The U.S. needs paid parental leave for everyone

by Olivia Cameron | Opinion Editor
Published: Last Updated on
Graphic by Olivia Cameron

Paid leave from work for new parents is not guaranteed in the United States. At the national level, parents are only entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period through the Family and Medical Leave Act. According to a report from the BBC, only 21% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, even though research shows that paid parental leave is overwhelmingly beneficial for parents, children and society in general.

Business Insider attributes America’s lack of paid parental leave to the long-held notion of the “American Dream.” Those in decision-making roles, like politicians and business owners, value hard work and labor over physical, emotional and mental needs. They are more interested in keeping money in their pockets by not paying workers that need to go on leave. As a result, policies to make paid parental leave a reality for all U.S. workers are not passed. 

It’s time to let go of the idea of the American Dream and focus on fixing the American reality. For many Americans, life without paid time off to take care of their infants is anything but a dream. In a report by Human Rights Watch, parents said that having little to no paid leave resulted in having to delay their children’s immunizations, increased postpartum depression and additional health problems. Many parents who have had to take unpaid leave have gone into debt and had to seek public assistance in order to care for themselves and their families, according to the report. It’s wrong that parents are being forced to choose work ahead of their children. Instead of taking time to bond with their new child and begin to form those important relationships, mothers and fathers have to return to work so that they can afford formula and diapers.

Paid parental leave needs to be mandatory across the nation. New America found that six months of paid leave would be the most beneficial for the health of mothers and their babies. While I do think that mothers should get the amount of time off that would be best for them and their babies, I understand that the standard for parental leave is unlikely to go from 12 unpaid weeks to six paid months. Recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill that proposed only four weeks of paid family leave for all U.S. workers, according to CNBC. Originally, the bill, called the Build Back Better plan, had proposed 12 weeks of paid leave, but it was negotiated down to the remaining four. This is not nearly enough change. At the very least, all 12 weeks of guaranteed leave should become paid leave. I am, though, encouraged to see at least a little bit of progress being made.

Fathers also should get the same amount of paid leave as mothers. If a miracle happened, and mothers secured six months of paid leave, fathers should get the same and be encouraged to take it. Pew Research found that on average American fathers take only a week off when their child is born. According to The New York Times, fathers who were given more paid time off only took two or three days, most likely because taking paternity leave has been shown to “damage a man’s professional reputation and affect his future earning potential.” 

In other words, men are discouraged from spending time with their newborns. Many assume that it’s more important for the mother to be with the baby, but this is untrue. The United States Department of Labor reported that longer paternity leaves lead to increased engagement and bonding, and to improved health and development of the children. Additionally, longer paternity leaves resulted in more equal sharing of familial labor between parents and increased employment and pay for mothers. As a society, we should be doing more to lift fathers up by giving them the tools to be more present in their families. Longer and paid paternity leave would greatly improve the lives of American fathers and their children.

LGBTQ couples also must be included in an improvement of parental leave in the U.S. Some 56% of LGBTQ people live in states that do not have laws allowing them to get paid parental leave to care for newborn or newly adopted children, according to the Movement Advancement Project. They are no different than heterosexual parents in their importance as parents and their need to bond with their children. In fact, a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that gay fathers’ brains adapt to parenthood in the same ways that heterosexual parents do, according to Time. This means that when LGBTQ couples adopt a child or have a baby in another way, such as surrogacy, they aren’t just becoming glorified caregivers. They are parents, and entitled to the same benefits that heterosexual parents may be afforded in the future.

The U.S. has been valuing work over family for far too long. Not only does paid parental leave need to become mandatory nationwide, it also needs to apply to mothers, fathers and LGBTQ parents. Parents deserve time to bond with their newborn children, and newborn children deserve parental bonds.

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