The conversation is the same at every playground, library, or mommy-meet up. A bleary-eyed mother walks in with an irresistibly tiny newborn strapped to her chest. The questions pour in:
“Oh how sweet! How old?”
“Boy or girl?”
“Is she a good sleeper?”
“Do you stay-at-home or work?”
“How much maternity leave do you get?”
The new mom diligently answers all the questions, even the one about having a good sleeper, to which the answer is clearly, “No.” But when it turns to maternity leave, she perks up.
“Well, I’m home for 12 weeks. Which I know I’m really fortunate to get. And I’m really lucky, because the first six weeks are paid. I can actually take four months off, and I’m really grateful I have that option, but we can’t go without my salary that long. So I’m just taking three. But I’m really happy I can even do that. And that I get paid at all, because I work for a small company so they don’t have to pay me. I know how lucky I am.”
Mothers fall all over themselves explaining the gratitude they have for getting any amount of maternity leave, paid or unpaid. We treat any mention of time with our families with extreme humility and appreciation, lest we appear callous to the millions of parents who have no access to paid leave. Mothers on maternity leave know exactly how fortunate they are.
Most parents in the workforce don’t have any paid leave to appear grateful for. An estimated one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Only 12 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. receive paid leave from their employer. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off, and only for certain employees. Just over 40 percent of workers in the United States are not eligible for FMLA.
But should we really consider ourselves “lucky” for having time off to care for our family? Or should having access to paid family leave so parents can care for their most vulnerable family member without fear of losing their jobs be considered a basic workers’ right?
I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard anyone gush about how lucky they felt that their employer adhered to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. It’s been a long time since anyone has praised their boss for recognizing the standard 40 hour work week, honoring federal holidays, or paying overtime when required by law. We consider these to be basic parts of an employment agreement, whereas parental leave is still considered a luxury.
Anyone who has ever spent time caring for a newborn knows that it is anything but luxurious. Care for a new family member is vitally important work, and the effects of a too-short leave are measurable. One study found that mothers of three-month-old babies who worked full time had greater rates of depression, stress, and poorer health than mothers who stayed at home. The study found that down the road, working mothers ultimately had lower rates of depression, but returning to work after a short leave had a negative impact on maternal mental health.
Women who receive paid time off are also more likely to return to work, work more hours, and also earn higher wages – factors which are good for businesses looking to avoid turnover. When mothers work more hours for higher pay, it impacts a family’s financial security not only in the first few months after birth, but for years down the road.
Maternity leave can also influence how long a mother breastfeeds – one study found that women who returned to work after at least six weeks were more likely to be breastfeeding when their child was six months old. Paternity leave has numerous benefits as well, from better behavioral and mental health for children to fathers taking a more active role in family life.
It is clear that caring for a newborn or newly adopted family member is much more than a time to take a break from your job to enjoy your new family. The consequences of this important work extend much farther than one’s own nuclear family and yet American companies still treat paid leave simply as a perk, like free coffee in the break room or attending a conference in Hawaii.
There is nothing wrong with being grateful for every moment you have to care for a new family member, or being thankful to work for an employer who recognizes the need for rest, recovery, and bonding during this time. Recognizing the fact that millions of mothers and fathers are forced to return to work before they or their child are physically and emotionally ready is certainly laudable.
We need to stop viewing parental leave as a perk and start treating it as a basic workers’ right that millions are currently being denied. We can feel grateful to have access to paid leave and indignant that others do not. New families benefit when they are able to spend time together without worrying about losing their jobs or foregoing months of income.
We should all be so lucky.