Family Values Are Fiction: Uncle Sam’s Piss-Poor Treatment of Mothers

What is the value of motherhood in America? The question feels particularly prescient this year, which happens to be the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act – the first piece of legislation President Clinton signed in 1993.

But the passing of the bill, which was nearly a decade in the making and buttressed with bipartisan support, was a baby step that felt more like an embryonic kick.

The first version of the bill was brought to the House in 1984 by Howard Berman (D-CA) and Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) providing eighteen weeks of job-protected leave for birth, adoption, or a child’s serious illness. And the Yale Bush Center Advisory Committee on Infant Care Leave advised 75 percent of salary for three months for a birth or adoption. Yet these benefits are still a far cry from the 2008 International Labor Organization’s stipulation of fourteen weeks of paid maternity leave, which brings to the fore a stark contrast between FMLA and the policies of every other industrialized nation other than the United States.

A quick glance at the map above reveals that the U.S. lags behind even Pakistan, Iran, and Ethiopia when it comes to laws that better protect new mothers.

Currently, thirty-seven industrialized countries provide at least partial pay for eighteen weeks, with job protection, and two-thirds of these give paid paternity leave as well as optional parental leave to be taken by either parent. Twenty-two of the aforementioned countries allow for a total leave of six months to two years (or more); averaging fourteen months.

Our nation’s FMLA policy has other weaknesses as well. Let’s start with the fact that it neglects to cover 40 percent of American workers. Here’s why:

  • If your business employs less than fifty people living within seventy-five miles, you’re not covered.
  • If you have worked fewer than twelve months with your current employer, you’re not covered.
  • If you haven’t yet made your 1,250 hours over the past twelve months, you’re not covered.

But the real injustice is that even for those who have actually meet all the aforementioned requirements, it is the poorest people, with the least secure job positions who cannot take advantage of an unpaid job protection law even when they’ve earned it — in short, they cannot afford not to work.

So, it bears asking, what is the purpose of paid care leave? According to Edward Zigler, Susan Muenchow, and Christopher J. Ruhm, authors of Time Off With Baby: The Case for Paid Care Leave:

 “The Primary motivations for providing rights to parental leave are to more easily balance the competing demands of work and child rearing, to enhance the labor market position of women, and to improve child health and development.”

The countries Zigler, Muenchow, and Ruhm reviewed in Europe and Canada offer a minimum of three to four months of paid leave; often at least six months and as much as a year or more of paid time; frequent rights to additional unpaid leave with job protection; and benefits that can be split between mothers and fathers — often giving additional time to fathers who take a minimum of two weeks off. And these policies have significant beneficial impact on children and families.

For the most part, parents took the full available allotment, with women especially taking advantage of benefits and fathers taking more when policies encouraged leave. This suggests that these approaches ameliorate the challenges of work-family balance.

Brief maternal leaves and intermediate-duration maternal leaves have proven to have positive effects on women — both at home and in the workforce. Nations that offer such leaves show increases in female employment and reemployment after giving birth and either no effect or small positive effects on women’s wages. Danish researchers even documented an increase in women’s wages when leave time was raised from fourteen to twenty weeks.

Research showed child health benefits including reductions in infant and baby mortality, especially from two to twelve months when parent involvement is most crucial, though education was not affected in some of these studies. However, it is especially in the developmental arenas of psychological well-being, relationship-building, communication, self-reliance, and recently highlighted qualities like resilience, that children thrive due to parental closeness, attention, attachment and love in the early months.

In contrast, research in Norway found that when paid-care leave was, increased from twelve to eighteen weeks, there were educational benefits, especially for girls and the children of less educated parents. This suggests that the increased bonding and support time in emotional care contributed to the children’s ability to learn.

The research proves clearly proves that the goals of paid-parental leave are accomplished with these policies: families better manage the most intense period of child-rearing, women fare better in the workforce, and children get a better start in life. It’s just that simple.

The indisputable fact that American families increasingly face is that both parents must work, and that’s not likely to change soon. In fact, American businesses and our overall economy also see benefits when ties to the workplace are strengthened and children’s earliest needs are met, putting them on the road to success in life. In fact, economists estimate that for each dollar invested on quality care for children up to three years of age, societies see a $4 to $17 rate-of-return in health, education, productivity, and overall community well-being.

So the only question left to answer is, who gets access to protections for family life, working women, and providing children with a healthy start? If only the well-enough-off can take advantage of a policy, is it righteous?

So what is the gift of parenthood and what does it mean? It’s as simple as being there for your children: in body, mind, and spirit. But the Family and Medical Leave Act does not offer the same rights to families, women or children in the most vulnerable classes, or 40 percent of Americans who happen to fall between the criterion cracks.

It’s been twenty years since FMLA became law, but Hillary Clinton, an early advocate for paid leave, has not forgotten what it failed to accomplish. Clinton and her fellow Democrats are currently reigniting the fight to make this gift a right — for every American. Happy Mother’s Day, America; to give the gift, click here and sign with Hillary.

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