John Oliver, on his news comedy show Last Week Tonight, gave a blistering commentary on the hypocrisy of celebrating Mother’s Day in a country that marginalizes mothers at every turn in the workplace. He begins with the fact that America is tied with Papua New Guinea for the worst maternity leave benefits in the world.
Up until recently American law treated maternity as a disability, as if having a child was somehow a handicap. With the Family Medical Leave Act, new parents can take up to 12 weeks before returning to work, without pay.
Think about that a moment. 12 weeks unpaid leave. That sounds like a penalty, as in “the officer was put on 12 weeks unpaid administrative leave pending an investigation.” As in “Sure, take your 12 weeks to recover from childbirth and bond with your infant pending the firm’s investigation of your future role with us.” And how many families can afford going 3 months without pay? Many women are forced to cobble together some combination of vacation time, sick days, and early return to work to stay financially afloat.
Maternity leave in the U.S. is the number one structural method of repression of women in the workplace. It unjustly limits women to two choices, depending on type of job: for white collar women, start family life well with your newborn or play the loyalty to your employer game. For blue collar wage earners, the choice is too often one of leaving the infant child with an unemployed friend or relative or regressing toward (or into) poverty as you build that critical connection with your infant.
Let’s compare our policy with a middle-of-the-road European country, Germany. A German employer must give up to 3 years maternity (or paternity, in any combination) unpaid leave and guarantee the employee the same job upon returning to work. Before you react to the unpaid bit, consider this: the employer pays nothing during the leave, but the government does. The parent on leave receives between 65% and 100% of pay for 12 months. Scandinavian countries are even more generous, also mandating fathers take a portion of time, lessening any bias toward hiring women of childbearing age.
For once I would like lawmakers leaning on “family values” to support giving parents, especially women, the time and financial opportunity to build a solid family foundation. Few things can be more essential to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.