The U.S. has something of a dismal record when it comes to paid parental leave, especially when compared to other countries.
But you might not have realized just how dismal the numbers really are. A recent survey of employees who took time off for a new baby found that about 12 percent of them were back to work just one week later, and another 11 percent returned by two weeks postpartum. That’s nearly a quarter of women who were back to the old grindstone only two weeks after having a baby! For a country that likes to pay a lot of lip service to how motherhood is the most important job out there, we sure aren’t interested in putting our money where our mouth is.
Talk is cheap, and apparently “cheap” is the watchword when it comes to how we treat new mothers in this country. Only about 13 percent of workers here are actually even eligible for coverage by the Family Medical Leave Act, which lets women take up to 12 weeks off work to handle childbirth and recovery while still having a guaranteed job to come back to. That means the majority of people are operating under the knowledge that the faster they get back to work after the baby’s arrival, the more likely it is that there will actually be work to get back to. But if you haven’t been at your job for a full year yet, or if your employer has fewer than 50 employees, you’re probably out of luck on the FMLA front.
And even if you do have a job that gives you access to FMLA time off, all FMLA gives you is time; there’s no requirement that your employer pay you during that time off. Also, depending on how good your insurance happens to be, you might not be able to afford that full 12 weeks before you need that regular paycheck to help pay down your medical bills. And don’t forget, that 12-week clock starts ticking as soon as you have to leave work — no matter if you’re put on bed rest to prevent pregnancy complications, no matter if your baby is born 15 weeks early. When your 12 weeks are up, that’s that. Because we value motherhood just that much!
The really sad part is that the women who do have FMLA-eligible jobs tend to be women who already have a higher income. Those who don’t have much in the way of income — the ones who are already struggling — are the ones most likely to have zilch in the way of postpartum benefits. So they’re the ones who are most likely forced to figure out a way to get back to work within the first few weeks of childbirth — and the ones who have to deal with the consequences of a tiny newborn getting exposed to day care germs before his immune system has a few months to toughen up. They’re the ones who have to scrape together the most money for hospital bills around formula costs and diapers and day care expenses.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, between three months and two years of paid — paid! — leave is the norm. The U.S. is one of only three countries without any paid leave on the table, along with Suriname and Papua New Guinea.
We can do better than this — we have to do better than this — especially if we want to keep talking up how much we love and treasure moms. You can write to your representatives in Congress to urge them to make some forward progress on paid parental leave, and don’t forget to include your local government too, since some states and even cities have implemented their own paid leave policies. If we can do more to support mothers — both those who work and those who stay at home — then maybe being a mom doesn’t have to be the world’s toughest job after all.