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Paid Family Leave in America Is a Disgrace

But that might finally change


This week, as we cruise toward our annual cooked-out, flag-bedecked celebration of patriotic pride, I am perhaps perversely drawn to reflect a bit on one of the sources of our greatest national shame: the sorry state of our family leave policies.

As you may have heard, the United States, along with Oman and Papua New Guinea, are the only three developed nations to offer no paid maternity leave. When it comes to both paid family leave and unpaid but guaranteed time off after a baby, we trail not only family-friendly powerhouses like Sweden and Finland, but lag wayway behind Estonia, Hungary, South Korea, Slovenia, Mexico, and basically everywhere else on the planet.

The disgraceful nature of our leave policies looks even uglier when laid out beside the cultural and political discourse and legislation around the families and motherhood in the U.S. 

In recent years, social conservatives in the Republican and Tea Parties have committed themselves to radically reducing women’s abilities to do anything with their bodies and their lives other than have babies. Motherhood is the highest state of feminine possibility, they tell us; babies are the “lemonade” that can come from even violent crimes like rape. At a 2013 commencement address at Southern Virginia University, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney advised graduates to marry early and “have a quiver full of kids." 

The national obsession with motherhood and family isn’t the doing of Neanderthal pols alone. A similar obsession is evident in the nation’s crunchier climes, where women are urged to breastfeed for years, and where local bookstore shelves sag under the weight of volumes that instruct women on just about everything except how to continue to earn a living. There’s scant information about how to pay your rent while you’re still bleeding, having recently had a human being expelled from your body, or how to nourish your newborn on demand—from breast or bottle—while flipping burgers, restocking shelves, or attending the corporate retreat in Akron.

The mash-up of cultural messages about family values with the total lack of economic support for family realities lays bare the ugly and unjust social compact around which the country was designed: that there is one kind of American—the male kind—that is supposed to earn money for labor in the public sphere and there is one kind of American—the female kind—that is supposed to do the domestic labor of having and raising children for free; and those two types of Americans must be bound to each other in order to form a functional family unit. Women shouldn’t need workplace protections, because according to the way the country’s laws are designed, they should not be in workplaces in the first place.

For a long time, the stark systemic inequities created by these conditions bizarrely existed as one of the country’s social policy Voldemorts: the American injustices that must not be named, much less attacked head on. California passed landmark guaranteed paid leave legislation back in 2002, but instead of launching a nation-wide avalanche, scarcely a pebble was disturbed, until relatively recently, in 2008, when New Jersey enacted similar legislation and Rhode Island followed in 2013. Even in feminist circles, talking about actually doing something about paid leave was like voicing some radical, heretical proposition.

And to some very real degree, that treatment of the topic as a toxic third rail persists. In late June, on her book tour, international women’s issues steam-roller Hillary Clinton—the first First Lady in American history ever to have maintained a paid career separate from her husband’s political life, a woman who, for a long time, talked up her role in her husband’s crucial passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act—told a confused Christianne Amanpour that while paid maternity leave “should be” mandated federally, and while she was impressed by some state and local proposals, it wasn’t realistic to talk about a United States federal mandate now because, in Clinton’s words, “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now." 

She’s right about the political impracticality of passing a postage stamp, let alone paid leave legislation, in this dysfunctional congressional era. But we need to be direct and honest about the fact that it is crazy—absolutely banana-pants, looney-tunes, wackadoo crazy—that she’s right.

As much as conservatives might like to preserve the gendered dichotomies and dependency-relationships of our past, that past is over. Our world is post-feminist now, yes, with women working and earning in the world and families—children, partners, parents, friends, and communities—depending on them. Married parenthood is no longer the only norm; single mothers—and fathers—can no longer simply assume that there is some other gendered half to pick up the paycheck or the kid from school. It’s also a world in which the acceptance of gay partnership, and with it gay parenthood, has sped up: Ever fewer of the two-parented households out there have both a woman and a man. Even in the old-fashioned married hetero unions, couples must depend on double-incomes. In 40 percent of households with young children, women are now the primary or only breadwinners. This is what America looks like, and it can’t afford to take unpaid leave. 

And so, perhaps because of the immensity of these social alterations, in some small quarters, there are beginning to be rumbles about all this. Maria Shriver’s Shriver Report has done excellent work of gathering data and blaring loud messages about the necessity of paid family leave, while smaller legal organizations, like New York’s A Better Balance, have been pushing and shoving and litigating for social policy changes aiming to level the economic playing field for families of all shapes and configurations and across all income levels. A Better Balance was one of the organizations that pushed hardest for a recent victory, the implementation of paid sick day legislation in New York State, which went into effect just this year.

On June 23, the White House hosted a summit on Working Families at which President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talked about their experiences as fathers: Biden as a single dad to two sons after the death of his first wife and daughter in a car crash, and Obama as an involved father (albeit one who was also absent for big pieces of his children’s early years, leaving Michelle to shoulder the difficult task of balancing). Talk like this, from men, is an absolutely critical part of deconstructing the gender-divide over family policy, and the summit is exactly the kind of acknowledgement of these issues—with Obama proclaiming openly that “family leave, childcare, flexibility and a decent wage aren't frills; they're basic needs”—that has been long missing from national discourse. In May, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged Congress to pass paid leave legislation, correctly observing that “too many of our policies are stuck in the Mad Men era.”

As others have noted, all the talk in the world is unlikely to shift reality in a Congress controlled by Republicans, but the fact that we’re talking about it, openly screaming about it, is good. Just last week, a writer in the conservative daily newspaper The New York Post composed a list of “Seven Things All American Mothers Should Want Right Now” and smack in the middle was “Paid Maternity Leave.” It may not sound like much, but it flooded me with surprised relief: We’re addressig it! And not just at think tanks or non-profits or amongst policy wonks. It’s in a major city tabloid run by Rupert Murdoch.

There was even a possibility, though one that went vastly under-covered, that New York State might pass its own paid leave legislation this spring. The proposition was for paid leave as a kind of insurance set-up, in which employees would contribute a tiny portion of their weekly paychecks—around 30 cents—in return for a 66 percent payment of their salaries (capped at $1000 a week) during a family leave. It was a solution that would have cost businesses nothing and provided paid leave for New Yorkers. Governor Cuomo did not sign it, but as A Better Balance’s Dina Bakst said confidently at a recent press event, “it’s teed up to happen next year.”

The press event was in support of a new book, by Bakst along with her Better Balance colleagues, Phoebe Taubman and Elizabeth Gedmark, called BabyGate: How to Survive Pregnancy & Parenting in the Workplace, which will be published in September by the Feminist Press. The book is the thing that has been missing from parenting libraries, a guide to rights and provisions for pregnant women and new parents, and includes a comprehensive guide to individual state laws and regulation around everything from caregiver discrimination, paid leave policy, and breastfeeding laws. (Spoiler alert: if you’re expecting a child, move to California, not to Mississippi.)

We’re nowhere near close on any of this. But particularly on a weekend on which we spend time celebrating the good things about the United States, we owe it to ourselves to be open about what’s not so good, and how we can move toward fixing it, not just for Fourth-of-Julys deep into our future, but soon, next year, now.

Image via Shutterstock.