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Maternity Leave vs. Backpacking Europe?

I recently stumbled upon this online gem by LA dweller Anthony Chicoine, in response to an article on Slate regarding telling bosses about one’s pregnancy.

“The only beef I have with pregnant co-workers is that I, as a single employee with no kids, is expected to take up the slack while employees are on extended leave after giving birth. This applies to the fathers as well. Employers never bring in extra help to make up for the absent employee, nor do the employees get paid anything extra. The employer gets to pocket the savings of the employee who is on unpaid leave. And then there is the fairness factor to people who don’t have kids. None of us are [sic] allowed to take unpaid leave for personal reasons. And don’t even get me started on how people with kids always get to leave on time or early because they have kids to take care of. The rest of us always get the look of disapproval for doing the same.”

Kudos to him, I guess, for not just lumping all the onus on women, but the predominantly female respondents (including me) largely took great umbrage with his stance. Mr. Chicoine refused to back down, claiming that no one at his work would pick up the slack while he skipped about Europe for two months — stating outright that both having kids and taking a vacation are choices. (By the way, despite Mr. Chicoine’s prolific responses to many of his challengers, he refused to engage with any of my attempts to debate his stance with him.)

I’m not going to get into how much pressure women experience when it comes to having children, thus, in my opinion, greatly reducing this “choice” that he thinks is so omnipresent when it comes to having kids. I’m also not going to highlight the number of kids that are born despite using birth control. I’m not even going to get into the wage gap women, but not men, experience after having kids, thereby negating, in my opinion, his belief that he isn’t compensated for “picking up the slack.” These all relate but aren’t exactly addressing his point.

His beef is really with his company and not his colleagues. Mr. Chicoine claims that his employer’s disinterest in bringing in replacement workers to cover someone’s absence is far from unique and puts an undue responsibility on child-free workers. I do not know the number of companies that avoid bringing in extra help to cover a person who takes FMLA leave, but, according to the Dept. of Labor, men and women use FMLA leave for reasons besides having kids, and data shows that about 42% of men are in fact making use of this statute. Similarly, 42% of leave-takers do not have children under the age of 18 in their home.

Capitalism will never be happy bedfellows with healthy family development and Mr. Chicoine is unwittingly adhering to the wet dream of American capitalism: the unencumbered male worker with a spouse at home providing him with all he needs so he can focus exclusively on work while she raises future workers (and consumers). Based on his comments, he is single, child-free (and intends to remain so) and is so afraid of losing his job that he begrudgingly takes on work that he feels is outside the parameters of his job. The rub of it though is that he doesn’t want to do so. Mr. Chicoine dreams of backpacking through Europe, having some time to explore his world and himself, and — with zero sarcasm — I think that’s great. He believes, however, that this dream is impossible.

This would be possible, however, if we abdicated our support of corporatism and business-first government policies and supported the development of people and families, regardless of whether they have children, but even more so if they do. Having children, as much as Mr. Chicoine may like to believe, is not a vacation. While some truly want children and most feel very blessed to have them, raising future citizens and all-around good people is hard work, work that he ultimately benefits from without having to have to get into the muck of parenting.

While I fiercely disagree with Mr. Chicoine that having kids should be equated with taking a European vacation, I think it is high time that we as workers push employers to recognize that workers have identities and responsibilities outside of their work. The “ideal” male worker with a wife at home to take care of the kids and food and laundry is quickly becoming a relic, but our work culture functions as if it is still the norm. Most families need two incomes to stay afloat. Technology means workers are “on-call” in ways only physicians were not too long ago, and, if employers are unwilling to give up the advantages that this bestows then more needs to be done when it comes to the detrimental problem of presenteeism.

Most important, however, we need children to carry forward our species; complete the important work of maintaining roads, tending to the sick, teaching the next generation the knowledge we’ve accrued thus far, and so much more. The idea that Mr. Chicoine himself won’t one day require the services of a former child, perhaps even the child of one of his current colleagues, is preposterous. I do feel bad if Mr. Chicoine experiences an unfair share of work at his company, but the problem isn’t mothers (or fathers). The problem is a system that expects little from companies and demands that we abdicate our responsibility to our fellow people.


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