in the past, cross your fingers that your stockpiles of paid sick and vacation leave add up to the money otherwise lost by taking that time off. Toss the policy out the window if you just graduated, work in the gig economy, or have only a handful of coworkers.
For the sake of alternative life adventures, take Australia and Japan. In Australia, paid maternity leave policy pays women minimum wage for up to 18 weeks and men for up to 2 weeks as long as they earn under $150,000 annually and have been doing the same work for 10 months of the 13 months prior to birth or adoption. In Japan, mothers get time off before and after birth, and receive their salary through social insurance for 8 weeks; after that period, labor insurance covers two-thirds of the salaries of both parents for around 1 year after (with minor variation).
In Hawai‘i, often deemed the most progressive state in the country, federal policy is paralleled by the Hawaii Family Leave Law and the Hawaii Temporary Disability Law. The first mandates four weeks of unpaid leave for employees who have worked for six consecutive months for the state government or a Hawai‘i-based company with more than 100 employees. (This may only be used once in a calendar year, so don’t have back-to-back babies.) In place of this time off, employees can use up to 10 days of accrued sick leave as well as paid vacation or personal leave—if their employers even offer any. Are you still following the footers? What if you would prefer to save paid leave for when your baby catches a fever at the new daycare? Time to do some savings account math. The second law, which applies only to biological mothers, views pregnancy as a disability and requires employers (with exceptions) to pay accordingly, though this depends on the insurance plan the employer chooses and the wages the employee was earning. Footer: The woman must have worked more than part-time for at least 14 of the past 52 weeks, must immediately notify her employer, and must file the appropriate form within 90 days. Postpartum recovery is defined by what the woman’s doctor signs off on, usually six weeks for a vaginal birth and eight weeks for a C-section, though doctors can decide this should be shorter.
In early 2019, my spouse and I were wrapping up two years in Arizona, where we had moved so I could get a master’s degree in sustainability, and were debating returning to Hawai‘i, where he was born and raised and we had lived prior. Tentative about having a child, I had decided I wanted to do it soon or not at all. When we added up the cost of living on O‘ahu, the complete absence of parental leave at the University of Hawai‘i, where he would be getting a PhD, and my truncated work history in the islands, we couldn’t justify the sacrifices—like my health or our time with a newborn—a move back would require. I wondered how anyone afforded being a parent, from the single moms I had waited tables with to my former boss. We stayed on the continent, moving to a different state instead. Yet we haven’t yet ventured into the world of parenthood. As societal expectations loom, and I work contract-to-contract, I still can’t fathom how we can afford to bring a child into this world. People make it work, I’m told. It will all be fine. But will it?
In 2019, the ki‘ai at Maunakea briefly demonstrated a different model when they offered free childcare to those protecting the mountain. It was surely informal, a volunteer basis kind of thing. But in tight-knit communities, people often pitch in, and those connections are turned to when formalized structures fall short. For those without strong communities or inherited wealth, in a patriarchal society in which social support has been institutionalized, the struggle is real. Not all is lost—in 2018, Hawai‘i’s legislature passed a bill recognizing that “Hawaii’s working families are not adequately supported during times of caregiving and illness” and dedicating funds to producing a report and proposed legislation on paid family leave by September 2019. Then it passed a measure to extend the deadline to November 2019. What will it do when it finally has that report?
Paid parental leave is important. It has been found to promote gender equity and improve the health of children. It helps new parents survive financially, emotionally, and physically during an upheaval in their lives. But by tying it to employment, its underlying message is still this: Your bonding time with your child, your body’s recovery, is only worth funding if you’re economically viable; if you’ve adequately paid into the system; if leaders say so. You can only have as much as your provider can afford, regardless of your needs as a single parent. It is only worth what retaining you is worth. If you do not meet all the qualifiers or have chosen a different path, you are on your own.