The XX Factor

Is Unlimited Parental Leave a Recipe for Guilt and Resentment?

“Mom, are all your coworkers silently judging you?”

On Tuesday, Netflix announced in a blog post that it now offers “an unlimited leave policy for new moms and dads that allows them to take off as much time as they want during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption.” As Business Insider notes, this isn’t so much a new policy as it is an expansion and clarification of an existing policy—Netflix prides itself on its workplace culture of “freedom and responsibility,” and it has allowed employees to take unlimited vacation days and sick days since it went public in 2002

Unfortunately, like unlimited paid vacation, unlimited paid parental leave looks like a recipe for confused, resentful, and stressed-out employees.

An unlimited parental-leave policy looks would seem like a positive development. America is the only developed country in the world without mandatory paid maternity leave. (Women who’ve worked at the same company for more than a year, and whose company comprises more than 50 employees, are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993; only four states have publicly funded paid maternity leave.) Plus, as Slate contributor Jessica Grose noted in 2013, when it comes to pregnancy and newborns, “everyone’s experience is wildly different and impossible to predict.” So a little flexibility, like the kind Netflix is offering, is most welcome—in theory, at least.

In practice, though, companies that have instituted unlimited vacation often find that employees end up taking less time off than they did when they had well-defined vacation allowances. What’s more, employees feel guilty for the time they do take off. When you add in the resentment that parents often face—or fear facing—when they take time off or embrace a flexible schedule to tend to their families, unlimited parental leave could make life more stressful for new parents. If that new mom down the hall came back full-time after only six weeks of leave, will you look like a slacker if you take four months and ramp back up with a three-day-a-week schedule? 

Netflix has been doing this “freedom and responsibility” thing for a long time, so it may be capable of making unlimited parental leave a blessing rather than a curse. And a one-size-fits-all policy of giving parents paid leave immediately after birth isn’t necessarily the way to go: Some parents would rather take more time off when their kids are a little older. But a straightforward and humane directive—e.g., “You are required to take five months of paid leave at any point in the first two years of your child’s life; go forth and prosper”—would give parents clear boundaries and put them all on equal footing.

I don’t have kids, but if I ever do, I don’t want to be vulnerable to judgment and resentment because of my choices about maternity leave—I’d much rather know exactly how much paid time off I (and all my colleagues) are entitled to. 

To be sure, Netflix should be celebrated for being firmly on the right side of this issue. Too few working parents in America get any paid leave at all, which is a problem that only lawmakers can fix. In the meantime, though, well-meaning companies should be figuring out how much time new moms and dads should take off, rather than burdening parents with yet another tough decision.