Among the world's most economically advanced countries, only one fails to mandate paid maternity leave: the United States. Yes, while women in Argentina, Mongolia, and Sweden are guaranteed months of paid leave to take care of infant children and recover from delivery, American women often have to head back to work before they or their children are ready. Paid maternity leave can be a critical factor in women's empowerment by enabling new mothers to support themselves while raising children; when accompanied by paid paternity leave, it can be a valuable way to combat sexist stereotypes about which gender should handle which household tasks.
Both 2016 presidential candidates supported some form of maternity leave, but the policy differences between their plans were significant. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supported family leave (i.e. leave that either parent could take) for 12 weeks; Trump's plan, reportedly influenced heavily by his daughter, Ivanka, promised six weeks of maternity leave; it also seems only to apply to women who give birth.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of time off after the birth of a child — but that leave is unpaid. This means that new parents who rely on regular paychecks may struggle to make ends meet. According to a Department of Labor report, 30 percent of workers who take FMLA leave slip into credit card debt, and 15 percent wound up on public assistance.
When new parents are able to take paid time off to care for their children, both the American family and the American economy benefit. Below are some of the major reasons why paid maternity leave is an essential policy for a 21st-century democracy.
1Benefits Low-Income and Women of Color the Most
The state of California is one of a small number of states that offers its own paid family leave program, which has been in operation since 2004. Researchers have found that California's program doubled the use of maternity leave, with particular increases noted amongst low-income and nonwhite women. Implementing paid maternity leave at the federal level would enable these groups of women to take time off with infant children at higher rates.
2Increases the Number of Women in the Workplace
Insufficient maternity leave policies in the United States can have two, seemingly opposite, effects: either women must leave home as quickly as possible after childbirth in order to earn money, or women decide to stay home full time.
Kerry Devine, who quit her job to stay at home with her child, told the New York Times that her decision was motivated by the short duration of the leave available to her. "I would have been O.K. putting a 1-year-old baby in day care, but not a 12-week-old," Devine said. That may be why women who take maternity leave are much likelier to still be in the workforce one year later, according to a Rutgers University study.
While choosing to stay at home can certainly be the right decision for many American men and women, new parents shouldn't have to feel forced into one option or the other because of maternity leave policy.
3Leave Improves Employee Productivity
When Google expanded its maternity leave program, the company found that women who took the new leave were "more productive and happier" when they came back to work. "The cost of having a mom out of the office for an extra couple of months was more than offset by the value of retaining her expertise and avoiding the cost of finding and training a new hire," Google VP Lazlo Bock wrote in Work Rules!, a book about business.
4Keeps Families Economically Self-Sufficient
Why does America not have paid maternity leave?— SeAira? (@seairamingo) May 12, 2017
Paid parental leave would also help keep families afloat financially as they adjust to the financial burden of a newborn. It would also help reduce child care costs, an expense that can actually exceed the cost of college. A Joint Economic Committee report by the United States Congress found that women who return to work after taking maternity leave are 40 percent less likely to receive public assistance in the year after giving birth, compared to women who continue to work without taking leave.
5Reduces Infant Mortality
Just laying here thinking about how it's 2017 & there's still such a thing as unpaid maternity leave in America— crystal ✌️ (@cryslouie) May 11, 2017
Taking maternity leave may actually improve babies' health, too. A study published in the journal PLoS Medicine found that every additional month of maternity leave was associated with a 13 percent reduction in infant mortality. This may be because women who go back to work early may not always be able to leave their infants with child care professionals, but instead rely on family or friends who may be unfamiliar with infants' health needs. Alison Surratt had to return to work 8 weeks after giving birth to her son Leo, who died of asphyxiation while being watched by a family friend. "I know for a fact, Leo would not have died that day if he had been with me," Surratt told Slate.
6Benefits Maternal Mental Health
Maternity leave can help reduce risk of postpartum depression, according to a University of Maryland study. Even for mothers who do contract postpartum depression, the ability to take time off can be key. Chrissy Teigen, who has spoken openly about her experiences with postpartum depression, credits the support (and time off) she received from her editor and producer as key factors that helped her overcome it.
7Promotes Employee Loyalty
My company announced a 13 week, 100% paid maternity leave policy today. 4 week, 100% paid paternity leave. 10k adoption reimbursement. pic.twitter.com/GaG5BpXNWk— Anne, shhhhh. (@OkShutUpAnne) April 7, 2017
Maternity leave is sometimes framed as detrimental to business. However, enabling employees to take some time off can make them more valuable assets upon their returns. Women who take maternity leave tend to stay with the same employer after returning, according to CNN. It's an understandable trend: women who feel supported by their employers are likelier to want to keep working for the same company. No wonder many cutting-edge tech companies like Google "are realizing that offering new parents more paid time off can be a real competitive advantage," according to Business Insider.
8Women Need Recovery Time After Labor
Women who give birth to their children are coping with dual strains on their physical and mental health: a body recovering from pregnancy and labor and a newborn who needs constant supervision. Paid maternity leave allows women and families to take time to adjust and recuperate, meaning that when women do return to work, they are better equipped to handle the challenges of balancing parenting and work.