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Unpaid Maternity Leave Means Months Without Income. How Do Mothers Get By?

Mike Brown | August 3, 2021

Despite overwhelming public support in the United States for paid maternity leave, very few mothers actually have access to it. In fact, Zenefits estimates just 16% of private-sector workers in the U.S. have access to any type of paid maternity leave. And with the average maternity leave time coming in around 10 weeks, most expectant and new mothers will go through the trials and tribulations of early motherhood without any income to support the journey. 

So, how do birthing people stay afloat?

To find that out, Breeze surveyed 1,000 American women recently on unpaid maternity leave.

Most Turn to Their Partner, Debt, or Emergency Savings

As part of the survey’s structure, respondents were broken into two groups: those who didn’t take out disability insurance to prepare for unpaid maternity leave (35%) and those who did (40%).

The former group was asked how they covered expenses while on unpaid leave.

The Breeze survey found 20% dug into emergency savings, 17% took on credit card debt, 11% took on a side-job, and 9% took out a personal loan. Just 11% of applicable respondents budgeted for unpaid leave ahead of time and indicated they covered costs comfortably.

While another 21% said they counted on their partner or spouse to pick up the extra financial slack.

In terms of long-term financial ramifications of unpaid maternity leave, 34% from this same group said they had to delay paying off student debt, 32% delayed building a savings fund, another 32% delayed buying a home, while 26% put off building a retirement fund.

And other than financial impacts, the clear majority of respondents said they returned to work sooner than they would have liked due to financial reasons.

When they were asked if they’re concerned that early return to work will have an impact on their children’s development, the majority were either “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned.

As mentioned earlier, poll participants were broken into two groups depending on if they took out disability insurance in preparation for unpaid maternity leave.

Let’s revisit the group of mothers that did take out this insurance product.

Did Short Term Disability Insurance Help?

Amongst mothers that took out short-term disability insurance ahead of unpaid maternity leave, 65% said the policy provided adequate financial coverage during their unpaid leave, while 23% did not feel it provided ample financial support, and 11% opted not to say.

We found the average short-term disability insurance policy replaced 50% of a mother’s lost income, which isn’t spectacular but it is certainly a whole lot better than replacing absolutely no income for months at a time.

And when this group of respondents was asked if they would take out a similar policy in advance of having another child, a combined 72% indicated they would, while just 17% said they would not, and 11% preferred not to answer.

It appears that short-term disability insurance did provide some measure of financial relief for mothers on unpaid maternity leave. 

While a monthly premium must be paid, the replacement income from this insurance product can be worth it for women who otherwise would have no source of income for some time.

It does appear, however, that consumer education regarding the product is necessary. Amongst the mothers that did not take out short-term disability insurance, 33% said it was because they knew nothing about disability insurance, while 21% applied when it was too late, which means they applied when they were already pregnant so it is then counted as a pre-existing condition.

Another 16% thought they’d get paid maternity leave from either the government or their employer, which is quite the rarity here in the US.


Mike Brown is the Director of Communications at Breeze. His work on personal finance trends has been cited in most major media outlets, from CNBC to the Wall Street Journal.

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