Parental leave policies vary widely around the world — from zero government-mandated paid leave in the US to 87 paid weeks in Estonia.
Some countries offer long leaves to mothers, but little or no time to fathers, and reflect cultural beliefs about family structures and whether women with young children should work. Others allow families the flexibility to split the time off between two parents.
If you’re a parent in the US, it may be hard to read about other countries’ policies without feeling your blood boil. Some US companies competing for highly skilled talent have recently upped their benefits. But for most workers, especially low-income ones, the only option is unpaid leave — though not everyone is eligible and many who are can’t afford to take it.
We heard from hundreds of parents all over the world. Here are some of their experiences.
“If a woman comes back to work before her child is 2, society here judges her to be a bad mom who doesn’t want to care for the kid.”
I took two years, with five months covered by my workplace and 19 months paid by health insurance (it is paid for everyone here in Hungary). I received 80% of my salary on average.
If a woman comes back to work before her child is 2, society here judges her to be a bad mom who doesn’t want to care for the kid.
I haven’t gone back yet. It’s a tough situation — on one hand, it’s magical to be with the baby, but I feel separated. There are no quality child care solutions, no chance to do my job part-time or work from home. I am planning to change careers.
—Anonymous, 32, Hungary
“There is even a motorbike courier service in Jakarta to take breast milk home from your office so your baby can have it while you work.”
I took four months leave at full salary. Indonesian law requires three months full pay and I got an extra month from my company (I am an expat).
The transition back was great. My company has “soft landing,” so you come back four hours at first and gradually build up to eight hours. They were flexible and understood my needs.
Southeast Asia is world class when it comes to leave and providing for new mums. My work had a lovely nursing room complete with fridge and sterilizer. There is even a motorbike courier service in Jakarta to take breast milk home from your office so your baby can have it while you work.
—Cara, 39, Indonesia, marketing executive
“I was answering emails 24 hours after my C-section, running the office four days later, and on site as soon as I could walk without major pain.”
I was answering emails 24 hours after my C-section, running the office four days later, and on site as soon as I could walk without major pain. I’m salaried, so I was paid the days I was off. Technically I covered it because I own the business.
I was definitely working before I physically and mentally should have been. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really much of a choice. In Canada, business owners don’t pay into and cannot take maternity leave, unless they elect into Employment Insurance (which is a huge rip-off in the long run). My business cannot run itself, so I run it with baby in tow. There is no balance — just two full-time jobs at once.
We battled through it, but it made breastfeeding harder and there were more than a few tears. I definitely feel like bonding would have been easier had I had the opportunity to just be a mom.
—Zoe, 28, Canada, business owner and house designer
“Parental leave gave me the time to ensure that our son [who was 3 when we adopted him] knew that we weren’t going anywhere.”
We got the call that we had been chosen to be placed with a child for adoption on March 17, 2016. We met our son on April 22, 2016, and we brought him home on April 29. We then spent the next 37 weeks learning about and bonding with our 3-year-old.
I was only eligible for 37 weeks, instead of the 52 that a biological mom would get. Those 37 weeks were paid out by Employment Insurance. My husband is also a teacher, so he had the summer off. We got to spend it together as a new family of three without having to take extra leave from work.
Our son is a smart, funny, and fiercely independent little boy and we love him to bits. Parental leave gave me the time to ensure that he knew that we weren’t going anywhere and gave us the time to learn how to be the best parents we can be.
—Michelle, 39, Canada, works in education
“My husband took leave but his work only allowed for two weeks — which actually pissed me off because … it leaves me having to take a longish break, which could impact my career.”
I’m taking 16 weeks, in the middle of it now. It’s fully paid, covered by my employer. I got as much leave as I wanted — more than the legal requirement (full pay for the entire period is also not a legal requirement). But I have a pretty good rapport with my boss and CEO, so he was quite willing on the condition that I’m available on the phone or over email to give advice to the people handling my work while I’m away.
I feel pressure both to come back sooner and to stay out longer, if that makes sense. Although my boss did agree — and in fairness to him, didn’t put any pressure on me to shorten the leave — it always felt like there was something unspoken in the atmosphere at work, like people were judging me. Maybe it’s just my imagination. On the other side, more than one friend/relation/rando whose business it isn’t has weighed in on how I should take more leave and not focus on my career now.
My husband took leave but his work only allowed for two weeks — which actually pissed me off because I felt, and still feel, that it leaves me having to take a longish break, which could impact my career in the short term, while he was essentially on his annual vacation.
—Anonymous, 32, Singapore, works at a hedge fund
“We were both agreed on taking 50% each, as we definitely wanted the baby to be with us equally as much.”
I split the leave in half with my husband, who’s a doctor. We both got 10 months each. 100% of the time was paid (we get 90% of our original paycheck). The government takes on around 80% up to a certain cost and then your employer takes on the rest up to 90%. As a student I still got government funding for staying home (the amount was based on my last employment).
We were both agreed on taking 50% each, as we definitely wanted the baby to be with us equally as much. He was also home with me the first month as we learned to breastfeed and live with a new little human in our lives — very, very important weeks for us both, maybe especially me on the days when the baby blues set in.
Now the baby is in day care, I’m back in school, and we’re adjusting a little every day. I’m immensely happy to live in a country where reasonable parental leave is not only talked about but actually the law. We get to be with our child, build a strong relationship to it and a secure base for its identity forming.
—Anna, 31, Sweden, medical student
“I only took three days off [when my wife gave birth]. I do sometimes feel very guilty for that time in our lives.”
Because I only took three days off (and one of them I was on call) I got paid.
I had just started a new job three weeks before our child was born. My job is very demanding and I am directly responsible for a lot of minors, which caused me to not be able to dedicate any time to my own child. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to go back to work. I think it deeply negatively impacted our bonding when our son was a newborn.
My wife is a stay-at-home mom. It put a strain on our relationship because the work demands didn’t allow me to support her very well during those first three months when you really need assistance.
In retrospect, it was probably the hardest thing my partner has ever endured, as the stay-at-home parent with minimal support from me because of work. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I do sometimes feel very guilty for that time in our lives, and it’s hard to justify even though it was how I provided financially.
—Anonymous, 30, US, works at a nonprofit
“Longer leaves for fathers would improve young women’s career perspectives, since child care would not be solely the women’s ‘responsibility.’”
I took one year and four months, all of it paid. Three months’ wages, after that government-funded. The father gets three weeks paid leave plus another 1.5 months of additional paid parenting leave. My husband took both.
Here in Finland there’s a lot of debate about increasing the father’s parental leave (to a similar system like they have in Sweden). I think it would be important so that they can bond with the child. Also, it would improve young women’s career perspectives since child care would not be solely the women’s “responsibility.”
Going back to work when your baby is under a year is considered by many to be a bad option, but it gets more acceptable when the child is older. My mom was very opinionated about staying at home and not putting children under three in day care.
I’m not a stay-at-home type of mother. I love my job, I love the intellectual challenge I get from it, I love talking to adults and dealing with adult problems. I love my children like nothing else in the world, but being with them 24/7/365 would drive me insane!
I love that we have the option in Finland to stay at home until the child is 3 years old, and I salute every parent who does that. Being a career mom and juggling everything is difficult from time to time, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
—Maija, 33, Finland, chief negotiator at a trade union
“I am so fortunate to live in a country where it is normal to take two years off and be able to share this how we wish.”
I took one year, which was paid at 80% of my salary and covered by the public health insurance. I would have liked to have taken longer but my husband wanted to take a year of leave as well.
He is now taking 14 months. In Austria you can take leave until the baby is two years old and split it between you. Part of this will be unpaid due to the financial model we selected. This was accepted by his company, although it’s very uncommon to take so much leave. Mostly men here take 1–2 months.
My transition back to my job went very smoothly. I am able to work 80% and have flexible hours. Working on a minimal employment contract before I returned really helped to prepare. Although I am envious of the baby activities and the flexibility in time my husband is now enjoying.
I am so fortunate to live in a country where it is normal to take two years off and be able to share this how we wish. This has made it flexible and suited to our style of parenting.
—Rachael, Austria, works in HR recruitment
“I wish leave in Australia was more evenly shared between parents.”
My wife is the primary carer and gave birth. She’s still on paid leave. I took three weeks, with five days paid by work. We couldn’t afford for me to be away longer without pay, and work also wouldn’t grant more leave. I felt pressure to come back, especially as I had only recently started in the job. I was really lucky to be granted the amount of leave I got.
Going back to work was difficult. My partner was always desperate for me to get home in the afternoon. I really struggled being tired all the time. Most people at my work are primary carers for their children and I found their attitudes towards me as a second parent very invalidating.
I wish parental leave in Australia was more evenly shared between parents. Unless you are the birth parent you get virtually no paid leave from the government or work. It would really have helped me bond with our bub if I had more time at home.
—Shona, 28, Australia, teacher
“Here it’s normal to take three years of maternity leave.”
Here it’s normal to take three years of maternity leave. My daughter is now 2 years and 4 months old.
The month after I graduated from university, I started my official maternity leave in Russia at 30 weeks of pregnancy. I wasn’t officially working then (I did some English tutoring while I was in school), so my maternity benefits from the government were based off the minimum wage — around 7000 rubles a month ($130). I received 2800 rubles each month ($60). After the first year and a half, you can sign up to get another round of benefits for the 18 months. The amount is laughable — 50 rubles a month, which is less than one US dollar. The majority of moms don’t bother to claim it.
Muscovites also get an additional one-time payment for the birth of a child, 50,000 rubles ($856). The one-time payment everyone gets from the government is around 15,000 ($256). The amount increases if you have a second child or more.
There are “dairy kitchens” everywhere [that provide free milk and baby food]. It really helps save on the household budget, but not all children like canned puree, some have allergies, and parents may prefer different brands, so moms give away unopened products to people they know, or sell them online for half the market price.
In general, maternity leave in Russia is difficult but possible. It was also hard for us because my husband and I didn’t have our moms available to babysit, or a nanny (it wouldn’t make sense for me to be working at a nanny’s salary rate and then give it all to her). Our parents still help us financially, and my husband took on some extra freelance work, which I help him with sometimes.
We’re not planning a second child for the time being. I want to get a job and then figure out our plans.
—Olga, 25, Russia
“Having leave allowed me to seek professional help for postpartum depression without the fear and pressure of going back to work.”
My entire 10-month leave was paid. I was guaranteed one year (10 months of it paid), plus any unused holidays/vacation time.
In the UK, you are offered 10 “Keep In Touch” days to use to help with the transition back to work — paid and in addition to your leave. It was an enormous help in going back to work before I had to start full time. My husband is lucky enough to work from home, so he was around for emergencies on some occasions.
Compared to my friend who gave birth in the US about a month before my daughter and who only had six weeks leave unpaid, I am so grateful to live in the UK. I suffered from postpartum depression, exacerbated by my birth experience and emergency C-section. Having leave allowed me to seek professional help without the fear and pressure of going back to work.
Before returning, I was allowed to request a special schedule that would benefit my family. Of course, this schedule had to be approved by the employer. If they chose not to approve it, they would have to prove the request would be detrimental to business. I could still work my full-time hours but with a schedule that allowed me to be home in the evenings to feed my daughter dinner and put her bed. It’s lovely.
—Sarah, 35, Scotland, works in hospitality
“I felt quite a bit of internal pressure to come back, although I don’t think it was completely unfounded. I work in a male-dominated industry.”
I took 10 weeks: one week paid maternity leave, seven weeks short-term disability, one week vacation and two weeks unpaid.
I took as much leave as I thought I wanted. In reality, there’s a reason everyone in Malaysia was saying Americans were crazy to leave their babies so early. If I were to do it over again, I would take 5 or 6 months off.
I felt quite a bit of internal pressure to come back, although I don’t think it was completely unfounded. I work in a male-dominated industry. Additionally, people back home often expressed surprise that I was staying away “so long.”
My husband took the first week off. I wouldn’t have survived without him. My mother came to visit for two weeks, and my mother-in-law for a week.
The transition back wasn’t too bad given that I live only a seven-minute walk from work. My baby stays home with a nanny. I come home every day at lunch, so I’m never away from her for more than three or four hours. I cannot imagine having to leave her at a day care, especially one that was not close to my work.
—Cayleigh, 30, from the US, lives in Malaysia, engineer
“I was subject to maternity discrimination, not in an overt or malicious manner, but a slow-burning demotion and lack of opportunities.”
I took one year: statutory maternity pay for the first 39 weeks, unpaid for 13 weeks. I didn’t feel what I got was unreasonable, but if I had absolute free choice I would spend even more time with my son. My husband took only the minimum two weeks paternity leave, plus one week’s holiday.
Going back to work was a difficult time for me. I work for a rapidly expanding company and I had people who had been there a fraction of the time I had acting as if I was new and had no knowledge of my own job.
It slowly transpired over the first few months that I was subject to maternity discrimination, not in an overt or malicious manner, but a slow-burning demotion and lack of opportunities through being out of sight and out of mind. I felt as if I had to prove I could still do my job with my new home life.
I think that companies need to embrace a returning mother’s new drive to set a great parental example and need to provide for their child, their enhanced time-management skills, and deeper understanding of human needs outside of their own, instead of seeing these changes as a liability.
—Lisa, 30, Scotland, works in media sales
“I worried about going back to work every single day of my leave.”
I waited 12 years to become a mother (six IVF cycles). I took 12 months of leave, with 16 weeks paid by the federal government. I didn’t want to return to work, but I live in Sydney and need to pay off those 12 years of IVF treatment.
My boss requested a meeting to discuss my return within four months of me giving birth. And the result of this meeting was that I panicked for the rest of my leave that they liked my replacement better. I worried about going back to work every single day of my leave. It really affected my enjoyment of the time with my son.
Going back was hard as I was still breastfeeding, but couldn’t pump at the office. I weaned my baby as a result.
Work was mostly supportive. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my fill-in was better all around. This was made clear in the meetings I was summoned to in my time away. If I get the chance to do it again, I will make every effort to enjoy the time and not worry about work. Easier said than done.
—Anonymous, 39, Australia, works in an office
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Parts of Olga’s response were translated from Russian.