Why You Should Care About Maternity Leave, Even If You're Not A Parent
by Mia Mercado
Mother with baby daughter having fun, sitting on a sofa in the living room.
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Becoming parent is a big decision. Standing in support of paid parental leave shouldn’t be. There are plenty of reasons why you should care about maternity leave (and paternity leave, and paid family leave in general), regardless of whether or not you have kids. By sheer comparison to other countries, the United States’ policies on parental leave are cause for concern.

The United States is very much an outlier when it comes to parental leave. A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that out of 41 major countries, the United States was the only one that does not have federally mandated parental leave. That stat doesn’t get any better when you broaden the scope, either: Out of the 193 countries in the United Nations, there are only a small handful of nations that do not have paid parental leave laws, of which the United States is one.

If you're reading this, chances are good you care about issues like feminism, mental health, the economy as a whole, or all of the above. Chances are even better that you either are a parent, want to be a parent, had a parent or parental figure, or just know of a parent. So, regardless of whether or not you have or want kids, here are seven reason why maternity leave is an issue that concerns everyone.


It’s a Step Forward For Feminism

If you’re a fan of gender equality, pay attention to conversations about maternity leave. While technically illegal, mothers are often still discriminated against in the workplace. From lack of protections for pregnant workers down to the way we talk about work-life balance, women who chose to have children are penalized in the workplace in ways men typically are not. While this is in part due to parenting double standards that persist on a larger scale, federally mandated maternity leave would set a precedent for the way we value working mothers societally.


It’s Good For Babies

Even if you don’t want babies of your own, you’re probably in favor of everyone starting off their lives on the best possible foot. There are measurable health benefits for children whose parents have paid parental leave. Not only does it increase vaccination rates and well-baby care doctor visits, paid parental leave has been found to decrease infant mortality rate by as much as 10 percent. These health benefits extend beyond infancy, with research suggesting that parental leave can help strengthen those parental social bonds and benefit children during those initial developmental years.


It Prioritizes Mental Health

If you want to have a full conversation on mental health, you need to include postpartum conditions. Multiple studies have found that maternity leave has measurable positive impact on the mental well-being of mothers. One study found that “women who took longer than 12 weeks of maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms.” These effects are long-lasting, with another study finding women who were given “a more general maternity leave policy were 18 percent less likely to suffer from depression 30 years later when they were 50 or older.” When it comes to conversations about mental health, we have a long way to go as a culture. Paid maternity leave would be a step closer to prioritizing those conversations and destigmatizing mental illness as a whole.


It Greatly Benefits Low-Income Workers

Maternity leave benefits everyone, but it especially helps low-income workers. The current demographic who is able to take time off when they have a child is typically wealthier. One study looking at the effects of California’s 2011 paid family leave program found “making paid leave more broadly available has especially helped minority women, those with less education, and unmarried women be able to afford to take more leave.” It’s important to look at who we are hurting most when by not prioritizing paid parental leave.


It Keeps Women in the Workforce

When Google increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new moms left the company fell by 50 percent. By supporting maternity leave, companies are directly investing in worker retention.


It’s Good for Women’s Wages

If you’re passionate about ending the wage gap, let’s look at how maternity leave helps women’s bank accounts. Researches have found that paid maternity leave helps women’s wages because of the aforementioned retention rate. When an employee stays at the same employer, their career maintains momentum and wages grow at a faster rate. Another study found that women who took maternity leave and returned to their employer worked 15 to 20 percent more hours during the second year of their child’s life. Those women also had a five percent increase in their hourly wages compared to women who did not take maternity leave.


It’s Good for the Economy

Want a healthier economy? Mandate paid parental leave. At an employer level, companies with generous maternity leave policies help business, as it saves turnover rates and training costs. There are also measurable benefits for the economy as a whole. As found by one report, “expanding paid leave is likely to have economy-wide benefits such as reduced government spending on public assistance and increased labor force participation.” In the United States, gross domestic product (GDP) could be increased by five percent if women’s labor force participation rate was equal to that of men. In other countries, that increase jumps to 30 percent.

Like so many other things that might seem tangential, parental leave is very much a feminist issue — one that affects everyone, often in ways you didn't realize. Want to make a difference? Start by calling or writing your reps. Because this is what democracy looks like.