Parental Leave: The Time for Change Was Yesterday

In the U.S., one in four women return to work just two weeks after delivery. The fact this is happening in 2022 is embarrassing. It’s time to prioritize paid parental leave.  

paid leave
Longer maternity leave leads to greater health benefits for both mother and baby. (Napoleon Cole / Flickr)

When DeMar DeRozan was named a starter for the NBA All Star Game last month, it was a huge honor for Chicagoans. But would he have been just as successful if he needed to return to work two weeks after delivering a newborn, like women are expected to after maternity leave?  

Today women in the U.S. are forced to choose between balancing the physical needs of their recovering bodies, emotional needs of being a new mother and the financial needs of returning to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, exists; however, only 60 percent of the U.S. workforce is covered under this act. And among those covered, it depends on the parent being able to afford to take unpaid leave.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 26 percent of women in government jobs and 23 percent of private or civilian jobs had access to paid maternity leave, with one in four women returning to work two weeks after delivery. The fact that this is happening in 2022 is embarrassing. It’s time for the United States to prioritize paid paternal leave.  

Longer maternity leave leads to greater health benefits for both mother and baby. A report from the University of Michigan showed severe postpartum complications tend to occur between six weeks and one year after birth—meaning many women are back at work when their risk of complications are highest. Recent research suggests longer maternity leaves may benefit infant health and development. Children whose mothers take longer leaves have been found to have lower mortality rates and higher standardized test scores. Paid family leave improves vaccination rates, promotes breastfeeding and health in infants, and is strongly associated with reduced infant and post-neonatal mortality rates. Researchers conservatively estimate that providing 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave in the United States would result in nearly 600 fewer infant and post-neonatal deaths per year.

Researchers conservatively estimate that providing 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave in the United States would result in nearly 600 fewer infant and post-neonatal deaths per year.

Given these tremendous and obvious benefits, it is humiliating that the United States lags behind other countries in prioritizing families.

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Sweden offers 16 months of paid parental leave. (Pxfuel / Creative Commons)

The United States is the only one of the 41 nations that make up the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) to not have access to mandatory paid maternity leave, making it among the most limited and restricted countries on maternity leave policy.

European countries lead in this arena, with Sweden offering 16 months of paid parental leave. In Finland, after about nine months of paid leave the mother or father can take (or split) additional paid “childcare leave” until the child’s third birthday! Closer to home, we have Canada offering between 35 to 61 weeks of partially paid maternity leave. The United States is far behind in supporting working people and their families. America’s focus on the free market and capitalism seems to compound the problem for some. 

Opponents of a federal paid leave policy argue businesses should get to decide what benefits they offer, and people can choose what businesses they want to work at. Unfortunately, only a small portion of American workers have access to this benefit. People from all walks of life are worthy of having the right to take care of themselves and their families, regardless of their position or pay grade. Similarly, a business looking to cut corners will not voluntarily provide a benefit that cuts from its profit line. Some decisions and priorities must be mandated to maintain a safe, fair and equitable working environment. 

Others argue prolonged leave could have a negative impact on productivity and impact coworkers and customers. Nordic countries have addressed this issue by using temporary workers. Some women choose to return to work soon after having their baby, due to concerns about career advancement. There can be no one-size fits all approach to maternity leave. Some women may wish to have more time to spend with their child, and others may not.  As a nation, we must prioritize flexibility by allowing families to choose, based on their unique situation, what is best for their well-being.  

Federal mandates that allow every woman paid maternity leave of at least six to eight weeks must come with support from federal incentives or money for employers, so that women employees and their reimbursement doesn’t suffer because of government mandates. Taking care of mothers, who make up 57 percent of our workforce, is the first step towards a safer and healthier tomorrow. We must all reach out to our legislators to guarantee this protection of women and parents in our country. Let’s allow the future DeMar DeRozans of every field a full chance to rest, then get back in the game and shine.

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About

Dr. Sara Mirza is a pulmonary and critical care physician at Rush University Medical Center. She is also a wife, mother and caregiver. This year she is serving as a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.