Above, from “Stretched”: That’s a 3-week baby she’s driving to day care.
Have you seen the new NPR series, “Stretched”?
The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have a national maternity/paternity leave policy. “Stretched” explores the effects these policies have on nations and families, and, specifically, the consequences to American families who lack new family leave.
A new entitlement program can be a hard sell in the U.S., which strongly values freedom for individuals and businesses and often distrusts government regulation. We’ve seen that in recent decades in the struggle to create an entitlement to health care. It’s also true that American families are finding ways to manage without it.
Even so, the world is changing, our knowledge is evolving, and all signs point to Americans wanting to change with the times. It’s time for America to create a new family leave policy.
“It’s Too Expensive” Is a Value Judgment, Not a Fact.
When pressed, some policy makers base their objection to paid new family leave on a belief that it would be too expensive.
Putting aside the fact that state policies in California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – not to mention the rest of the developed world – are proving that it can be done with a net benefit to the economy, I want to ask a more fundamental question: What is the economy for?
Do people exist for benefit of the economy? Or does the economy exist for the benefit of people?
The expense argument puts the economy ahead of families. I think when we recognize that, we immediately see that that is not in alignment with our true values. If families fail to thrive, America withers. When they flourish, America grows. As a society, we have a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of every family. What we value, we support. Even if it’s “expensive,” we find a way.
The Science of Flourishing
In recent decades, science (physiological and social) has developed its understanding of how mothers and infants thrive. Our policies should reflect these understandings:
The newborn is vulnerable. All newborn care is not created equal. Infants thrive on continual contact with the parents, who are known to him from before the moment of birth. Newborns also thrive with frequent breastfeeding, which has short- and long-term health benefits for the child and therefore the parents and therefore society.
New mothers are vulnerable. Pregnancy and birth push the mother’s body to its limits. Before she’s even had time to recover, the needs of the newborn push an already stressed mother even further. The good news, as I’ve written in “The Physiology of Postpartum Thriving,” is that continual contact with the infant and frequent breastfeeding also help the mother to thrive. They are associated with better rest, greater satisfaction with caregiving, and lower rates of postpartum depression.
The new family is vulnerable. New parenthood can be a stressful time for couples. (See my article, “The Right Way to Fight With Your Spouse,” for proven tips on re-building intimacy with your partner). Shared childcare responsibility, made possible by new family leave policies that benefit fathers as well as mothers, increases empathy between parents and for the child. Shared financial responsibility, facilitated by paid family leave, increases respect and equality between parents.
New Family Leave Would Benefit 61% of American Families.
After World War II, when Europe was rebuilding and needed women in the work force, it began crafting maternity leave policies. American women, by contrast, left the war mobilization factories and returned home, and there was no need for new family leave policies.
Nowadays, most – 61%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – American families rely on incomes from both parents. Parents save up vacation and sick days, they save up money, but when new family leave is unpaid, they take less of it than is optimal for the wellbeing of both the child and the parents. Employers can end up paying for this short-changing in loss of employee productivity, poor morale, and, often loss of female participation in the work force, according to Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute.
We can do better.
Because I am progressive, not conservative, I believe in doing better, in growing and changing with the times. Life in the United States is much different from what it was the 1940’s, when the United States was choosing not to create a new family leave policy as Europe was. We also know more about the physiology of infants and new mothers than we did then, and we expect to thrive, not just to survive. It is time for the U.S. to make this crucial investment in its new families and create a maternity/paternity leave policy.
P.S. Since I posted this blog, two more excellent segments were published. Please check out the latest on what the military is offering service members, and what a pediatrician thinks of paid parental leave.