A Plea for Paid Parental Leave
Iceland has it. Sweden has it.
Even China and Indonesia have it.
The United States, with all our advances, is one of only four countries (the others being Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and Lesotho) to not mandate paid parental leave for working mothers. The U.S. allows a new mother 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job security, but after that, she’s left to make a difficult choice: either dump her new baby in daycare or leave her job.
Compare that to Sweden: new parents, both mothers and fathers, are given 480 days of leave, 360 of which are fully paid. What’s more, two of those months are reserved exclusively for the father. As a result, Sweden has one of the lowest crime rates and is among the world’s happiest countries. The other advance Sweden boasts? Notoriously advanced gender equality.
This connection to the gender pay gap makes sense: the odds are already stacked against women in the workforce when compared to their male counterparts. What happens when the majority of those women choose to become mothers? What happens to their income and performance? To their child and their spouse?
Having a child is one of the worst decisions a working woman can make and the consequences hit hard.
Not only are women with children perceived as less competent or emotionally stable, they are less likely to be hired and enhance the national wage gap, dropping from a 96 cent-salary to the man’s dollar while childless to a 76 cent-salary as a mother. It’s known as the “motherhood penalty,” and for obvious reason.
What about new fathers? As more women are becoming breadwinners, more men are called to share in the burden of child-rearing. A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts confirms that men actually reap benefits in their salary from becoming fathers, while women suffer losses.
The differences are even more extreme among income differences: low-income new mothers suffer the greatest losses while high-income new fathers see improvements in their salaries and desirability.
It’s hard enough for women to be seen as equal counterparts in the workforce, and the decision to become a mother accentuates those difficulties.
The deeply-rooted gender roles of man as breadwinner and woman as caregiver still remain, and anticipation of childbirth is one of the main reasons women are regarded as “less competent” by employers, paid less, or declined positions in favor of men.
America needs to strike a balance that other countries have already mastered. We need a balance between the significant duty of raising a child and the maintenance of a successful career. Raising a child to be a fully-functioning and responsible adult (18 year-old) takes time, energy, stress, and lots of money (an average of $245,000, to be exact).
Being present in your child’s life is important, for fathers and mothers alike. Especially in early formative years, parents play a crucial role in the development of the child’s behavior and sense of security. Not to mention, new parents who are sleep deprived and overwhelmed are less likely to perform well behind the desk.
Taking a leave from work after the birth of a child simply makes sense. If only it was that easy. For working parents in America, this means also taking a break from your salary, a luxury that most cannot afford.
By mandating paid parental leave, even if that salary is reduced, new parents are able to focus on what’s really important: their child.
It’s not all about mom, either. Enforcing paid paternity leave is just as important. Fathers in Sweden, where paternity leave is not only extremely common, but mandated, men report having a better understanding of housework, childcare, and of developing a stronger bond with their child. Furthermore, sharing the parental leave between men and women eliminates employers’ fear of hiring women of childbearing age. If both men and women take time off for the birth of their child, neither side is disadvantaged. And so far, neither are businesses.
When employees take time off without worrying about their careers, they return with fresh motivation and ready to work hard.
Having a child is difficult and comes with physical, emotional, and financial strains on a family, in addition to that red-faced and screaming bundle wrapped in a hospital blanket. Mandating paid parental leave could be the help families need, while at the same time helping our country progress towards gender equality.
Let’s hear it for the babies.