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Editorial

The labyrinth of maternity leave benefits

| Text: Valeria Criscione Photo: Björn Lindahl

For the past two years in a row, the UN Development Programme has awarded Norway the best place to live in the world based on its quality of life index. With 10-12 months paid maternity leave, free prenatal care and delivery, and extra child care benefits once the baby is born, who could argue. I can see now why so many twentysomethings in Norway with no job, nor perhaps a steady partner, take the plunge into motherhood without so much as a blink. Heck, you can even become crown princess of Norway.

I'm of course looking at this from the jaded perspective of a New Yorker having her first child at age 35.That's not because Americans are unfeeling cold workaholics that would rather still fit into a size 6 Donna Karan dress for as long as possible (not that that's a bad thing), but it just isn't always feasible in the US to afford a child and a career.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

First, you have to find a single man in New York that is willing to commit - a feat in itself. Once the relationship is in place, you have to get a job with more than 50 employees and worked there one full year, otherwise you won't even be able to receive the paltry 4-6 weeks paid maternity leave that the US provides under the Family and Medical Leave Act. And you have to have good medical coverage, otherwise you'll have to postpone the blessed event until you have a small fortune.

This doesn't even take into account the stigma from your superiors and co-workers once they find out you're going off the career track.

But what happens when you're like me: a US citizen of Italian-American origin living and working in Norway for a British newspaper? If I had been subject to UK employment laws, I would probably receive only 18 weeks paid leave, less than a third of the Norwegian allowance. Lucky enough, I had taxed to Norway for many years and qualified to receive the same benefits as

Norwegian women (although it took five phone calls and five different answers from the social security office to straighten that out).

Not everyone is as lucky.

My Italian girlfriend living and working here was forced to collect her maternity benefits from Italy because she had not taxed to Norway long enough before the birth - news that came a shock to her. Still, that's a lot better than some other places. The International Labour Office believes at least 14 weeks' paid leave should be the minimum. The World Health Organisation recommends 16 weeks.

Clearly, Norway is a great place to have children given the up to 52 weeks' leave. But the country has the resources to do so. With a 50 per cent personal income tax rate and loads of petroleum wealth flowing into their coffers, the country can afford cushy welfare schemes.

But even I sometimes wonder whether the Norwegian system is too generous and encourages women to drop out of the workforce. Despite the poor maternity leave benefits in the US, there is a higher percentage of females in the boardrooms of US companies. According to US research group Catalyst, women comprise 12.4 per cent of the boards of the 500 largest US companies, nearly twice as high as Norway.

I guess regardless of where they are in the world, women today will have to make some sacrifices along the way – either on the corporate ladder or in their pocketbook. You just have to make sure you procreate in the right country.

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