When I was three months old, my mother’s maternity leave clock ran out and she was forced to go back into work. She received two months paid leave and used vacation days to get paid for another month. My mom was sad and worried to leave me, still an infant, at home with a babysitter. My dad made an email address under my name and sent her an email on her first day back at work saying “Hi mommy, I am okay!” to make her feel better.
What would have been more helpful than this email, however, would have been a longer maternity leave policy, as it would have eased her nerves if I was a little bit older, sleeping through the night and if she had a few more weeks to ease the exhaustion that comes with a newborn.
In the United States, mothers are allotted 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave if they meet the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) criteria, which includes “[having] worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.”
Compared to other countries, it’s clear that America is way behind in maternity leave policies. In Japan, both the mother and father get a year of paid leave, when they receive a percentage of their income, after their baby is born. “In Estonia, a new mother could receive more than a year and a half of paid leave, the highest in a grouping of 41 high- and middle-income countries, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center,” The Washington Post said. “That includes 140 days with a full salary for mothers, and 435 more paid days that a couple can split.”
Babies born in these countries already have an advantage on babies born in the United States. Longer maternity leave is more time mothers can spend with their baby, and babies need to play and spend time with their parents in order to properly develop. According to the NBER, “Recent research suggests that longer maternity leaves may benefit infant health and development – children whose mothers take longer leaves have been found to have lower mortality rates and higher test scores.”
One reason that forces many mothers to go back into the workforce is because most leave is unpaid, meaning they do not receive a steady paycheck to afford daily necessities. Parents can face financial hardships, especially when they have to support another family member and/or other children without an income. For this reason, not using their full leave may ensue since they must provide for their family financially.
“The [maternity leave] policy is beyond discriminatory. Although a woman can legally take six months off in many circumstances, few can afford to stay home for that long without money coming in,” Mrs. Porges said.
Another issue with United States maternity leave policies is breastfeeding. Over 80% of mothers choose to breastfeed their baby, meaning they need to be physically close with the baby in order to nourish them. The CDC reports that “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months with continued breastfeeding along with introducing appropriate complementary foods for one year or longer.” With FMLA maternity leave only three months, mothers have no choice but to either feed their baby an alternative, like formula, or pump milk to last the whole day once they are forced to head back into work.
“The US does not have much support for mothers. I would not have received any paid leave if I had not had personal days saved up. I think that new mothers should have a minimum of 12 weeks paid leave,” Mrs. Versteeg said. “Those first three months are hard and for a mother to be working and coming home exhausted having to take care of a baby who is probably not sleeping through the night yet is really hard. I remember sleeping at my desk during my lunch break often upon returning to work after only eight weeks with my second child because I had no more paid leave left.”
As a wealthy country, the United States should offer longer, paid maternity leave. At 12 weeks old, a baby doesn’t have the ability to talk, eat solid food or even sit up. Parents, especially a first-time mother, shouldn’t have to worry about leaving their baby with a nanny or at day care at such a young age. They also shouldn’t have to worry about affording life necessities because they don’t receive a paycheck for a few months.
“I think that people would be more productive at their jobs if they felt comfortable leaving their kids,” Mrs. Roisman, who supports longer maternity leave, said. As an AP Human Geography teacher, Mrs. Roisman includes a brief lecture on maternity leave in her curriculum. “Once babies sleep longer and can sleep the whole night, the mom will be more productive at work. If you are tired, you are not productive.”
“I believe that a mother’s time with her newborn child is a very precious one, but sadly, being at home without a salary for a couple of weeks can be very stressful for the family. Often, mothers are forced by other circumstances to return early to work since they are not being paid for the time off, which is not fair for the baby or the mental health of the mom,” Mrs. Fleitas, a Spanish teacher who has taken maternity leave twice, said. “I believe that the private and public institutions should pay a percent of the salary during this period or penalize the person when returning to work (like adjusting your base salary).”