Critical Reflections on the New School’s Maternity Leave Policy

By Randi Irwin and H. Howell Williams

What anxieties are produced when an expectant mother receives a verbal guarantee of extended leave under the condition that she does not mention it to Human Resources (HR)? What happens when a mother’s expectations of raising a child are in conflict with ad hoc University decisions? How does the University account for a policy that regards a new mother as disabled? What happens when University employees are confronted with the lack of a sufficient, University-wide maternity leave policy?  Over the 2009-2010 academic year we  conducted interviews with female faculty, staff, and a representative from human resources in attempt both to clarify the details of the policy and to understand the implications for new families.  We preface this paper on the New School’s maternity leave policy by stating that we are not talking about a policy that is intended to promote the family-child relationship. The New School’s institutional policy regarding childbirth is rather a medical disability policy that hinges on pathologizing the maternal body. The institutional policy is based on the federal definition of maternity leave as short-term disability. This federal policy implicitly identifies the act of giving birth as an event that disables the female body. Furthermore, by completely ignoring the new-born child, this pathologizing of the female body overlooks the fundamental relationship between parent and child. This paper looks at the policy in three different ways. First we explicate the contents of the New School maternity leave policy. Second, we explore the policy’s implications as experienced in the everyday life of new parents. This humanizes the policy and highlights the varying levels of strain a policy of no policy causes. Finally we will turn to critical reflections on the shortcomings of a policy that focuses on pathologizing the body.

We believe that the ideals represented by maternity leave include a respect for development of healthy relationships between parents and children specifically, and an acknowledgement of the impact that the institution has on its community more generally. This latter point is less often acknowledged and yet most important because the amount and type of leave given to parents indicates the university’s official outlook on the broader community. An institution that prides itself on a healthy relationship with the community will seek to lessen its impact on that community by allowing and even encouraging healthy development of families through childrearing.

I.

The policy that HR uses to determine the length of the medical leave granted to the mother is centered on healing a sick body.  The maternity leave policy is technically part of short-term disability.  Consequently, the official length of the “disability” is determined by whether or not the mother gives birth vaginally or through caesarian section. Short-term disability states that women who give birth vaginally are entitled to 6 weeks of paid disability leave.  Women who give birth through caesarian section receive 8 weeks of paid disability[1]. Employees who have worked for a minimum of 12 months and work an average of 24 hours a week receive supplemental coverage through the Family Medical Leave Act[2]. In addition, to the pay guaranteed by short-term disability, FMLA provides up to 6 weeks of additional time at home and guarantees 12 weeks of job security. The application of these government policies at the New School varies slightly based on the different terms of employment for full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and staff. By taking the type of birth as the measure that determines the length of leave, this policy pathologizes the moment of birth. This pathologization marks the female body as an object that needs to be recuperated and healed. By marking the body as injured, this policy bypasses the importance of the relationship between the parent and child, which we believe should be the focus of maternity leave.

In using the term “disability” we are led to imagine an individual “with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, learning, hearing, speaking, or breathing” the definition of a person with a disability under the American Disability Act.[3] In order to file for medical leave, pregnant women are forced to categorize themselves as “incapacitated” (a term used within the FMLA definition).  Because the process of giving birth determines the type of disability, new mothers must provide medical documentation that demonstrates the extent of their “injuries.”

By marking the moment of childbirth as the point of notification, the FMLA hierarchically pathologizes both labor and the moment of birth. The type of delivery determines the number of weeks of leave the employee is granted under short-term disability, be it 6 or 8 weeks. This leads us to question the justifications for such a policy of maternity leave.  This policy places the importance of those first few weeks on rehabilitating the physical strain of child-birth and seems to dismiss the needs of the newborn child.  Why is maternity leave, or in this case disability leave, provided? Is it for the mother to recover, or is it for the mother to take care of the newborn?

We must also consider the role that second parents, or non-birthing parents, do or do not play in the university’s policy. Because the second parent does not give birth he or she does not have a disability for which he or she is eligible to file.  Second parents have not been pathologized or diagnosed as “incapacitated” as the disability act requires.  If eligible, the second parent is able to take family leave and is generally given 2 weeks.  This dynamic reinforces essentialized heteronormative notions of women as weak and dependent and men as strong and able-bodied. Furthermore, the contrast between the two types of leave sets up an immediate double standard for work within the house.

II.

As a result of the variations in the policy, or what we consider a policy of no policy, employees are subject either to ad hoc policies created by their deans or to the short-term disability policy that is officially in place through HR.  Through interviews with faculty members across divisions and at various points in their careers, it became clear that the confusion and opacity of the parental leave policies was the only thing that was similar in each of the cases of the women we interviewed.[4] The anxieties produced by this lack of institutional clarification serves as a breeding ground for tensions at the department level.  Within this set of convoluted negotiations the department seemed to be the one place that had little influence.

One faculty member we spoke with was given an extended leave that surpassed the FMLA leave granted to her by HR.  While she still had duties during her leave, she considered herself lucky to have been given the flexibility to come in fewer days each week than HR required once her FMLA was over.  This arrangement worked, however, with the explicit understanding that she would not discuss this agreement in the workplace, especially with HR.  This faculty member’s leave was granted under the table. As a result, she remarked that she was often anxious and worried that the verbal agreement would dissolve once she had the baby.  Such clandestine and informal dealings put significant amounts of stress on a new family and have the potential to develop into conflicts later on.  In a similar example, a staff member negotiated an unwritten deal with her superior to use vacation days to spend more time with her child. Her desire to spend this additional time with her child was motivated partly by her belief in the importance of the mother-child relationship during the first six months of a child’s life. Because this arrangement would not guarantee her job security, her concern for stable employment led her to take a shorter leave that nonetheless exceeded her coverage during FMLA.  This employee found herself in a predicament when her superior resigned and was concerned about the status of her informal maternity leave arrangement. While her new superior ultimately agreed to the same terms, the employee spoke of significant anxiety during this period.

Others have noted the role of the departments in disciplining and managing faculty members as they return from leave.  In one case, a faculty member was told that her leave was expected to be a one-time deal, while in another instance someone remarked that, “it would be illegal if we did not honor the policy a second time.”  These comments reflect the tensions felt by faculty as they return to work after navigating an unclear and inconsistent policy regarding family leave.  If guidelines that clearly laid out the policies were established, it would reduce the tensions around the new parent who at present may face scrutiny for the “deal” they received after having the baby.

In academia, research leaves are necessary components of one’s success in the field and maternity leave and research leave can be problematically merged. One faculty member commented in passing to a new mother that he “hoped she was getting a lot of work done” during her parental leave.  Another new mother on the faculty member assumed that she would not be granted a research leave because she had taken a parental leave,  although as our research shows, this is not always the case.  We interviewed one faculty member who secured both a maternity leave and a research leave without complications. The point remains that perceived tensions regarding a maternity leave taken may prevent a faculty member from pursuing a research leave. This puts immense pressure on junior faculty members who must still prepare for their tenure review.

It is important to acknowledge that these policies, despite their informal nature, provide families with the necessary time to spend with their new-born babies and have the potential to foster a type of environment that recognizes the importance of parental involvement.  However, these informal negotiations are limited by their inability to provide standard treatment to all mothers.  Furthermore they leave the new parent with the notion that she is getting away with something and is privileged in ways that other faculty or staff members are not. In multiple conversations, faculty members mentioned that they felt guilty for the duration of the leave they received even though they did feel that they were entitled to a leave.  In fact, many noted that they felt it would have been more appropriate for them to be relieved from all service and administrative duties while on leave. Some faculty members agreed to carry out administrative duties because they thought it was the least they could do to show their appreciation of a perceived graciousness.

III.

The interviews we conducted exemplify forms of strain or anxiety that we can conceptualize on four different levels. These are strain on a university-wide level, strain within schools, strain within departments, and the internal anxiety of the individual.

The strain that occurs across the university relates to the discrepancy between the three different policies in place for faculty, part-time faculty, and staff. Faculty who have received leaves through their deans seemed to receive more generous leave terms than those who work through HR. The reason for this is simple: a dean is more likely to grant a more generous leave than university HR because the dean is concerned for the well-being of his or her faculty and HR is charged with following university protocol.

The second level of strain occurs within schools and relates to the power that the dean has in negotiating leave terms. Because there is not a university policy, deans are able to negotiate better leaves with their employees. The details of that leave are ultimately in the dean’s hands because they are not sanctioned by, or answerable to, the broader university administration. A dean in an employment crunch, a common occurrence in higher education, might be less likely to grant a generous leave than a dean with ample faculty. Furthermore, deans may be more or less likely to give generous leaves based on their own subjective judgment. The leave granted by deans depends in large part on their personal opinion about the balance between raising children and having a career. By not having a university-wide system in place, the New School sanctions discrepancies that may exist between schools, even when they are based on the subjective judgments or curricular needs of the deans.

While the dean is the most likely person through whom a faculty member will secure leave, the department will most likely feel the effects, and this departmental strain  represents the third  level of strain resulting from a lack of institutional policy. Our respondents reported a variety of reactions within their departments on the subject of taking leave. Some reported being asked to pick up additional administrative tasks after returning from leave;  others were asked to perform some service roles within the department while on leave. While decisions about leave most often come from the deans, departments are where the actual effects of an employee’s leave are felt.

Not all people we spoke with highlighted the politics within their department as being particularly negative. One person we spoke with said that she felt that the process of securing leave from her dean was helped along by advocates in her department. Without such advocates, however, the expectant mother must negotiate the terms of her leave by herself.

The final location of strain is the result of the negotiations and wrangling associated with these first three realms. On an individual level, many of the people we spoke with characterized their experience as psychologically taxing, using language like “anxious”, “nervous”, and “trepidatious” when discussing their experiences. The result of employees having to negotiate with their bosses for the right to take time off after giving birth causes feelings of being in a weak position or shirking one’s duties. By failing to organize a university policy and thereby encouraging individual mothers to barter the terms of their particular leaves, the process of child rearing becomes fraught and consuming.

The point of this four-part description is not to offer a blanket case for all instances or for all employees. Not all of the employees we spoke with characterized their experience as riddled with the four different types of institutionally-incurred strain. The point is that these levels of strain have existed for women in the past who sought to secure leave. That theThe process of childbirth is made even remotely more complicated and difficult by the university’s lack of a coherent maternity leave policy is troubling for any institution, but especially so at an institution founded on the principles of promoting women’s issues.

IV.

We have up to this point discussed the way in which some mothers have felt marginalized and poorly regarded as a result of the lack of an institutional maternity leave policy. We strongly believe that for an institution that has the inclusion of women’s issues in its founding document, not uniformly honoring the mother-child relationship is flawed at best and hypocritical at worst. We conclude  by exploring what might be called critical reflections on maternity leave.

Our analysis has moved us away from maternity leave as an issue of disability and into what we believe should be the policy’s motivating principle: the acculturation of a new human being into the family unit.  As we have shown, the hierarchical distribution of leave benefits based on either vaginal or caesarean birth hinges solely on the damage done to the maternal body in the process of giving birth. This is evidence of the complete omission of the child in consideration of leave-giving benefits.

The central premise that informs our critical approach to maternity leave is that leave-giving must move out of a paradigm that pathologizes the female maternal body. So long as the policy of the New School is organized by a logic of disability, the concept of maternity leave will be incomplete. We are not arguing that the process of child rearing and child-birth are not physically taxing on the mother. Recuperating the body after childbirth is necessary and welcome, but it should not be the fulcrum on which a policy of leave pivots. We must distinguish, then, between policies of the body and policies of the child and encourage the university to adopt both.

One might think that efforts to expand maternity leave to include the child could be remedied by offering leave to the mother or the non-birthing parent, thereby creating a caretaker policy rather than a maternity policy. In this formulation, merely expanding the terms of maternity leave to “family leave” and privileging the primary caretaker, be it father or mother, is both heteronormative and based on the concept of a single-earner household that has been false for many families for generations. We believe that the intentions of a maternity leave policy in keeping with the spirit of the New School must reference the relationship between the parent and child.

As the battle over the position of queer families ventures more and more into the mainstream, we must ask ourselves what role the university plays in the formation and affirmation of queer families. Introducing queer families into this discussion necessarily complicates the ideas that undergird maternity leave in the first place. It would seem to be quite a simple matter to expand the definition of the person who gets leave to the primary caretaker of the newborn. However, in the case of adoption this redefinition would fail to account for non-newborn children. Given a rubric that pathologizes the maternal body, how do we proceed when there is no maternal body to recuperate, but instead a child’s body that needs love and shelter?

Secondly, both the lack of provisions for the non-birthing parent of new children and the lack of guidelines for fathers wanting to act as primary caretakers reinforce the notion that a woman’s wages are supplementary to those of a man’s and also reinforce a heteronormative view of the family. Enacting policy that focuses on the parent-child relationship will overcome these limitations by highlighting the importance of any caretaker, regardless of gender or orientation.

The New School does understand the importance of the relationship between parent and child, and one policy at NSSR is evidence of this: The academic clock for faculty at NSSR stops for one year after the introduction of a new child, either through natural birth or for adoption, giving parents a period of time to spend with their new child without concern for tenure review. Implicit in this policy is the idea that parent-child relationships matter and that the demands of seeking tenure can negatively impact that relationship.

While we find the lack of institutional policies for maternity and family leave troubling, we believe that such a current problems could be addressed with the passage of a comprehensive policy that is inclusive of both faculty and staff. Inclusive family leave policies promote a healthy relationship between the university and its employees, but also promotes a healthy relationship between the university and the community by privileging the most fundamental relationship in a community: that between a parent and child.

[1] Determined through personal correspondence with a Human Resources employee

[2] http://www.newschool.edu/admin/hr/fmla.aspx

[3] http://www.newschool.edu/studentservices/disability/students/ Accessed January 6, 2010.

[4] While the stories collected during interviews with faculty and staff are telling of the problems these women have endured, we have had to omit some of the details that make this research so striking.  We have done our best to relay what we found to be the most essential aspects of these women’s stories without jeopardizing their anonymity.