Welcome to 2016, a Presidential Election year. Over the next 11 months, we’ll get a chance to vet candidates for their views on everything from the environment to foreign policy. Expect to hear the words paid family leave a few times. In 2015, family leave, particularly paid leave for mothers after childbirth, was flung into the spotlight when companies like Facebook and Spotify announced generous paid parental leave policies that included fathers, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took two months of paid leave when he and wife Priscilla welcomed their first child. In contrast, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer revealed she and her husband were expecting identical twins and planned to take limited time away from work and work throughout, despite having access to paid leave. True to her word, she did, announcing the birth of her twin daughters a mere hours after announcing plans to spinoff Yahoo’s Internet business.
Where Does the US Stack Up?
Passed in 1993, the Family Medical Leave Act allows employees of covered employers to take job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons, including the birth of a child, with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. The leave is unpaid and only covers about 60 percent of employees. The US is one of the only developed countries that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave for its workers at the federal level. Three states and Washington, D.C. have paid leave policies: New Jersey, Rhode Island and California. On average, new mothers in the US receive 0-5 weeks of paid leave, and 25 percent return to work in less than two weeks. Countries like Austria, Belgium, Canada, France and Denmark average 15-20 weeks of leave in which the new mother receives 55-100 percent of her usual paycheck.
There’s a fear on the other side of the debate that giving paid family medical leave will have a negative impact on businesses and the economy. Being an employee down for an extended period of time adds more work to other employees, and time and money will need to be spent on training a temporary replacement. Research shows in the long run, it can be beneficial.
A 2012 study done by Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University found that women who use paid leave are more likely to be working 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth than those who do not take any leave.
“We’ve been focused on a culture of rugged individualism,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director/CEO & co-founder of MomsRising. “When we look at that and we look at our families we see that it’s hurting us to not [have paid family leave] in place.”
That doesn’t mean some companies, primarily in tech, aren’t trying to break the mold. In November, Spotify announced it would offer all full-time employees, regardless of gender, six months of paid leave at their full pay. The leave can be taken all at once or in increments up until the child turns three. Facebook extended the company’s four-month paid leave policy to all employees. Even the public sector is making improvements. Non-union employees of the City of New York started the new year with a new family leave policy. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December that NYC would double the length of paid parental leave to six weeks for mothers, fathers and adoptive and foster parents.
As a newborn learns to sleep through the night and develops patterns, it can mean sleepless nights for parents. Those patterns often aren’t fully developed after a few weeks, and even if one child was an easy baby who rarely cried, the next might have more difficulty. Going back after two months or, more likely less, can be physically difficult.
“Depending on what you do, you’re probably less effective at your job simply from the sleep deprivation…is it right to go back at that time? Personally, I think a longer period of time should be granted to women,” said David Garry, an OBGYN who practices in the Bronx and is affiliated with Stony Brook University Hospital.
Having paid leave at all has shown to be healthier for the newborn as well. A 2005 study by Sakiko Tanaka, “Parental Leave and Child Health Across OECD Countries,” found that infant mortality drops up to 25 percent with paid leave. Christopher J. Ruhm’s paper, “Parental Leave and Child Health” had similar findings in 1998.
“Parents need time to recover from childbirth, establish breastfeeding and to make sure the baby, mom and family can thrive,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said.
Amber Scorah lived through a nightmare when, on her first day back from three months of paid leave, her son died hours after she dropped him off at daycare. In a heart-wrenching op-ed she penned for the New York Times in November, Scorah wrote:
“If we truly valued the 47 percent of the work force who are women, and the value of our families, things would look different. Mothers could go back to work after taking time off to recover physically from birth and bond with their young children. Health care could be available to bridge that return to work so that our children could get their wellness checkups and vaccinations.”
Aside from physical needs, there’s an emotional aspect to leaving a child and going back to work after paid or unpaid leave ends. Balancing the responsibilities of being a parent, even if the child is not your first, and a work schedule isn’t a walk in the park, even if people make it look easy.
“There are women at so many levels, each of them has a different opinion on how to do it, but no one can walk in the shoes of another person,” said Dr. Marsha Tanenberg-Karant, MD, a Stony Brook-based psychiatrist affiliated with Stony Brook University Hospital. “You can’t tell someone who is heartbroken that they’re leaving their kid ‘everyone else does it.’ You can, but they’re still going to feel what they feel.”
Patients struggling to cope should speak with their OBGYN or call their insurance company for therapy referrals.
“Sometimes just talking to somebody will help a person understand that what they’re feeling is pretty normal,” Tanenberg-Karant said.
That’s not to say that it’s wrong if a woman, like Marissa Mayer, wants to return to work. For some, it’s a career and financial decision they’re happy with, particularly if they are the family breadwinners. In 2013, Pew Research Center released data that showed a record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income, up from just 11 percent in 1960.
“Part of it comes in the desire of women to exert themselves and what they can bring to society in the workplace,” Tanenberg-Karant said.
“Partially it’s because the way that society works and lately what’s on everybody’s tongue is that to be middle class in this country, people need dual income and sometimes several incomes, somebody working two jobs.”
When it comes down to it, it’s about choices. Mayer had and made one, and she also has access to nannies and other resources many parents can’t afford. Tanenberg-Karant has noticed that emotional issues from having to go back too soon after childbirth worsen when they feel forced.
“For the person who says they’re only going to take two weeks, for them, emotionally, it’s going to be ok because as they are feeling like that’s their choice,” she said. “Usually, it’s people with a helplessness and feeling out of control that leads them to not be able to make the best of things or a depression.”
Income often decides this. Only 13 percent of Americans have access to paid family leave through their employer, according to MomRising.org. With a new mouth to feed and without that once-reliable paycheck, parents may need to go back quickly.
“Right now we have a patchwork approach to paid family medical leave policies where you have to win the boss lottery to have access to paid family leave policy,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said.
It’s unfortunate, because mothers who take paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance and 40 percent less likely to receive food stamps in the year following a child’s birth than those who do not take any leave.
Netflix made a splash when it announced it would be offering employees 12 months of paid maternity or paternity leave but received backlash for not extending it across the board. Some employees, many of them hourly, get 12 weeks. Though still longer than two weeks of unpaid leave, Rowe-Finkbeiner sees it as problematic.
“The important thing about paid family medical leave is that it should be available to everybody so we want people to be able to choose what’s right for their family,” she said.
Giving families choices is at the center of the maternity leave debate. For MomsRising, it’s important to give women the opportunity to take leave without fearing financial repercussions. They’re pushing for a national paid family leave policy of 12 weeks.
“That’s just the starting point,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. She’d like to see it extend to mothers and fathers, saying she believes it will benefit families and also reduce the gender pay gap.
Garry thinks 12 weeks should be the minimum, but would like to see women have the option of taking up to six months.
“I think it allows you to better establish care of your child over time,” he said. “Your child is developing, and you can have a lot of input over that. I think it would help mothers be less stressed when they finally do return to work.”
As election season heats up, Rowe-Finkbeiner is hoping the call for action grows louder.
“Raise your voice on Twitter, by phone, on Facebook,” she said. “The voices of women, of men, of moms and of dads are incredibly powerful and what we’ve found is when we share our experiences with or without paid family leave, which pretty much everyone has an experience one way or another, with our elected leaders it has an impact.”