Why Paid Parental Leave Benefits Everyone

By Emily Winograd BC/JTS ’12

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In a room strewn with colorful sticky notes, 80 people clustered around whiteboards and monitors, listening to presentations of the day’s work. Scientists and doctors, UX designers and strategists, had gathered for Memorial Sloan Kettering’s second annual Design Jam, a collaborative brainstorming activity for creative thinking. Their goal: to generate ideas that could be used to engage more people in research studies, leading to breakthroughs in the world’s understanding of cancer.

But my knowledge of this is all secondhand. I wasn’t present at the event; I was on paid maternity leave. And I believe that’s the best thing that could have happened for the event, the organizers, and the institution.

The United States is one of only seven countries that do not federally mandate paid maternity leave, according to data from the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. (The other countries are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga.) Nationwide, only about 19% of Americans have access to this benefit. I am among the fortunate few whose employer provides 12 weeks of fully paid leave, and as a resident of New York State, I had the option to take an additional six weeks at two-thirds of my pay. I was also lucky to have supportive colleagues who stewarded my projects and contacted me only to ask for baby pictures.

As it turned out, the Design Jam was a case study in the counterintuitive way that maternity leave can improve workplace dynamics and outcomes. The inaugural event was the brainchild of myself and a colleague, and we led the effort from conceiving the idea to designing the program. But the following year, when I knew that my due date would conflict with the second event, I started laying the groundwork for a transition. After my baby was born, our team introduced new elements and, as a result, delivered an event that exceeded expectations. 

I believe that their success was not despite my absence but because of it. Too often, critical information lives solely in someone’s brain, inaccessible to others. This transition was a chance to share and document knowledge with more people. Because of this, the Jam has become a more enduring part of our organizational culture. Changing leadership also provided an opportunity for my colleagues to review this project with a fresh, critical eye. My absence fostered creativity, which thrives when people are building with a strong foundation but without the limiting beliefs that an original project leader might hold.

The conventional wisdom about maternity leave is that it’s a benefit for the birthing parent, to allow time to bond with a new baby and to physically heal from childbearing. When I returned to work this August, refreshed and grateful, I noticed that my organization had also benefited. Granted, the type of job I hold, doing creative work in an office, may make this truer in my workplace than in others. Nevertheless, I believe that everyone — regardless of their occupation or their choice to have children — should be able to take significant, paid time away from the office. Workplaces should offer this not only because it’s the right thing to do but also to reap the rewards of increased creativity and resilience.

Since my return, I’ve been delighted to see how some projects have flourished, and others have been transformed entirely, in the hands of my colleagues. It fills me with motivation to continue my work, now with an added title: Mom.

Latest IssueFall 2022