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Gates Foundation offers unheard-of parental leave policy

Julie Ryan Evans is an editor and writer who has covered everything from Capitol Hill to the politics of preschool. A mother of two, a runner of races, and a gourmet chef wannabe, she currently lives outside of Orlando, Florida.

A year of paid parental leave sounds great… on the surface

With the dismal state of maternity leave and options for working parents in the United States, the Gates Foundation in Seattle is offering a huge, shining light. The foundation announced this week that it will offer one year of paid parental leave to employees.

That's one whole year of paid leave — for new moms and new dads alike — and it's amazing for these lucky employees… at least at first glance.

More: How dismal maternity leave policies affect real women in the United States

As much as we want to cheer this move — and we do — it also makes us question how it will really play out. Will new parents actually take all the time offered, or will they fear for their jobs if they do? Even if it's the official policy, will the guilt and fear of what taking a full year may really do to their career or the worry about their co-workers' reactions cause them to cut their leave short?

Our society has conditioned us to believe that if you choose to take care of your children, then your work must not be a priority. Many without children don't believe parents should get special treatment and are resentful of their benefits. Employers too often discriminate against women who get pregnant or have children, and too many companies refuse to offer flexible work accommodations to valuable employees. So it's hard to not be a little skeptical when it comes to celebrating this news.

More: The Mamafesto: Real maternity leave horror stories show moms need better

Sure, we've seen a few other moves in a positive direction. In August, Netflix announced a new policy that provides unlimited maternal and parental leave in the first year of a child's life. Microsoft followed by expanding its parental leave policy, giving new mothers up to 20 weeks of paid leave.

Most of the rest of the nation, however, is left with some of the worst maternity leave policies in the world — literally, when you rank us against other countries, ours are abhorrent. The Family and Medical Leave Act offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many women can't support their families without a paycheck for three months. Beyond the financial concerns, there is the physical recovery, the bonding with baby, child care arrangements and so many other ways families are hurt when parents are forced to go back to work too soon.

More: How to stay connected (but not too connected) while you're on maternity leave

So forgive us if we're not jumping with unabandoned joy over the Gates Foundation news. In many senses it feels too good to be true, and until it's true for all parents in this country — and parents aren't actually scared to take it when offered — we still have a long, long way to go. We're jumping... just not too high yet.

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