The Hidden Reasons We Don’t Have Maternity Leave in the U.S.

Maternity leave is critical to a new family’s wellbeing, so why is the U.S. lagging so far behind?

Imagine you are about to have a baby (and maybe you actually are). You work full-time, and have a mortgage, car payments, insurance, bills, and on and on. If you live in the U.S. and you work a full time professional job, there is only a 12% chance you have paid maternity leave from your employer1.

The strain this places on new families is considerable. New moms must either quit their jobs and take a career hit, or go back to work when they should be with their new infant. It’s either that or Dad, takes the time off, but commonly these couples resort to putting their new baby in daycare. This separation has serious consequences for babies and new mothers. When it comes to breast-feeding, post-partum depression, and infant mortality, paid leave drastically reduces negative outcomes.

One recent study at McGill University in Montreal concluded that every additional month of paid parental leave equaled a 13% reduction in infant mortality2. The U.S. is ranked 180 in the world among 228 countries for infant deaths3 with 38 other industrialized nations like Spain, Ireland, Greece, and Hungary ranking below us4.

By contrast, residents in Denmark, France, Romania, and Turkey are legally entitled to around 15 weeks of leave, and in countries like Germany and Canada, parents get a collective year to divvy up however works for their families. Some of these countries also provide families with other services like housecleaning, therapy, and babysitting, all paid for through taxes5.

Why is the U.S. the richest nation in the world and the last hold out to legally require parental leave? Without exaggeration, we are one of three countries in the entire world4. There are some unexpected reasons.

WWII and the rise of paid parental leave in Europe. One of the hidden reasons that the practice proliferated throughout the world is that after the devastation of war, many countries’ populations were so depleted, new democratic economies were desperate for workers and more open to hiring women. In order to restore their numbers, they devised more friendly policies toward females in the workforce.

Conversely, the Second World War did the opposite here in the States. Men went off to fight and women flooded into manufacturing. When the war was over, Rosie the Riveter and her kin were pushed back into the home (much to their chagrin). The system had no incentive to make it easier for women to work.

Women in the workplace became a civil rights issue. It’s important to remember that in the U.S., women were systematically excluded from higher learning institutions and the professional world. Before 1920, six states had laws banning pregnant women and women who had just given birth from the workplace, so it was common for a woman to get fired if she became pregnant7.

Title VII laws passed in the 1960s and 70s, which made it illegal to discriminate based on sex when hiring, but the provisions setup for the modern worker made no special allowances in policies for pregnant women7.

Big business opposition. From the fledgling companies that became super-corporations, big businesses wield much of the lobbying power when it comes to legislating worker policies. Even recently, many big companies oppose maternity leave claiming it’s too expense, and hobbles their elasticity.

It’s basically not true, according to the data; in fact, economists suggest we are really shooting ourselves in the foot as far as the big picture. Yes, there is an initial cost to implementing these policies, but businesses quickly make up the lack. Companies that offer family-friendly policies like parental leave and flexible scheduling retain their employees at higher rates, reporting better productivity and increased worker satisfaction6.

As this next Presidential election approaches, there is more talk around the proverbial campfire about modernizing our national policies to make it easier for families to care for their children. Some cities have enacted their own policies and by putting pressure on local politicians, we can nudge the system in action. As parents, we need to do everything we can in terms of educating ourselves and making our voices heard so that our country enacts change to protect parents and, more importantly, their children.






About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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