In the U.S., around 4 million babies are born each year. After 40 weeks of pregnancy and hours of labor, instead of taking time to heal their bodies and bond with their newborns, women are too often forced back to work.
In 1993, the Family Medical Leave Act passed, granting up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members, like after the birth of a child. However, this only applies to workers at companies with over 50 employees, and you have to have worked there for at least one year. This leaves over 40 percent of U.S. laborers unable to meet the requirements. And even if they do, many can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
Out of the 180 largest industrialized countries, the U.S. is one of just two nations that don’t mandate any amount of paid maternity leave.
Why should we?
The benefits of a mother staying home with her newborn baby are numerous.
In addition to giving women economic and job security, it can save lives. Studies have found that paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by 10% and increase the likelihood of infants getting vaccinations by over 20%.
Last year, researchers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study finding that women who received 12 or more weeks of paid maternity leave were more likely to initiate breastfeeding and keep breastfeeding for 6 months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, compared to those without paid leave.
Another study found that women with over 12 weeks of maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression and an improvement to their overall mental health.
Fewer than eight weeks of paid leave has been found to result in an increased likelihood of symptoms of depression.
So, why not U.S.?
The U.S. is often thought of as one of the most advanced nations in the world. So, how did we fall so far behind in maternity leave?
Some sociologists speculate that this divide occurred after World War II. When the war ended, European soldiers went home to decimated towns that were going to require a lot of man (and woman) power to rebuild, while the mass casualties led to the desire to repopulate. On the other hand, in the U.S., soldiers simply returned to their jobs, sending the women who took their place during the war back to their homes to care for the children.
This stark difference led to the development of maternal workplace policy in Europe, but not in the U.S.
The culture in the U.S. may also be playing a role. Political scientists theorize that Americans think differently about class divides than other countries. In the land of the “American Dream,” we often consider where we want be instead of where we are, leading to more sympathy for businesses. Many Americans therefore prefer less government regulation and believe that mandated paid leave is not only unnecessary, but could one day hinder their business when they join the corporate elite.
Instead of a blanket requirement from the government, some suggest that we let each business figure out what works best for them. However, while some larger companies like Microsoft and Google offer paid parental leave, most smaller companies do not.
In total, only 12% of U.S. workers in the private sector are given paid family leave by their employer.
Which brings us to perhaps the most recognized reason as to why the U.S. does not regulate paid maternity leave: the impact on businesses.
Does paid maternity leave hurt business?
Many believe that providing women with paid maternity leave will hinder work productivity and ultimately reduce profit. If you are paying someone to stay at home for long periods of time while also having to redistribute their workload, business will suffer, right?
It turns out this is not necessarily true. Experts have found that offering paid maternity leave can actually boost the economic growth of a country by letting them compete with their full workforce instead of just the men. By giving mothers job security, women would no longer have to choose between working and raising a family, a decision made all the more impossible for women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Research also shows that paid maternity leave benefits businesses by encouraging employees to return to their jobs after a pregnancy instead of dropping out altogether.
Allowing maternity leave is not just ideal for businesses, who save on the costs of hiring and training replacements, but it also bolsters the economy by keeping fewer women out of the work force.
Recognizing this, several states in the U.S. have taken it upon themselves to mandate partial paid parental leave, including New Jersey, Rhode Island and California. In 2016, San Francisco took the state’s laws a step further and became the first city to mandate fully paid family leave for up to six weeks.
So, if you are or planning to become pregnant or adopt a child, check your state and city laws, as well as those of your employer, to determine how much paid maternity leave you have available and how to use it.
Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.