Sixteen years ago I was a fresh-faced attorney gunning for a partnership at a well-respected litigation firm when I got pregnant with my first child. The pregnancy itself wasn’t exactly a surprise, nor was it even unplanned. My husband and I had discussed having children plenty of times and landed firmly on “if it happens, great, if not, also great!” We both had good jobs with health insurance. If anyone was in a position to start a family, it was us.
Wow, was that thinking naive.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires some employers with 50 or more employees to offer those employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave related to, among other things, the birth or adoption of a child.
Some states like Minnesota, where I was living when I got pregnant, have their own family leave laws that cover smaller employers, while other states like Alabama offer no additional family leave protections beyond the FMLA. And while a few states have improved their leave provisions in the nearly 20 years since my first pregnancy, the fact remains that employees looking to start families face a patchwork of employment protections, and—except in a handful of states—none of those protections include paid time off.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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It’s criminal. So when I heard Meghan McCain go off on her fellow conservatives this week for doing nothing—literally not a damn thing—to help families in this country, I was, frankly, here for it.
McCain had returned to work at The View on Monday from maternity leave, promptly setting the internet on fire after railing against this country’s lack of paid family leave.
“The whole time I was thinking what a privilege it is to have this kind of maternity leave,” she said. “And then, as I thought about it, the more angry I got that there were women in the rest of America that didn’t have the same kind of luxury I had working here at The View.”
In the clip, McCain candidly discusses her difficult pregnancy and her postpartum complications. She shared how humbling it was to have her husband and mother help her shower and eat, tasks she couldn’t do on her own after giving birth. Then she got angry, and in a mildly surprising turn, directed that anger toward her fellow conservatives for failing families across the country.
First of all, let me congratulate Meghan and her husband on the birth of their first child in late September. Parenthood is a wild, blurry ride that, for me, changed everything.
Yes, I know conservatives like McCain oppose policies like paid family leave or abortion access until they themselves need family leave or abortion care. Yes, I agree that it is incredibly selfish for them to do so. It’s literally the worst.
But I also know that in the nearly 20 years since my first pregnancy, this country has made basically zero progress in supporting pregnant people and their families. So for us to move the needle on family leave we’re going to need conservatives like McCain to channel that selfishness into advocacy. I don’t like that fact, but I like the fact that this country still has no mandated paid family leave even less.
“We are the party of family values, and everything in our ideology stems from the nucleus of the family,” McCain said on The View. “We are leaving women in this country without the capacity and ability—unless you have an employer that allows you to—to take care of your child, to heal physically, which is something that needs to happen.”
Getting pregnant and having children was just one possible direction my life could have taken. Pregnancy was very much a choice I had the privilege of making. But despite that privilege, I still found myself pregnant and negotiating with my employer for the leave I was entitled to under law. And despite the privilege of that leave policy, I still faced tens of thousands of dollars of uncovered medical expenses thanks to a routine pregnancy that quickly turned into a life-threatening delivery at a time when I was no longer getting paid. And that 12 weeks I was guaranteed? I spent eight weeks of it deep in recovery from an emergency C-section in order to work at 11 weeks postpartum.
My return to work was traumatic. I was barely healed physically from my son’s birth, but emotionally I hadn’t begun to tackle the experience of nearly dying in childbirth. I tried to throw myself into work, but that was impossible. My body and my mind simply wouldn’t allow it, a defense mechanism I recognize now from returning to work too soon. I was breastfeeding, but this annoyed my employer because pumping meant an interruption in time I could be working and thus billing clients. Our offices had windows on the doors, so if I wanted privacy to pump, I was free to use the client’s coat closet, I was told.
And this was with family leave in place.
If an educated and obnoxious white lady like myself had to hassle her employer to follow the law on family leave, I can only imagine the human resources nightmare for less privileged employees. Which is why I say yes, Meghan McCain, you should advocate for paid family leave as a conservative principle—because frankly, it is.
I may not like it, but McCain’s remarks present an opportunity for progressive family leave advocates. She personalized the family leave issue for conservatives. And even if progressive advocates are as salty as I am about having to lift up someone as irritating as McCain, her comments present an organizing moment. McCain correctly identified family leave as a policy fix that Republicans should champion if they indeed are a pro-family party.
So I say, let’s call her bluff. If McCain wants to champion this issue, progressive advocates should welcome her into the fold. We are the only developed nation that does not mandate paid family leave. We know a lack of paid leave contributes to poor maternal and infant health outcomes, particularly for women of color. Perhaps McCain personalizing the family leave crisis in this country can finally get Republicans to do something about it.