Friday, January 16, 2015

Maternity Leave and Federal Priorities

If you want a hint about how federal priorities are set, just take a look at parental leave.

Plow through this report from the United Nation's International Labor Office and you'll learn of the 185 developed countries in the world, the US is one of only two with no federally mandated paid maternity leave. (The other one, I think, is New Guinea) *

Iran, Georgia, Germany, and Mongolia all mandate a better maternity leave arrangement than the US. Estonia and Finland once again kick our red,white and blue posteriors. Within the US, only five states pick up the slack.

But on the federal level, the best we can do is mandate that if you work for a company with more than fifty employees, they must give you time off without pay. Because if there is one time in life when someone is in a good place to give up income, it's when they have a new baby.

I bring up maternity leave because we are, on the federal level, so very deeply concerned about the little people these days. On the federal level we've been pushing for lots of testing and plenty of school oversight because Arne Duncan wants to be able to look a seven-year-old in the eyes and tell him he's on the right path to college.

And we have been plugging the living daylights out of pre-school and how much the little children need that great start in life and high-quality schooling to get them started out well. The feds are working hard on that cradle to career pipeline, so why are they not more interested in doing something about the cradle end of it?

President Obama famously said that no woman should have to choose between being a mother and going to work, and you would think that could lead straight into a discussion of mandated paid maternity leave to make that choice unnecessary. The next sentence should have been, "So let's make sure that young families just bringing home a precious, vulnerable newborn don't have to worry about the support of that infant taking a huge financial chunk out of their lives. Let's give every young mother a financial cushion so that she can have twelve or fourteen weeks to get her family off to a healthy start." That should have been the next sentence. Instead, the next sentence was, "So let’s make this happen: By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool, and let’s make sure that we are making America stronger.”

So why all this emphasis on pre-school as a way of catching up with the world when there is a child-care are in which we clearly lag-- providing a federal mandate that mothers can afford to stay home for the critical launch of their children?

I suppose it could be that we don't take maternity leave seriously as a culture. Time has a fairly awesome piece by Belinda Luscombe -- "Please Stop Acting as if Maternity Leave is a Vacation"-- which addresses this beautifully.

If it helps, think of family leave not as a vacation, but as a job swap. The new parents are swapping the jobs they know for shift work in an excrement-making factory with a co-worker who cannot communicate except by weeping or kicking. Plus, the shift never ends. And the chances of promotion are zero.

Sadly, I don't think it's an attitude problem. I suspect it is simpler and sadder than that.

The launching of nationally mandated and funded pre-K (complete with testing to check for that high-qualitiness) will make a bunch of corporations a ton of money. Paid maternity leave would cost corporations a ton of money. The Pre-K initiative will divert a ton of tax dollars into corporate pockets. Paid maternity leave would divert corporate dollars into the pockets of moms. Guess which way the lobbying wind blows on these issues.

If we really, really cared about getting babies a great start in life, and if we really worried about lagging behind the world in things that matter, we'd be pushing for federally mandated paid maternity leave like crazy. Instead, we use concern about children and our international standing as excuses to direct a lot of money to corporate interests. It's just one more of those little things that leads me to conclude that when the feds talk about Our Children, I shouldn't take them seriously.

*We should totally be talking about paternity leave as well, but the US is not exactly alone in failing to recognize the importance of the father in the early weeks, so I'm going to stick to maternity leave  in this piece.


  1. The launching of nationally mandated and funded pre-K (complete with testing to check for that high-qualitiness) will make a bunch of corporations a ton of money.

    You got it.

  2. I have cousins in mouth just dropped when I found out that they got to stay home with their babies for a whole year - with pay.