The Devastating Toll of America's Lack of Paid Parental Leave

If you have a career, being a mother in this country costs you — in promotions and salary, and, because of a near total lack of legally mandated parental leave, in physical and emotional health as well. This is a well-known reality for every working mom I know, and now the international NGO Human Rights Watch has published a comprehensive look at the breadth and depth of the problem, and notes that it also has a negative impact on the economy.

The report, titled “Failing Its Families,” which can be read in its entirety here, says that the U.S. is one of just three countries in the world — alongside Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — that lack paid maternity leave.

The report continues:

I want both. So many of us do. Yet as things currently stand in many professions (certainly in journalism), it is not possible to have both at the same time.

I’ll never forget the time a well-known, well-meaning rabbi said to me, after a male former colleague had recently published his first piece in The New Yorker, “Why aren’t you writing for The New Yorker, Debra?” I responded that it was because I was having and raising children while I worked part-time. What I didn’t say was that my colleague (who is now even more successful) has a wife at home taking care of their children and home life.

When I had Boychik, 17 years ago, I was part of a union and so had two weeks off with pay (whoopee!) and up to six months off, in total, the rest without pay. I had done without any time off the three preceding years to bank vacation days. Spending those weeks with my newborn was precious time. When my youngest was born 10 years ago, I worked for a publication that had no paid parental leave. I took a single (unpaid) week off after Rockerchik arrived, though at least my editor allowed me to work from home for the next couple of weeks. Same thing when I fractured my ankle and needed surgery: though I couldn’t walk up the stairs, within a few days I was pushing myself up the stairs backwards on my tush to reach my home office. There was no paid time off and we needed the income.

This state of affairs is appalling, and I am relatively lucky. Stories related in the HRW report are heart-rending depictions of the impact of our nation’s lack of realistic policy on women who cope with serious injury because they must return to work quickly after giving birth. Those interviewed were also forced to quit breastfeeding early, and delayed immunizations and pediatrician visits for their babies because they could not take the time off from work.

It’s a real problem in Jewish organizations as well, as The Forward has reported here and here. Leaders fail to see the irony in their promotion of Jewish continuity while they don’t adequately support the needs of the people actually producing the continuity.

HRW’s report says:

And the economic repercussions of what HRW calls “meager work-family laws” resound far beyond the struggling individual families:

It goes on to say:

Though the well-being of mothers and children too often seems all too disposable to corporate and even non-profit leaders, that isn’t all that’s at stake. Growing our economy, along with doing everything possible to have healthy mothers and healthy children, depends on it.

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The Devastating Toll of America's Lack of Paid Parental Leave

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