America’s dismal maternity leave policy
I had been dreading the question ever since my plane touched down in Oslo. I was eight months pregnant, visiting my family in Norway for Christmas for one last international adventure before the baby arrived. The question was finally raised by my cousins as we were sitting around and relaxing after Christmas dinner: “How much time do you get to take off with the baby?”
“Six...” I mumbled, looking away.
“Six weeks,” I replied, my face growing hot. The room fell silent for a moment, then erupted in a cacophony of outraged Norwegian female voices.
“Nei, men! Six weeks? But, that’s ridiculous! Why is American maternity leave so short?” they demanded.
I didn’t have a good answer for them. They had good reason to be incredulous. Norway is perennially ranked among the top five nations in the world to be a mother. When my cousins had their babies, they were offered the option of 49 weeks of paid maternity leave at 100 percent of their salary or 59 weeks of leave at 80 percent of salary. Beyond that, both mothers and fathers have the option of taking an additional year’s leave of absence without pay, but with the guarantee that their job will be waiting for them when they return.
By contrast, the statistics regarding maternity leave in the United States are grim. The United States is one of only three countries in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. According to a 2014 study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, only 11 percent of American workers have access to paid leave through their employers, and only 39 percent reported being able to take any kind of paid leave with the birth of a child. According to a 2012 Department of Labor survey, nearly 25 percent of women who took leave to care for a new baby took two weeks or fewer off.
In place of paid maternity leave, the United States has the Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed in 1993, this act allows workers up to 12 weeks of leave per year for the birth of a child or to care for family members. However, it only applies to workers at companies with more than 50 employees, or about 60 percent of the American workforce. And because that leave is unpaid, many mothers cannot afford to take the full 12 weeks.
Alyssa is a Springfield mom of two who works in the medical field. When each of her children was born, she took eight weeks of leave to be with them, using accumulated sick and vacation time to cover the gap in her salary during that time. When the time came for her to go back to work, especially with her first child, “I had a lot of anxiety. I had the usual worries and ‘what ifs’ of leaving my baby with someone else. I do feel blessed that I have a great support system with my husband, in-laws, friends and family, which made it possible for me to return to work.”
However, Alyssa notes, “Many parents unfortunately do not have a support system. I do feel the United States is far behind the times on this issue; the safety and health of mothers and children are being affected. I would say in an ideal world paid maternity leave for at least six months would be fantastic.”
Research indicates that mothers and children benefit from paid maternity leave. Access to paid family leave has been shown to reduce rates of infant mortality by as much as 10 percent. It is also linked to improved child health, including decreased premature births and increased birthweight. Babies born to mothers who can take paid leave are nearly 25 percent more likely to get vaccines, and mothers who take paid leave breast-feed twice as long as mothers who don’t.
Mothers benefit from paid maternity leave, too. Women who take longer than 12 weeks maternity leave report fewer instances of postpartum depression. A recent study even indicates that women who benefit from extended maternity leaves are less likely to suffer depression after age 50.
Paid maternity leave also has economic benefits. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, “Paid maternity leave can increase female labor force participation by making it easier for women to stay in the workforce after giving birth, which contributes to economic growth.” Paid leave also increases worker retention, which translates into savings for the employer through reduced turnover cost.
With so many obvious benefits to paid maternity leave, many other countries look askance at the United States for its maternal leave policies. When I asked my Norwegian cousin, Stine Isaksen, she didn’t mince words: “It’s crazy! I could not imagine leaving my kids at home or wherever after six or 12 weeks. In our culture and with our values, we for sure think that this can’t be good for the child at all!”
Change to America’s maternal leave policies must come from advocacy by everyday Americans. To move this issue, proponents of paid family leave are encouraged to gather information about the issue, support politicians and organizations working to enact paid family leave, and speak out within their own social circles as to why this is issue is so vital for American families.
Erika Holst is a writer and mother in Springfield. Although she received only six weeks’ maternity leave, she was able to bring her baby to work with her for the first several months of his life.