The Wall Street Journal gives terrible advice this week on “going from maternity leave to permanent resignation.”

Columnist Sue Shellenbarger writes, “Once a mother is absolutely sure she isn’t going to return to work after maternity leave, I believe she’s obligated to reveal her intentions to her employer.”

WHY? There is no description in the column about the genesis of this obligation. Is it a moral obligation to protect corporate America from having to support families?

Listen to me: Take that leave, and don’t feel guilty. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not provide national, paid maternity leave. So the few women in the US who can actually take maternity leave have EARNED it. The law gives these women the RIGHT to take that maternity leave regardless of what happens afterwards.

Shellenbarger also warns that you will “burn your bridges” by taking maternity leave and then quitting. She writes this as if it’s a national trend to rehire women after they take extended leave for children. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Most companies do not take you back after leave. And companies that do are notable exceptions. (Anyway, I would not even want to go back to a boss if he were the bitter-about-maternity-leave type, so why bother appeasing him?)

Here’s the advice the Wall Street Journal should have given: Don’t tell anyone at work that you’re not coming back after the baby. Collect all your maternity leave money and do not feel guilty. Call at the end of leave and say you’re not coming back. Tell your boss you’re sorry to put him in a difficult position, but everything feels different once the baby is there. That is true. It is not lying.

Please, do not feel guilty. That women take maternity leave and then quit is a result of the system being totally flawed. It is absurd to presume that women know if they want to continue working before they know what it’s like to be home all day with a baby. And it is unreasonable that the workplace cannot provide a decent number of baby-friendly jobs so that women who want to continue working can without compromising their own health (exhaustion) or their baby’s (too much separation).

In fact, quitting right after maternity leave is not so uncommon, says Laura Shelton, who has done extensive research about Gen X women at the office. She suggests that advice like the Wall Street Journal’s is a result of a generation gap — boomers like Shellenbarger just don’t get it: Boomers fought to get women into he workplace but boomers ignored maternity benefits.

Maybe your boss will take some advice from Shellenbarger’s source, Don Sutaria, who gives companies some good advice: Hire a temporary worker who could stay on as permanent if the maternity leave turns into full leave.

And while you’re pregnant, train the temp well. This will make you feel better if you decide not to return to work, and it’ll even make you feel better if you do return because someone will have kept your work in order.

10 replies
  1. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    I cannot believe such an esteemed paper would allow such nonsense to be published. What horrible advice. As a boss that is directly responsible for hiring people I have converted a full time position into a part time position to tap into the market of working parents. Our office lost a position and I was able to negotiate getting a part time position instead. The market of working parents, both men and women, is growing and I want to tap that resource.

    As a father you can bet that I even took my family leave! I believe I was the first man in my organization to do so. Our first son had complications and spent two weeks in the NICU. Fortunately my office never blinked when I took the time off.

    What do we earn leave for anyway? Wouldn't an employer want to encourage an employee, foster a good relationship to keep them coming back?

    Maybe Mr. Sutaria should be reading this blog to learn what career minded people really want.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Benjamin, thank you for bringing up the issue of paternity leave – it’s a key aspect of creating positive attitudes toward maternity leave.

    In organizations where senior managers take paternity leave, family-friendly attitudes trickle down throughout the whole organization.

    There is tons of information about this online, of course, but here’s one company that found that when senior executives took leave, lower-level employees were more likely to take leave:
    http://www.hreoc.gov.au/sex_discrimination/pml/report/sectionc.html

  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Here in Canada politicans, right and left wing newspaper editorialists (especially the conservative side), and oridinary people are debating and discussing how to keep educated women in the workforce. Many parts of Canada are in a labour shortage, and with baby boomers retiring, this will get worse. One solution — besides more immigration — is to try to tap into skilled, educated women who are also dedicated mothers who without some concessions from the workplace tend to “opt out” for a few years.

    Discussions about flexible hours for parents, generous maternity and paternity leave, and the idea of a national daycare program are in the news and on the street everyday.

    Apparently this is similar around the world — but apparently not at the WSJ.

    If Wall Street companies want to succeed in the future, and attract and retain high quality employees, they may need to offer both good maternity benefits and an culture that values work-life balance and families.

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Canada sets a good example for maternity leave policy. Not only is it national, but it’s longer than the three-month leaves we get in the US.

    I like to think that the WSJ is not reflecting the general conversation in either Canada OR the US…

  5. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    That article is complete garbage. Luckily, my wife was just finishing law school and taking the Florida Bar exam when we had our baby, so there was no “leave” to take. Although, some paternity leave would have been nice. I had my vacation and sick time…that’s it.

  6. TheRunningNurse
    TheRunningNurse says:

    Terrible article and even worse advice. I work in management and have watched these antics play out. Our employees who have quit after taking 12 weeks off, are NOT welcome back. Everyone is replaceable and on the three case I can think of, we got a better employee with the next hire ! This is very unfair to do to an employer and very hard on coworkers ( yes, those bridges burn as well ). For 12 weeks, they kick in and do YOUR job and then you give notice and they have to wait to hire someone. Not good for netoworking later on.

    Sadly, paid maternity leave would NOT work in the United States. We have too many women in this country who cannot afford the children they have, and still keep reproducing. If we gave them supplemental maternity leave, it would never stop. Welfare laws have had to change because of such irresponsible behavior. So, while it may work in some countries, we have a certain element of people in this country who would abuse the system.

    • Alison
      Alison says:

      What makes you think that Americans are an inherently different type of human than every other nation in the world? Canada/France/Sweden/Denmark/etc. all have entirely different cultures, too. If others can find a way, so can you.

  7. nitiac
    nitiac says:

    i work for a company that bends over backwards for people that selfishly pop babies out left and right. they not only get paid maternity AND paternity leave but then get to work from home with crazy flex schedules. or they just don’t show up to work – or they waltz in at 10am and leave at 4pm. this is after months of paid leave off. and people that pop them out one year after the other get maternity leave for each one.

    people without children are chained to desks and forced to pick up their slack. this is why i will disagree with any paid maternity leave ever again. i’ve seen it used and abused beyond imagination. take your own vacation time you’ve accrued or quit working and take care of your kids as you contribute to over-population.

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