“Paid Maternity Leave: A Necessity for the United States”


Photo Credit: Thomas Breher from Pixabay

Newborns come with many sleepless nights, overwhelming messes, and many more tests for those who care for them. New babies cannot do anything for themselves, and are in need of constant care. Giving this necessary attention is a fulltime job, and it becomes challenging for families with working parents. It seems that the simple solution for this is to support the family by providing the mother with paid maternity leave. This paid leave allows the mother to recover from giving birth while also caring for the new baby. Most highly developed countries in the world offer new mothers paid maternity leave, however, the U.S. is an exception. Many American mothers are not guaranteed any kind of maternity leave at all, and a dismally low number are offered paid leave. Paid maternity leave 

benefits both the mother and infant emotionally and physically, therefore benefiting the family as a whole. This paid time off for new mothers can positively affect the establishments they work for, as well as the U.S. economy as a whole. Because of this wide range of benefits, all mothers in the U.S. should receive guaranteed paid maternity leave.

Currently, the only nation-wide law in the U.S. that guarantees new mothers any kind of maternity leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act, the FMLA. Fact Sheet #28 from the U.S. Department of Labor states that the FMLA entitles employees to up to 12 weeks of leave within a 12 month period for various reasons. According to the Department of Labor, people are only eligible for time off under this act if they have worked for the past twelve months at an establishment that employs fifty or more people, a government agency, or a school (public schools or private elementary/secondary). All of these factors result in an overwhelmingly large number of women not being protected by FMLA. Many part-time employees are not eligible for FMLA leave, as most do not work the required number of hours in a one year time frame. Caroline Fredrickson, President of the American Constitution Society and author of the book Under the Bus: How Working Women are being Run Over, reports that over forty percent of people who work for private companies are not eligible for FMLA leave (150).  FMLA leave is more beneficial for mothers than no leave, however it is not infallible; those who do take FMLA leave receive no pay. 

Raising a child is expensive, and in order to make ends meet, families are faced with many hard choices. Often, women find themselves forced to use all of their paid vacation and sick days during their maternity leave in order to make up for lost wages. This punishes these mothers in the long run; if a problem arises later on, they no longer have their personal sick days available to them. In order to stay financially stable, many women return to work before their leave is over, sometimes before receiving approval from a medical professional. This early return can have severe impacts on their health, as new mothers are at high risk for infection or injury.  It’s important for new mothers to stay healthy, as their newborns are fully dependent on them. American mothers lack the support they need to recover from labor and care for their children, and the negative effects of this can be seen in the mental health of new mothers.

Recovering from pregnancy and labor along with caring for a new child is a feat on its own, but the added stress of having unpaid leave has been proven to take an extra toll on new mothers. Paid maternity leave has shown significant, long-lasting benefits on the mental health of new mothers. This is understandable, as the stress of work is another weight on the shoulders of already overwhelmed mothers. Relieving this stress allows mothers to focus on taking care of themselves and their new baby. An article recently posted in Social Science and Medicine gives an analysis of the effects that different lengths of paid and unpaid maternity leave had on new mothers. This article reported that, as the length of paid maternity leave mothers received increased, they began to show significantly lower levels of psychological stress and depression. These benefits are especially significant when taking into account postpartum depression, which can be caused by the drastic changes in hormones that new mothers experience. Signs of postpartum depression include severe mood swings, trouble bonding with the infant, hopelessness, and fear of being an inadequate parent. In extreme cases, mothers suffering from postpartum depression may have thoughts of harming themselves or even their babies. In 2012, the CDC surveyed new mothers in twenty-seven U.S. states, and concluded that an average of 12% of new mothers suffered the effects of postpartum depression. Though postpartum depression is treatable, this study proves that paid maternity leave may be a preventative method to lessen the chance of it affecting mothers. Guaranteeing all new mothers paid maternity leave is a proactive and ethical approach to treatment of this serious psychological disorder, as opposed to therapy and medicinal treatment after the impacts of postpartum depression have already negatively affected the mothers’ lives. It is crucial for new mothers to be mentally healthy, not only so that they can properly heal and care for themselves, but because their well-being directly correlates to their baby’s.

Newborns may gain the most benefits as a result of paid maternity leave, including positive effects on their physical wellness, parental bond, and future health. One recent study published in Maternal and Child Health Journal documenting the benefits of paid maternity leave for infants and mothers in the U.S. reported that infants whose mothers received paid maternity leave had lower mortality rates and were more likely to be taken to routine medical appointments. When mothers are on paid maternity leave, they are able to give their baby as much care and attention as they need. This allows them to see changes and their baby’s health and seek immediate medical attention if necessary. New mothers are also able to take their babies to all of their scheduled medical appointments, allowing the mothers to bond with their infants and ask medical professionals any questions they may have. The first few check-ups a baby has are the most important, as it is when they receive many of their vaccinations. It is extremely important for infants to be vaccinated, especially in a time when many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children. Whether or not an infant is vaccinated affects their current and future health, as well as the health of all of the people they interact with. 

Many economically developed countries around the world have realized the paid maternity leave benefits all parties involved, and have created policies to guarantee it on a national level. The U.S. is a member of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of the OECD is to allow the governments of economically advanced countries to communicate about problems, successes, and concerns that have to do with their environments, economies, and social interactions. Currently, thirty-eight countries all around the world are members of the OECD. Of the thirty-eight countries, thirty-seven of them guarantee paid maternity leave, with varying pay rates and lengths of times, on a national level. The United States is the only member of the OECD that does not guarantee new mothers any kind of paid maternity leave. One of the main purposes of the OECD is to allow countries to see the effects of policies and laws in other countries. Other members have seen the benefits of paid maternity leave in other countries, and created their own policies inspired by these successes. The U.S. is the only country that has not made this ethical change. This may be due to many reasons, including a lack of education. People may not understand the importance of paid maternity leave. They may not know that it has both small and large scale benefits for the countries that have it. Accurately communicating information about paid maternity leave with people may help them to understand why they should support this cause and why it should be implemented in the United States. After all, education sparks change.

Paid maternity leave benefits all parties involved. It has been proven to positively affect new mothers’ mental and physical health, as well as infants’ present and future wellness. In addition, economies around the world have experienced financial benefits due to this paid leave. The U.S. needs to take all of these important factors into account when deciding future legislation. It’s crucial for the people of the United States to advocate for this change, and to take paid maternity into account when making decisions such as voting and supporting certain companies.  Implementing nation-wide paid maternity leave is one of the big steps the United States needs to take in order to become a more ethical, humanitarian country.