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Girls & Women

It’s a boy! Now back to work

I recently visited my sister in Sydney, where she is on maternity leave after the birth of my new niece. She had her baby in February, and she’s planning to be off work until November – nine months.

It’s the same timeline she followed after her first child, my nephew, two years ago. Watching her – balancing breastfeeding, diaper changing, a new baby who sleeps only sporadically, and a toddler who has a strong affinity for the word “no” – made me wonder how she does it, even with a supportive husband and paid time off.

Australian workers are entitled to 12 months of unpaid parental leave when they have a child. The “primary caregiver” also receives up to 18 weeks of leave paid by the government at the national minimum wage rate (which, for the record, is about $17 an hour). The secondary caregiver can get two weeks paid leave. All this is on top of any parental leave policy offered by an employer.

Here in the United States, workers get, wait for it … zero weeks of paid time off at the birth of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act does provide some workers – full time, salaried, and employed for more than a year at a company with more than 50 workers – up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. So there’s that. But the thought of taking three months off work without pay, particularly around the birth of an expensive, demanding new family member, is slightly insane to many.

In fact, the US is one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t provide any paid time off at the birth of a child. The only other member of this illustrious club is Papua New Guinea.

“But don’t companies provide this benefit to workers?” you ask. Some do, but the effect is negligible. The Atlantic pointed out last year that only 11 percent of Americans employed in the private sector have access to some type of paid family leave.

American businesses and politicians are quick to shout about how much they love moms. As John Oliver hilariously pointed out this Mother’s Day, selling special pink cakes and t-shirts to honor mom feels pretty hollow when most companies neglect to give parents some time with a new addition to their family.

Some companies are improving their policies. This month, Johnson & Johnson added eight weeks to its previous parental leave policy. The change means moms who give birth can take up to 17 weeks of paid leave, while dads, adoptive parents and same-sex couples can take up to nine weeks off. Last fall, Change.org extended its leave policy to 18 weeks for all new parents – moms, dads, adoptive, or otherwise.

These improvements at companies are a step in the right direction, but they are nowhere near adequate. The birth of a child is a major medical event that requires time to recover. But the time around a baby’s birth is important for lots of other reasons. Breastfeeding a baby reduces the risk of all sorts of issues, including respiratory infections and allergies, while promoting the baby’s development. Breastfeeding also takes time – new mothers need to feed their baby up to 12 times a day, making a 9-hour shift at the office a bit of a challenge (particularly with little onsite daycare available, which is another issue altogether). Bonding with a new baby is important for everyone in the family, dads included.

The health of new mothers, their babies, and all families is important to our whole society. Companies lose valuable employees when mothers opt out of working due to inflexible family policies in the workplace. A recent report from PBS shows that paid family leave is good for business too, leading more moms to go back to work when they receive this benefit. And all those babies? They grow up to be the new workforce. Maybe it’s time we start acting like they matter with our family leave policies. Until then, maybe I'll just make plans to have my babies in Australia.