In 2014, The Guardian proclaimed that the United States is still the only country in the developed world that doesn’t require employers to provide paid maternity leave. Funny, because to hear conservative politicians tell it, many of our nation’s problems could be solved through better parenting, more intact families, and placing more emphasis on instilling traditional family values—like moms who stay home when there are babies to care for.
“But wait,” you might be asking. “What about the Family and Medical Leave Act?” Well, that’s only for women who work 40-hour weeks at a company that employs more than 50 people. Under the FMLA, about two in five women don’t qualify for paid leave after giving birth. This is crippling families, contributing to the gender pay gap, and is devastating to the 40% of American households with children for whom women are the primary breadwinners. Paid maternity leave isn’t a cushy luxury; it’s a necessary and vital resource that allows new moms (and dads, depending) to have ample time to breastfeed, to bond with their new child, and to recover physically and mentally before returning to work. Paid maternity leave is known to reduce the risk of post-partum depression, which is better for everyone.
So what’s the good news? Powerful companies like Adobe, Netflix, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are drastically extending their paid maternity leave policies for new moms. Some are offering paid leave of up to 12 months. You don’t need to be a parent to know a year (or even six months) of paid leave can make a huge difference to struggling families. Paid maternity leave is also good for companies. It keeps turnover low, morale high, and can increase the percentage of female employees overall.
In keeping with the trend to extend paid maternity and paternity leave, the US military is examining their own policies regarding family leave after a birth or adoption. The Navy and Marines have instituted 18 months of leave for new mothers after giving birth. The Air Force now allows new moms a year after giving birth before their next deployment. The Army is looking to follow suit, but it’s not clear when their decision will be made, or what it will ultimately be.
As it stands, one in four new mothers must return to work within two weeks of giving birth. The lack of paid maternity leave means financially, these working mothers have no choice. Some lower income women may have to stop working altogether—because childcare workers make more per hour than they do at minimum wage jobs. Others must resort to less-than-ideal childcare situations such as unlicensed daycare centers or un-vetted or inexperienced babysitters. The lack of paid maternity leave in the United States is an embarrassment, and one we should waste no time addressing. Surely one of the richest nations on the planet can do better.
President Obama thinks so. He has proposed increased spending on broadening the availability of affordable childcare, and has advocated allocating government resources in order to subsidize paid maternity leave. Families are important. Parenting is important—and it’s high time every company followed the lead of companies like Facebook, Netflix, and Adobe.