So, Mother’s Day is around the corner again. Expect to get bombarded with advertisements starting with the phrase “Show her you care this year …” as close-ups of diamond rings and pendants are shown to entice your partner into spending far too much money.
Mother’s Day has become a farce in America, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m not just talking about the Hallmark commercialization surrounding Mother’s Day, either; I’m talking about how poorly this country treats its mothers. If our leaders actually valued motherhood and “family values,” they’d put their money where their mouth is. New moms must have support to start off motherhood without going bankrupt. I’m talking paid maternity leave. We are the only developed nation in the world not to offer it. Think about it. It’s shameful.
I have lived in London for three years now, and the opportunity to live abroad has been eye-opening. I have seen firsthand how new mothers are able to take six months’ paid maternity leave in England, with the option of taking an additional six months unpaid with their jobs intact. The British economy is not falling down because of these policies.
My husband opens offices for his company throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Last night he called from Stockholm and told me how his Swedish colleague is going to take four months of paid paternity leave. “It’s the standard in Sweden—can you imagine? God, I’d have loved to have been able to do that when William was born,” he said to me with a sarcastic laugh. He took only one week off—and since I was in the hospital for five days, that equated to only two workdays at home with me and William. His one week off also counted as one week of his vacation pay—and he was only given two weeks at the start-up he helped form in California at the time. We both hope to return to America soon, but it’s a bittersweet thought as we know none of these policies are in place back home.
It’s a different story for most of the developed world. In fact, out of 168 nations in a Harvard University study, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave, putting America in the leagues of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland for family-friendly policies. Working parents in Sweden are offered eighteen months paid leave upon the birth of each child—which can be split between the couple. So if dad takes four months paid, mom can take fourteen. And interestingly, most women in Sweden do go back to work. France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria—all European countries offer some form of paid maternity leave varying in time frame and the amount of tiered pay given. Our neighbors in Canada are given fourteen months of paid leave. The impact these policies have on families is dramatic.
Imagine this scenario: you have a high-risk pregnancy and will likely give birth prematurely, which may require medical assistance before, during, and after the birth. Where would you rather live—America or Europe? It’s a no brainer, of course you’d rather give birth in your country where your friends and family are. But consider this: the American working woman is only guaranteed twelve weeks unpaid leave via our Family and Medical Leave Act, but that’s only if you work for a large company. (See Maternity Leave On Your Dime.) If you are put on bed rest and start your maternity leave early—what can you do after the birth? The only option for many is to go back to work—leaving a premature infant in the hands of strangers at a day care facility or another care giver, hopefully a family member. If you have no family to help, your premature infant will likely be thrust into a daycare facility, putting the infant at risk for infections.
The First Step Toward Bankruptcy
Many women have shared their stories here at DivineCaroline of having to go back to work and struggling to leave their infants at home. Some have had to move in with parents or in-laws. Others, like my sister, had to take an unpaid leave of absence and also borrow money to make sure her premature infant would not be placed in a child care center. I am more than a little bit angry that my sister, who has her master’s degree in social work and contributes largely to society by helping the mentally ill—is now struggling financially.
According to MomsRising.org co-founder Joan Blades, having a child is the first step into bankruptcy for most families in America. I ask you, when is this going to end? If our leaders really care about supporting families, they need to address this issue. The financial repercussions of living without pay for three months or longer can have a tremendous ripple effect—leaving families without vacation time or personal time and continuing to go into debt. No wonder so many women quit their jobs and stay home for a year or two—with the rising costs of childcare, and so little support from companies and our government, many feel that they have to. And that’s only if they can swing it. My sister, a single working mom, surely couldn’t. Again, it’s shameful and I for one plan to only vote for a political candidate who is brave enough to tackle big business interests and propose a paid family leave policy.
I read recently that the Clinton administration proposed a paid family leave program that would allow states to use unemployment funds for maternity leaves. Sadly, that was shot down by the Bush administration after opposition from business groups concerned with increased contribution to state unemployment funds.
Perhaps the next administration—whether Democratic or Republican—should take a close look at California’s program. While I don’t think it provides long enough coverage, the plan does offer 50 percent pay for six weeks, paid from a fund that employees, not employers, pay into. This certainly would appease big business leaders. The next step will be for the national government to offer some sort of assistance for additional leave that families need to take. I know I certainly would not be able to hand over a six-week-old infant to a day care facility—especially if that child was born prematurely. Can you imagine?
From what I’ve read, five states—California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico—require employers to have temporary disability programs, which pay benefits if the pregnancy is defined as a disability by a doctor. A few others have infant care programs that pay subsidies to low-income families for up to two years. But this clearly isn’t enough—especially if you do not live in these states.
Our government needs to make a national statement of support to families. Not only is it the right thing to do, I imagine in the long run, the ripple effect might even help the economy and definitely help working families from diving into poverty. What do you think? Would a paid maternity leave make a big difference in your life? I think I’d appreciate it far more than flowers or chocolates on Mother’s Day—what about you?
Related Story: MomsRising: Fighting for What Families Care About