A matter of time

By Yi Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-4 22:18:01

Maternity leave proposal sparks huge debate

Photo: Courtesy of Yi Chen

As China's two sessions, the annual meetings of its top legislative body and top national advisory body, enters its third day, an increasing amount of policy ideas are being released to the media, with some becoming hot topics and the focus of public debate. One of the most talked about issues at present is about the length of maternity leave.

On Tuesday, Zhang Lihui, a CPPCC National Committee member from Chongqing, proposed that the government could implement policy that would extend the period of time women receive for maternity leave in conjunction with upcoming policy that will push back the retirement age for women. According to Zhang's proposal, maternity leave would be gradually extended to three years. In Zhang's opinion, this will be good for the child's educational and psychological development, while women could better devote themselves to work once their maternity leave ends as children will be much older.

The proposal has set off waves of fierce discussion among netizens, who view the idea and its potential consequences from various perspectives: Many unmarried women see the proposal as making job hunting even more difficult; women's rights activists see this as potentially worsening inequality between men and women; while enterprises see the challenge of trying to afford this longer leave period for female employees.

As a mother to a 1-year-old, frankly speaking, my first response to this proposal was to welcome it with open arms, so long as we can ensure there are other policies in place to support it.

Practical concerns

This is not the first time that the two sessions have discussed proposals on extending maternity leave. For the past two years, Wang Youjun, a NPC deputy from Beijing, has also proposed that leave be extended to three years.

Those that oppose the idea have called it a "brainless idea." I suppose that those that are absolutely against the idea are mainly people who don't have the experience of being a working mother. Based on my personal experience, I won't hesitate to say that the idea behind the proposal is a humane one, and if properly implemented, it could be the salvation of innumerous working mothers struggling between their little babies and their career.

Take myself for example. Working in Beijing, I'm fortunate to have had 128 days of maternity leave, much longer than the usual 98 days. But my nightmare began as my leave ended when my daughter was only four months old.

For almost a year now, I've been torn between her and my job. I get up early and make sure everything is fine with her before I leave for the office. While at work I need to find the time to pump breast milk for the following day. Then, after a long day's work, an exhausted me still has to take care of her until she falls asleep at around 10 pm. Of course I still have to wake up two or three times a night to soothe a hungry baby, which narrows my sleep time to only five to six hours a day.

Only mothers know how heartbreaking it feels when you have to leave home while your baby's crying for just another hug, and how guilty you feel when you have to work overtime at night, which keeps the baby up late because she's used to sleeping with you.

It would be fine if mothers were the only ones affected by these troubles, but children are influenced as well.

For instance, while I managed to persist breastfeeding my baby for more than a year in spite of various difficulties, I know there are many mothers who are forced to wean their baby early because they lack the time and energy and are under pressure from work.

One of my friends, Jinzhu, also a mother of a 1-year-old, has to travel more than halfway across Beijing to work everyday. After persisting for three months after her maternity leave ended, she finally broke down and unwillingly weaned her baby off breast milk.

It is internationally acknowledged that the longer women breastfeed (below 2 years old), the better it is for both mother and child. But a large number of working mothers have had to put an end to this basic need due to a lack of time and a supporting environment.

Additionally, the early separation of mother and child not only negatively affects children, but also the mindset of mothers at work, as they can often be put in a situation where the needs of their children (such as when they get sick) and the needs of work come calling at the same time.

In this regard, I feel that Zhang's proposal is mainly based on the practical needs of mothers and many more would-be mothers who choose to have a family and career. If maternity leave could be extended, as many European countries have done, working mothers would feel much more relaxed and assured.

Second thoughts

Of course while ideal, I have to admit that extending maternity leave to three years would be too big a step for China. As many netizens have pointed out on Sina Weibo, even the current 98 days of official maternity leave policy has encountered difficulties when it comes to implementation at some private enterprises.

Also it's also widely known that there is already discrimination against female employees in the job market simply due to their potential need for maternity leave. If maternity leave were to be extended to three years, there's no doubt that this discrimination would only worsen and over the long run the job market would be a horrible place for women.

Even for mothers, three years is probably too long. A year to a year and a half is most likely enough time for a woman to recover physically and also meet the baby's needs for breastfeeding. If mothers were to stay at home for three years, they would gradually fall out of step with their fields, which would put them in an even more unfavorable position once they return to work.

As several mothers I interviewed and many netizens have pointed out, while three years is probably longer than necessary, extending maternity leave to a year or a year and a half would be perfect. But even that would demand the implementation of additional supporting policies and a far more welcoming social environment for working mothers.

Additionally, I feel that any policy that is made should actually be flexible based on the needs of individual mothers instead of some sort of sweeping reform. In countries such as France, Germany and the UK, maternity leave is divided into two parts: paid leave and unpaid leave. Mothers who can afford it could stay with their baby longer while those who are the breadwinners can choose to go back to work earlier. It seems there is something here we can learn from.

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