The United States’ Lackluster Maternity Leave Policy

Let's take a look at how the United States ranks among the world’s maternity leave policies. Spoiler alert, it’s at the bottom.

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When it came to maternity leave, I was grateful my company supported me staying home with baby. While my time was unpaid, my husband and I prepared for that immediately after finding out I was pregnant and I ended up staying home with our little girl for nearly 12 weeks. My husband, who works for a major retail chain, was also encouraged to take advantage of the company’s paid paternity leave and was even told to use some additional vacation time which ended up giving us eight full weeks of family together time to bond and learn how to be parents. It was a crazy, but amazing time and I was so grateful we were all together for every moment.

Our experience is not common. While I was pregnant I heard mother after mother share how they had to return to work the week after giving birth because either they couldn’t afford to take the time off or their company did not support any form of maternity leave. I even heard from women whose bosses or coworkers made them feel guilty for taking time, as if being pregnant was nothing more than an inconvenience to the workplace or an excuse to take time off. WTF?! Paternity leave also seems to be pretty nonexistent because most people were shocked when they heard my husband would be staying home.

This got me thinking…. Is the prevalent lack of maternity leave in the United States common in other industrialized countries? Turns out that while the US seems to be a leader in the world on many benchmarks, we don’t even come close to the top ten countries for paid maternity leave or length of offered maternity leave. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world without paid leave which, frankly, is embarrassing.

Bulgaria, for example, has the longest maternity leave period of 58.6 weeks, which is 410 days. Yep, that is OVER a year of maternity leave. The leave is paid at 90% of the mama’s typical income. Countries with 100% paid maternity leave include Mexico (12 weeks), Poland (20 weeks), Croatia (30 weeks), and Spain (16 weeks). BRB moving to Bulgaria…or Spain…or Poland.

These Countries run the gamut in size, economies, you name it. Sure, is government-funded maternity leave a complex issue? Absolutely. Is it something we can snap our fingers and change overnight? Sadly, no, but the longer we wait and continue to build an economy and culture glaringly lacking sound parental leave policies the harder it is going to be!

Other countries with notable maternity leave policies are the United Kingdom (39 weeks), Greece (43 weeks), Italy (21 weeks), and Ireland (26 weeks). Many of these countries also offer an option to request an extension either prior to baby’s arrival or at the end of the typical leave time. An extension!

On the other hand, the United States requires zero weeks and zero payment for mothers on maternity leave. Yes, we do have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which requires businesses of 50 or more employees to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, this is hardly a glowing option. Many companies and employees don’t meet the requirements of FMLA, making it a moot point for families who work at small businesses or can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

And just to drive home the point for the lawmakers and company executives in the back, the United States is one of only several countries in the world that does not offer some form of paid maternity leave. Papua New Guinea, Suriname in South America, and a few island nations are on that list with us.

So why does it matter? I may be preaching to the choir, but the weeks following a baby’s birth are crucial to the health and development of the baby, not to mention giving mama time to heal from the amazing (and sometimes traumatic) experience of childbirth. It also supports the bonding time between parents and baby! Let’s not even get started on the mental health ramifications of turning over your baby at just a couple weeks old to a potential stranger at even the most amazing childcare facility—you feel it in your bones that neither you nor baby are ready. How in the world are you supposed to be 100% in the workplace when your mind (and heart) are with your baby?

It isn’t all bad news, though. Recently, more and more lawmakers are starting to acknowledge the importance of taking up the issue of parental leave and companies are starting to wake up and see it is a key factor in employee satisfaction and retention. Starting October 1, 2020 the Family Leave and Medical Act was amended to allow Federal employees up to 12 weeks of parental leave- including for fostering and adoptions! This is awesome… IF you’re one of the 2 million or so individuals (as reported in 2019) that fall into this category. However, for the 329 million people in the United States that aren’t on the nation’s payroll, we’re left to simply “figure it out”.

I think it’s safe to say it’s time (and likely very overdue) for lawmakers to get behind what the majority of Americans support—guaranteed, paid maternity leave! Parental leave should not be a luxury reserved for the privileged, or something that families need to go into emergency savings mode for to ensure they have enough to cover the unpaid leave offered by FMLA. 

Wondering what you can do to be part of this much needed change? Call your local legislators and State Representatives and ask them where they stand on parental leave. If this isn’t an issue that is important to them, share what it means to you and your family. Your community. Their constituents. You can also get involved with national advocacy groups that support the cause such as MomsRising’s Workplace Justice Campaign or PL+Us, which advocates for paid family and medical leave.

However you support the cause, make sure your voice is heard.

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