Turning to Baby Registries to Subsidize Parental Leave

For many, new policies that provide compensation during time off won’t happen soon enough—or be accessible to everyone.

A rally supporting paid family leave in San Francisco in 2016. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

In the U.S., the challenge of financially preparing for a child is exacerbated by the the lack of a federally mandated paid maternity leave. The U.S. remains the only developed country without such a policy. And while some states have implemented paid leave funded by state insurance, and more companies are making such policies a priority for their most competitive talent, generous paid-leave benefits have largely not trickled down to most American workers.

Currently, only three states have paid-leave policies funded by state insurance (with New York and D.C. soon to join their ranks). For American workers whose states don’t provide that option, new parents can take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. During those weeks, financial compensation can be provided by either companies, where employees get partial or full pay depending on company policy, or as part of short-term disability insurance. For an increasing number of white-collar workers, especially those in the tech sector, leave policies have been improving as companies court talent; for example, the company Etsy offers 26 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and fathers.

But the lack of a blanket policies that offer wage replacement during parental leave is at odds with what most Americans want—and say that they need. A recent study by Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans support paid leave, with 69 percent of respondents saying that they returned to work more quickly than they would have liked because they could not afford to lose more wages. That might be why some new parents are now turning to baby registries and crowdfunding sites to help with their finances during parental leave.

That was the case for Alisa Taylor-Parisi, an expecting mother in Panama City Beach, Florida, who set up a cash maternity fund on the registry website Babylist. Taylor-Parisi works as a manufacturing engineer at the company Oceaneering. The company offers 12 weeks of leave, but only four of those weeks are paid—and the paid leave amounts to only 60 percent of her normal salary. “When you first think about it, it's no big deal. Then you do the math and that's a substantial part of your income to not be getting given that your expenses are going to increase with baby stuff,” said Taylor-Parisi.

Natalie Gordon, the founder and CEO of Babylist, says that the site has seen users asking for financial support for their maternity leave via the the “Enter Your Own” option field where, in addition to baby items, users can ask for funding for cash for fun experiences or staples, such as diapers. Over 200 leave funds have been created on the site since last May, with the average cash goal set to $2,000.

Soon-to-be parents asking for money instead of gifts isn’t new. But the practice of raising money specifically for parental leave has a different tone. Many women who started maternity funds spoke about the inadequate nature of paid leave in the U.S. Changes in public or company policy can feel far away, especially for expectant parents who have a more concrete deadline than politicians and HR offices. Establishing a maternity-leave fund to solicit help from family and friends is one market solution that feels immediate and tangible.

Kimberly McClellan, another user on Babylist, felt that being explicit about her ask for leave funding the request more comfortable. “The biggest worry was how to manage all the new expenses of a baby while I was off work and without pay,” said McClellan, a 36 year-old marketing specialist in Denton, Texas, in an email. “I thought it would be great to give people the option to just contribute money if they chose to, but I wanted to make it clear that any cash donated would be used for salary replacement while both me and my husband were off work to care for the baby. I felt like that would be a more understandable request than just for cash to be used for anything and everything.”

The trend of parents asking family and friends to forgo baby gifts in favor of money is in line with surveys that have found that Millennials increasingly prefer experiences over material things. Cash allows families to spend more time with their newborns, while other gifts will soon be outgrown. And yet the most popular baby registry platforms, Amazon and Toys"R"Us among them, still mostly offer only baby goods or gift cards. That may be why crowdfunding and cash registry sites are seeing more new parents take to their platforms for financial assistance during maternity leave.

But much like crowdfunding medical bills, some wonder whether crowdfunding maternity leave is appropriate. On the parenting forum The Bump, one user wrote: “To me, asking for money in almost any situation is really tacky. If you can't afford to take maternity leave, that's on you. Your family and friends are not responsible for you being able to take time off work.”

Sara Margulis, the co-founder and CEO of the crowdfunding website Honeyfund, says that she believes that those on forums who oppose asking for money for honeymoons or maternity leave are a loud minority. “We do see a lot of people using our baby category on Plumfund (a version of Honeyfund for non-wedding related crowdfunding efforts) to help fund maternity leave for whatever portion is unpaid,” says Margulis. While it’s not the cultural norm in the U.S., Margulis notes that gifting money is acceptable in many cultures. Besides the lack of paid leave being an issue friends and family can rally around, it’s also possible that technology is just facilitating something that was already happening anyway: Family members providing financial assistance to struggling new parents.

A spokesperson for GoFundMe says that they have seen thousands of campaigns for parental leave funding in the past several years, and that those efforts have collectively raised millions of dollars. Sometimes, these accounts are setup for self-employed expecting parents who will have no income during their leave.

Audree Marguerite Willoughby, a 23-year-old expecting mother in Nicholasville, Kentucky, has been working two jobs in her first and second trimesters to prepare for her baby, and didn’t qualify for paid leave at her new full-time job in time for her due date. She started the fund on Babylist in hopes of not falling into more debt. “Between my maternity-leave fund and my parents' loan, my husband and I should be able to make it through the next couple months without having to struggle,” says Willoughby via email. “I feel there should be some sort of financial assistance for parents to allow both the mother and father to spend those crucial first few months with their newborn ... I realize that, economically, paid parental leave is a lot easier said than done, whether it be privately or government funded. It would require a lot of changes that are clearly not going to happen any time soon.”

McClellan, one of the users on Babylist, says that while she’s glad her company has a paid-leave policy, she believes that government-mandated paid leave is necessary. And while she had some concerns about starting her own fund, she ultimately thought that her social circle would understand the need for financial assistance. “I was a little concerned that friends and family might think I was being too forward or perhaps even greedy by adding the maternity-leave fund to my registry, but then I reminded myself that most people I know have been in my same situation and could understand how extra funds are needed when a new baby arrives,” said McClellan.

Margulis, at Plumfund, says that despite the noise, the biggest reason to give to a maternity-leave fund is likely empathy: “It's not Instagrammable, but the privilege and the benefit of being able to stay home for that extra month for your newborn is very special and anyone who's had a child can relate to that.” And that seems to be truer for a certain population: friends or family with children. While the expecting mothers on Babylist have all have positive feedback on their maternity-leave funds, the amount raised has ranged from $20 to a few hundred dollars, short of their goal of several thousand. Taylor-Parisi has raised $375 so far, all from women with children.