Stigma Hinders Some Moms Who Work Before Baby Turns 3

Critics say extended maternity leave contributes to gender pay gap

 By Mariya Ginzburg, Erica Gonzales, Alexandra Pastron and Tiffani Teng 

In a country where it is typical for new mothers to transition into becoming stay-at-home moms, Prague resident Eva Heidefors went back to work three months after her son’s birth. Photo Courtesy Eva Heidefors.

Eva Heidefors went back to work three months after her son’s birth, going against the tradition of a three-year work break by Czech mothers. Photo Courtesy Eva Heidefors.

Eva Heidefors is, in her own words, “a bit of an extreme case” when it comes to maternity leave in the Czech Republic. In a country where it is typical for new mothers to stay home with their child for a few years, Heidefors, 35, went back to work three months after her son’s birth.

“I’ve encountered quite negative reactions from my fellow mothers,” Heidefors said. She decided to return to her position as senior sourcing consultant at an executive recruitment agency, leaving her now two year-old son in the care of family and private daycare.

“It’s definitely frustrating trying to do something out of the ordinary, not just against the state system, but friends and fellow mothers,” she said. “There is a stigma and a system that says, ‘You have a small baby, and you take care of it or you are a bad mother.’”

The Czech Republic, a former communist country with strong social welfare policies, guarantees women a 28-week maternity leave at 70 percent of their wage pay. Following this an extended  government-subsidized leave of up to four years is offered to either parent, although it is almost always mothers who takes the extended leave.

Though maternity leave is a social benefit mandated by the 28-country European Union, the Czech Republic has one of the longest extended maternity leaves in Europe. Europe itself has strong maternity leave packages in comparison to places like the United States, where there is no state-paid leave and women often have to go back to work 6 weeks after they give birth if they want to keep their jobs and wages.

“There is a stigma and a system that says, ‘You have a small baby, and you take care of it or you are a bad mother.’”

Under the system, a parent in the Czech Republic receives a sum of 273,600 CZK, about $12,250, spread out over two to four years during the extended leave. Typically, the parent with the lower wage, usually the mother, will receive the parental leave money and stay with the child. Employers are required to allow the new parent to return to their previous position upon returning from leave, or a position deemed to be of equal status.

However, critics of Czech maternity leave argue that its longer-than-average length keeps mothers at home at the expense of their careers. Others argue that Czech women face too many obstacles when trying to return to the workforce after giving birth.

“Taking women out of society for six years, as is the case with two children, for example, is rather extreme,” said Erik Heidefors, Eva Heidefors’ husband and a corporate service manager.  Mr. Heidefors said it can be “directly disadvantageous for the society as a whole when it loses half of the working population for that length of time.”

Though Mr. Heidefors would prefer to take a break from work to care for his son in the Czech Republic, the country’s parental leave system makes this option impossible. “The compensation is set up in such a way where if a father has a salary in the higher average of the population, it is, financially, quite disadvantageous if he stays at home on parental leave,” he said.

Mr. Heidefors, 34, grew up in Sweden where almost 90 percent of fathers take paternity leave. Only two percent of fathers take paternal leave in the Czech Republic according to Rut Kolinska, founder and president of the Network of Mother’s Centers, a network of community centers dedicated to provide mothers and their small children with a support system. In the Czech Republic, subsidized care for children under the age of three, a common European benefit, is hard to come by.

On a global scale, the Czech Republic is falling in rankings for the third consecutive year in terms of gender equality. Out of 142 countries, the Czech Republic came in 96 according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report, behind almost all European Union member states as well as the United States.

 The gender pay gap “can be explained by low access to pre-school childcare and generous tax support of working families with children,” said Stepan Jurajda, an economist at the Prague-based think tank CERGE-EI.  The system “is structured so that it gives incentives to keep the secondary earner, the mother, at home, not working.”

A lack of childcare compels 53 percent of Czech mothers to stay home for the first three years after their children are born, according to a 2012 Gender Studies Report.  Often, the “limited possibility of where to put your children” is a barrier for working mothers, said Kolinska, also a mother of five children. The absence of available childcare, public facilities in particular, is just one motivation for women to extend their maternity leave.

Two types of care services exist for children under three in the Czech Republic: privately operated facilities and public health service facilities structured as crèches, which translates to nurseries. Today, few of these public crèches exist in the Czech Republic because many were closed in the 1990s due to low attendance rates.  These closures significantly reduced the number of available nurseries from 1,043 in 1990 to 46 in 2010. In countries like France and Denmark, state care is offered to all children from six months.

In a country with strong maternal culture and a penchant for traditional gender roles, many women prefer to maximize their time at home during maternity leave. Not everyone believes the status quo needs to change.

“Sending my small baby to daycare would be almost cruel.”

For Lucie Tutrova, taking extended leave to be with her child was exactly what she wanted.

A 38-year-old mother of two children, who works as a freelance language teacher, Tutrova never considered any sort of childcare while her children were younger than three years old.

“In my opinion, up to the age of about two and a half I think it is very good for children to be with family,” she said. “Sending my small baby to daycare would be almost cruel.”

The Czech Ministry of Health agrees that a mother’s presence during the first years of a child’s life is essential. In an interview, a spokeswoman for the ministry said, “staying in a family environment supports the child’s psychosocial development and can prevent eventual evolutionary abnormalities.”

Maria Dzurnakova, a building manager at New York University in Prague, like Tutrova, preferred to be at home with her daughter for her early years, because “it’s usual.” She went on to say that women who take less than two-year leaves must have “high ranking careers,” because they can afford the cost of private care.

Dzurnakova says daily private nursery for her daughter costs 8,000 koruna, (316 USD) per month while the average Czech monthly wage is 25,219 CZK (1,122 USD).  Comparatively, Dzurnakova’s nursery costs are still below the average yet amount to roughly a third of an average monthly salary.

 The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs commented that it is aware of the “insufficient capacity of pre-school facilities” and has recently passed an act called “Children Group,” to create alternative types of childcare for children under age three. The Ministry hopes to make childcare more readily available and at a low-cost to mothers wishing to return to work.

The sentiment that Czech mothers belong home with the small children is not simply a throwback to an outdated, sexist ideology. Rather, there was a cultural shift concerning mothers that occurred after the end of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, according to Vanda Thorne, a sociology professor at New York University in Prague.

Under communism, the state introduced many gender-specific benefits to encourage women to give birth.  Besides maternal leaves for up to four years, mothers could take sick leave from work to care for their children and receive many government-funded benefits like monthly allowances.

“One of the first suggestions was to completely withdraw women from the workforce, to go back to their natural role as housewives because of their burden on the social security system,” Thorne said, referring to government policies following the end of Communism in 1989.

But despite entrenched beliefs about motherhood, women are finding ways to keep their careers on track.

Sylwia Berdak, 31, mother of two and a Polish native, has smoothly gone back and forth between taking care of her child and working as a manager in finance and administration.

Berdak took a 15-month leave when her first child was born, returned to work for one year, and is now almost two years into her second maternity leave. Her first child has attended one of the very few public government-funded child care programs since he was two-years-old.

Recently, she prolonged her second leave to 26 months, ending in mid-June because she wants to spend spring with her children and will move to a new house soon. Berdak also has requested to work 32 hours per week instead of 40 hours.

“I prefer to be proactive about this and to make sure that they remember me and that they know that I should be getting positions back at the same level,” she said.

Mariya Ginzburg is in the NYU Steinhardt Class of 2016. Her hometown is Tenafly, NJ.

Erica Gonzales is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016.  Her hometown is Wyckoff, New Jersey.

Alexandra Pastron is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Pasadena, California.

Tiffani Teng is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2017.  Her hometown is New York City.


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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.


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