Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Paid Parental Leave for All

by Christina DiGasbarro

In my life, I have only met two men who took paternity leave. I didn’t stop to think about that until this summer, when a family in my neighborhood had a second baby and the dad stayed home for 2 weeks. I wondered why taking paternity leave wasn’t more common.

So I decided to look it up. Then, I was terribly surprised to find that even paid maternity leave is not standard in the United States. Some women are lucky: they get paid during their maternity leave. But, many (perhaps most) women who do take maternity leave don’t get any sort of pay during the time they spend with their new babies. Even worse, many women have to use up their sick days and vacation days to patch together a maternity leave that’s still inadequate. And for so many women who need an uninterrupted income to make ends meet, taking maternity leave just isn’t an option.

How is this right? If a woman has a child, she ought to be able to take time off to care for her child and for herself. It’s no secret that childbirth is a difficult process, potentially riddled with dangerous complications; and Caesarian sections, which are becoming more common, require even longer rest and recovery periods. Even if a woman’s recovery is blessedly short, she’s still going to be waking up several times a night for the first several weeks to tend to the baby, and she’s still going to be exhausted on multiple levels. And it’s pretty hard for a woman to breastfeed her child if she’s at work and the baby is somewhere else. While it’s still each woman’s prerogative to feed her child as she sees fit, breastfeeding has benefits for both the woman and the baby: it’s better for the baby’s health, and women who breastfeed are less likely to develop certain cancers and other life-threatening diseases. A woman who wants to breastfeed ought to be able to do that. A woman who wants to devote some time to her family ought to be able to do that.

This is a fact: only women are actually capable of bearing children. If they choose to take on motherhood, we should respect that and not make it more difficult than it needs to be. Why in the world would we want to penalize women who have children, to deprive them of income, to force them to return to work before they’ve fully recovered physically and mentally, to deny them the potential long-term benefits of breastfeeding?

There are some companies—though precious few—in the United States that offer at least three months of paid maternity leave. We can also look at numerous other countries around the world that mandate at least three months’ worth of leave with 100% of wages paid*, such as: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, France, India, Togo, and dozens of others.

Let’s get with the times here; if all these countries can mandate paid maternity leave, let’s find a way to make it work here in the U.S.A. too. This isn’t to say we ought to require women to take maternity leave, or to take a certain number of weeks; it is to say they ought to have the option to take maternity leave without taking a hit to their wallets or their jobs.

Of course, we don’t insist that women are ‘more equal’ than men (unless we change our names to things like Snowball and Napoleon). So while we’re at it, let’s make paid paternity leave standard too.

It’s true that the fathers don’t go through labor, and they don’t derive any health benefits from breastfeeding (because they obviously can’t do that). But why should the mother solely bear the burden of caring for the infant both parents willed into the world? I don’t think it’s unfair to say men would like to spend time with their children, but right now, with very few men receiving paid paternity leave, it’s not economically feasible for most families for the fathers to take paternity leave; this is especially the case for families where the mothers aren’t receiving paid leave. However, if fathers received paid leave, it would enable them to involve themselves more in their children’s lives; it would relieve the burden that is too often placed squarely on the mothers’ shoulders.

And who could complain about that?

*If you don’t believe it, check it out here.


At October 29, 2008 at 5:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

More equal is exactly what it is. As you say, only women can get pregnant, and the fact of the matter is that the process of pregnancy forces the woman to take time off work, lose skills, and produce less in the future (absent doing a lot of catch-up.) We can complain about the theoretical inequality all we want, but until artificial wombs are invented those are the facts on the ground.

Adding paternity leave to that simply extends the subsidy all 'round, pushing to yet more entitlements and government regulations.

And think about this. As a feminist, do you really want to be subsidizing childbirth, perhaps the single greatest force keeping women from achieving equality in the workplace and public life? Sounds like a chauvinist position to me, encouraging women to return to age-old gender roles [that happen to be based in biology, but oh well].


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