Mothers Trade Stories of Living Without Paid Maternity Leave at Hillman City Dialogue

by Sharayah Lane

The United States is the only industrialized nation to not provide paid maternity leave and although this is a fact many mothers have come to accept, on Tuesday Hillman City’s Rainier Avenue Church hosted local groups for an in-depth discussion about paths forward so they no longer have to choose between their livelihoods and their families.

The event, hosted by Moms Rising, Families of Color Seattle and Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, was an effort to dialogue about the individual and societal impacts of not providing paid family and medical leave in the state of Washington and how these current policies affect women, children and families of color.

“We want to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard and that’s really what this event is about,” said campaign organizer Camie Goldhamer,  “and we really want to focus more on communities of color and how these communities are effected by access to paid leave.”

After lunch, participants broke into groups to discuss their experiences, ideas, hopes and concerns regarding the current lack of paid leave. Several people shared their own stories of starting a family, or choosing not to, under the current laws and the hardship that followed.

Many issues were raised such as the need to consider non-traditional family structures, such as being raised by grandparents, and being culturally sensitive to communities in which caring for an elder family member at home is customary. Some participants shared their personal stories of starting a family under the legislation of unpaid maternity leave.

“It is almost like you are being told that being a mother is a privilege, like your employer is doing you a favor by giving you the time off to go home and be with your newborn child,” said Keshia Porciacole who tried to keep from crying while sharing about being unsure if she and her husband could make ends meet on one income while awaiting her return to work following the birth of twins and her son contracting H1N1. “We felt so uncertain about our future and it created a lot of stress in my household,” said Porciacole.

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Attendees exchange personal stories of living without paid family leave [Photo: Sharayah Lane]
Another woman shared how when her son was born with a severe medical condition she was presented with the option of extending her unpaid maternity leave but at the cost of forfeiting her health insurance.

Throughout the day many groups reached a consensus that we live in a society that does not value families and children.

Washington state joined five other states across the country in passing paid maternity and family leave in 2007, but through postponements and a lack of funding the bill has yet to be enacted leaving the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child or a sick family member, as the only safeguard for maternity leave.

“The good news about being last to the table,” said Moms Rising Executive Director Kirsten Rowe-Finkbeiner, “is that there are a lot of examples of models out there of what works and what doesn’t work.”

The state of California currently provides paid family leave under a model in which all employees and the employer pay into a fund that is used to supplement the company when someone needs to access their leave. This has been suggested as a model that protects small businesses, which are often looked at as those who could be potentially negatively impacted by passing paid leave.

Groups spent time talking about other means of creating solutions to challenges that may arise when bringing this fight to Olympia. Many people were optimistic about Washington’s ability to pass paid leave in light of the recent successes in increasing the state minimum wage and providing paid sick days to Washington workers.

Moms Rising and other advocacy groups plan to continue the push to get paid family and medical leave passed in our state and eventually on a federal level.

People like Maggie Humphreys, Advocacy Manager for Mom’s Rising, remain hopeful Washington will pass paid leave in the near future and has an idea of what might help make that possible.

“We need more women in elected office. Having people at the table who are more personally invested in these issues will help them elevate as a the high priority that they are.”

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