Becoming a mother is painted as the most joyous moments in many women’s lives.
We claim to revere mothers and publicly support them by claiming they have the hardest job in the world. Yet, like many issues involving women, the support rings hollow. There are many ways in which we do not support mothers, and one of the most glaring is the lack of maternal leave in this country. The United States is the last industrialized nation in the world to not mandate paid maternity leave. The lack of policy results in an economic and physical toll to mothers and our communities as a whole.
Critics of paid maternal leave claim that it comes at too high a cost to small businesses. However, studies show the benefits of paid maternal leave far outweigh financial concerns. Access to maternal leave results in a reduction in infant mortality rates. There is an increase in the health of the infants and increase in vaccination-use. Women who take maternity leave are more likely to breastfeed than those that must return to work immediately after giving birth. A breastfed child experiences a decreased risk of asthma, obesity, and Sudden Infant Death syndrome. Mothers who breastfeed have decreased risks of various forms of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Additionally, there is an immediate decrease in the risk of depression in mothers that extends decades into their lives. These type of health benefits extend far past the lives and well-beings of the parent and child.
Aside from health benefits, there are economic benefits to maternal leave. Women who can access maternal leave are more likely to return to their employers.
This results in increased long-term earnings, which may help close the wage gap. A returning employee also saves businesses money in employee retention.
Leaves increase job moral and increases production at work. A woman who is able to return to work, rather than become unemployed to care for her child, is also less likely to access public benefits; this another long-term benefit for the U.S. taxpayer.
While some new parents are able to access 12 weeks unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) those twelve weeks are insufficient. First, it is primarily only workers in higher incomes that have access to FMLA or other type of leaves. This lack of access results in women of color, particularly Latinas, stranded as they are less likely to work in professions that offer this benefit. Domestic workers, for example, are excluded from FMLA benefits all together. Second, many people cannot afford to go without pay for three months. Latinas are already at an economic disadvantage. They earn less than average for all women in every level of education and are more likely to be working part-time, involuntarily, because they cannot access more hours. If FMLA is available, they are likely to forgo it.
It is easy to see maternal leave as a business issue, and even easier to believe when business owners claim they cannot afford to offer this benefit. Yet, by accepting that premise you are placing the well-being of a business over our mothers and sisters. A mandated, universal parental leave would allow a new mother to stay home with her child, reap the benefits of long-term leave, and return to work without impacting her career or earning potential. It would make a world of difference to most of the mothers we know.
Yet, by forcing a mother, whether she has a partner or not, to choose between her family or her job results in a zero-sum game.
A mother may return to work too early in order to support her family, which results in her and her child losing the benefits of an extended maternal leave. Or she may decide to stay home to care for her family and lose her job, her potential long-term earnings, and derail her career. It is an unfair predicament to place someone who we claim is embarking on the best and hardest job of all.
This month as we celebrate Mother’s Day and you acknowledge the mamas in your life–the ones who cared for you, fed you, taught you, and worked hard for you, the best gift for them is to determine whether we truly value their work. Do we, as a country, value healthy and happy families or do we continue to serve at the interest of big businesses that only value their bottom line?