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“I’m so glad you talked about maternity leave,” an obviously pregnant young woman said to me as I was walking out the door after giving a speech to a group of federal employees, about my book, “The New Feminist Agenda.”
“When are you expecting?” I asked.
“Mid-October, or maybe earlier,” she replied.
“How much time can you take off?”
“Six weeks, altogether, using vacation time, comp time, and some of it without pay,” she explained with a worried expression on her face.
If she were living in any other country — except the United States, Papua New Guinea or Swaziland — she would have much less to worry about as an expectant mother. She would be able to take off for at least six weeks, often six months or even a year (in England) with paid maternity leave.
Even in Saudi Arabia, where women are arrested for getting behind the wheel of a car and putting their foot on the accelerator, the laws state that women can take time off with pay during the last 30 days of pregnancy and for several months after giving birth.
In the United States, women declared victory when the Family and Medical Leave Act was first signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It provides unpaid leave for women who work in companies of 50 or more employees.
What difference would paid family and medical leave make for women? The difference between six weeks and six months would mean that mothers could care for and bond with their newborns, have healthier babies, and be more likely to return to work. For their employers, it would mean they would be more likely to retain an expensively trained, valuable employee. Instead of Mom having to choose between quitting her job and caring for her baby, she could do both — keep her job and be a loving, caring parent.
If you stop to think, unpaid leave, an important first step, doesn’t work for most people. A new baby is a huge expense for every family. It is not a good time to give up a paycheck.
It’s time for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world and establish sensible policies that allow today’s families to bridge the divide between work and family. This is no longer a women’s issue alone. A new generation of dads wants to be more involved with raising their kids. They do not want to be Mr. Mom, they want to be engaged Mr. Dads. Some employers are granting paternity leave as well as maternity leave.
In addition to paid leave most working mothers tell me the key to achieving some form of work/life balance — never perfect — is workplace flexibility. That can mean anything from coming back from maternity leave to work a three-day week instead of a five-, to working at home, or getting an hour off to see a teacher or to take grandma to a doctor’s appointment.
Many employers provide flexibility and discover that it improves their bottom line by reducing turnover and increasing productivity. It is difficult to legislate flexibility, but two countries have done so: England and Australia. They have a “Right to Request” law that enables an employee to propose flexibility to her boss. The boss is not required to agree with her, but a plan must be negotiated. If they can’t find common ground, the difference is worked out by a tribunal. Only a small percentage of cases get to that stage. And, most important, the employee cannot be fired for requesting flexibility, which can happen in the United States.
Another essential support that working families need is access to affordable, quality child care. Many low-income women are forced to stay out of the workforce because they cannot afford or find good child care. Some discover that child care costs are the equivalent of making a mortgage payment or a paying a month’s rent.
Families at all income levels ask themselves, is putting my child into day care good or bad? The answer depends upon the quality of care. High-quality care can have a lifelong positive influence on a child’s mental and physical growth. Recent neuroscience studies show that the most critical time in a child’s development is ages 0 to 5, making quality of care critical.
New ammunition for quality child care and early education was revealed in two long-term studies of poor children who had high-quality child care at an early age. Forty years later, researchers discovered that as adults these children did better than their peers who were not put into child care. Success was not measured by test scores alone, but by non-cognitive skills, such as attention span, communication and eye contact. These children had lower incarceration rates, were more likely to be employed, and had more stable families.
Investment in child care is the best investment we could make to reduce child poverty, to enable more mothers to work, and to prepare the next generation to live productive lives. Most industrial countries have national child care policies, providing care not only for the indigent, but for all parents, often paid for on a sliding scale. One result of these investments is a significantly lower child poverty rate. One of the more embarrassing statistics in the United States today is that we have the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized country — 22 percent. In comparison, Sweden’s rate is 3 percent, and it is determined to lower it further.
What are some of the consequences of our lack of family/work policies? We’re writing off more than one-fifth of the next generation. These will be the adults who will be unable to enter the workforce because of lack of education and skills. Many women who could continue in the workforce as productive and valuable citizens are forced to drop out. The lack of sensible work/life policies is no longer a women’s issue, or even a family issue. It is a vital economic issue that will determine future competitiveness. The World Economic Forum has established a direct correlation between women in the workforce and a nation’s prosperity.
What are the obstacles blocking action on work/life policies in the private and public sector?
—The belief in individualism; if you have a child, it’s your responsibility alone, and the family is exclusively a private domain.
—The belief that it’s too expensive, both for businesses and the government to pay for these policies.
—Government should not tell businesses what to do and government itself should be downsized. What are the arguments in favor of enacting fair work/life policies?
—As a society, our most important responsibility is to assure that the next generation is educated, healthy, and prepared to live independent, productive lives.
—It is less expensive and more effective to invest in the early years of children’s development than to try to fix problems later on.
—The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action.
As I look back on my conversation with the pregnant woman who thanked me for talking about maternity leave, I realize she was grateful that I mentioned the issue at all. Women continue to think that if they can’t succeed in balancing work and family it is their fault; they are even afraid to talk about it.
It is time to begin a public conversation about work/life policies and why we don’t have them in the U.S. The question is: How can we change and enable working families to achieve what they want most — to be good parents and good providers? The answer starts at the grassroots level, where change begins.
Madeleine Kunin is author of “The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.” She is a former governor of Vermont and ambassador to Switzerland, and is now a professor at the University of Vermont.