Paid Maternity Leave
How the United States has fallen embarrassingly behind in guaranteeing the rights and securities of paid leave to new parents.
Parenthood is not an inconvenience. Employers and contemporary American society seem to see it that way, though. Familial obligations are far too often placed beneath job responsibilities, and, as corporate pressure and the stress of economic insecurity mount, many American families have no choice but to sacrifice formative time with their loved ones and children just to survive. Further contributing to the problems faced by parents is the abhorrent state of parental leave in America.
The United States is the only advanced country in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. Unless we wish to continue to force parents to choose between being attentive, present caregivers and going prematurely back to work in order to provide for their families, we must thoroughly reform our system. Paid leave is an economic issue. It is a family issue. It is a human issue that needs to be solved in America.
Policies in Place
The laws in the United States regarding maternity leave are negligent at best. The only time uniformly guaranteed to new parents comes from the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This measure gives employees twelve weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child. Numerous conditions and limitations restrict the protections this measure grants American citizens, however.
In order to be eligible for the unpaid leave guaranteed by the FMLA, employees must work for a covered employer for at least a full year and reach a minimum threshold of 1,250 hours worked. Workers at companies with less than 50 employees are excluded altogether from this protection, leaving many new mothers profoundly vulnerable to job loss.
Even parents who are covered by maternity leave are not completely protected. Getting physical time off is often not enough, for many parents cannot afford to lose the money they would have earned had they continued to work. Millions of US families live paycheck to paycheck and simply cannot survive if they forego three months of pay. So even if mothers are allowed to take off their allotted 12 weeks, a great many decide to forfeit that precious time with their newborns in order to work and earn the money needed to pay their rent or feed their families.
What this Means for Parents and Newborns
It cannot be disputed that childbirth is a trying experience. Not only is it a physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful time, though, it also has the power to be greatly damaging. Some women experience hemorrhaging or undergo invasive surgery during childbirth, and then sometimes have to return to work still bleeding or barely able to walk.
With the complications that accompany childbirth, some babies require extra care or time at the hospital. This means that the parents of NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) babies have to bring them directly from the hospital to daycare and have no time to spend with them at home. It is deplorable that parents are put in the position of choosing between the health of their families and making sure they can keep their jobs.
Not even taking into account the extreme circumstances of difficult labor and deliveries, all mothers need time to recover after giving birth. Women need to breastfeed or at least pump their milk, and it is very difficult to do this while separated from their children or stuck at their jobs. This time is also critically important for babies, who need love and time to bond with their parents. The University of California Davis Medical Center explains that this early time in a baby’s life is when “a trusting relationship and lifelong attachment develops. This sets the stage for the growing child to enter healthy relationships with other people throughout life and to appropriately experience and express a full range of emotions.”
The mental and emotional health of new mothers cannot be ignored either. Mothers face terrible stress when forced back into work before they are ready, leading to higher rates of postpartum depression and other emotional problems, according to the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
How the United States Compares Globally
Many people are shocked to learn how far the United States has fallen behind in protecting the rights of women and families. Every other post-industrial economy in the world guarantees government-subsidized paid leave for new mothers. The chart below shows how America compares to other countries globally in terms of paid time off for new mothers. Countries all across the world offer an average of 15-20 weeks of paid leave, with Bulgaria topping off the chart at 60 weeks--more than a year of time for mothers to heal and bond with their children, while simultaneously maintaining financial security. The undue hardships that the United States’ lapse of care causes for its citizens is overwhelming, especially when we see that things do not have to be this way.
Our lack of paid family leave isn’t all that surprising when we consider the trends and ideologies at work in American society. Since the 17th century, clear gender roles began to emerge in society following the division of labor. As distinguished feminist scholar J. Ann Tickner puts it, “definitions of male and female [became] polarized in ways that were suited to the growing division between work and home required by early capitalism.” This notion of the division of labor was further institutionalized by the “cult of domesticity,” a concept born in the 19th century and romanticized by both our leaders and the media in a manner that actively encouraged women to embody the motherly ideal. Women were to be mothers only, not employees, so family leave wasn’t a necessary measure to consider. But somehow, as women began to participate in the workforce in increasingly larger numbers, politics did not keep up. Our current system, both in comparison to other countries and based on the immense strides women have made in the workforce, is entirely outmoded. While throughout much of American history we praise and glorify the success of the rugged individual, not all families can make it on their own. This is not something struggling parents should be punished for. Rather, government must again become for the people; it must ensure the right of paid maternity leave for all.
Why Does This Matter?
The problem of unpaid maternity leave has received a lot of attention recently. Many companies now recognize the absurdity of not guaranteeing all mothers, regardless of income, time off to bond with their babies and let their bodies heal. The list of companies that offer paid leave is growing, and now even includes companies such as Twitter, Amazon, Spotify, and Microsoft. But the women who are protected by these companies and others are disproportionately women who can already afford to take time off. These are the women who have stable jobs at large companies and probably also have the benefits of comprehensive health insurance.
The women who are the real victims of our nation’s lapse in care are the women who are already financially vulnerable. They work at minimum wage jobs where they aren’t even paid a livable wage, let alone basic benefits. The reason this is still a problem is because those in power enjoy privileges that most do not. Simply stated, there must be measures in place to give families the resources to care for their newborns while remaining financially stable.
This is not a personal issue. This is a human rights issue. Every parent has the right to job and financial security, the right to spend just a few short months with their newborn child or children. Not every family can be expected to struggle to make its own postpartum arrangements in an economic climate that makes it so tremendously difficult to gain steady footing from a vulnerable starting position. It should be a right to have children and raise them without forsaking health and financial security. Countries around the world have proved that it is both possible and productive to mandate paid maternity leave. Now it’s our turn.
(Overhead photo credit: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)