Every developed country in the world offers its families some form of paid parental leave. Every country except the United States, that is.
American mothers are offered 6-12 weeks of unpaid leave, if they are lucky. Not everyone can afford unpaid leave. In a survey by the International Labour Organization, of nearly every country in the world — countries with a wide variety of income levels — only the United States and Papua New Guinea failed to offer any form of paid parental leave.
While paid parental leave is considered an intrinsic part of many societies, it is a controversial topic in the U.S.
In every developed country around the world except the U.S., the government implements a social insurance program, employer liability, or a combination of both to fund maternity leave. Vocal Americans often respond to this notion by saying something along the lines of, “Why should I pay for you to have a baby?”
To that I would ask, why do we pay for roads, the post office, the fire department, public parks, property taxes, garbage collection, and more?
The answer is: for the betterment of society.
Americans have historically had strong feelings about taxes, but in the end, we all pitch in to pay for things that benefit our communities, because we all live together in these communities. And most of us want to be safe and happy with the ability to drive on good roads and call a fire department should we ever need to.
In some countries, parental leave is so essential and integral to society, that the idea of depriving parents and babies of parental leave and job security is as inhumane as denying children public education. Saying, “Why should I pay for you to have a baby?” is akin to, “Why should I pay for your kid to go to school? Why should I pay for public parks for your kid to play in? Why should I pay for roads that you drive on?”
I homeschool my children, and yet my taxes go to funding local schools. I do not complain, because an educated population is important to society.
Paid parental leave can lower the risk of infant mortality by 10%. The United States has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world.
Maternity leave can help improve breastfeeding rates. This is no surprise; most breastfeeding mothers will tell you they just barely got the hang of it by six weeks — the time when many American mothers are expected to return to work. Improving breastfeeding rates can save thousands of lives every year.
Maternity leave also helps prevent postpartum depression and psychosis. The United States has a particularly high rate of depression and mental illness.
Paid parental leave has positive long-term effects as well. One study found that mothers who received longer maternity leave benefits were 18% less likely to experience depression when they were over 50 years old.
Paid maternity leave also benefits the economy, despite popular American opinion.
Paternity leave has benefits for fathers and children as well. Research has shown that generous paternity leave “can promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and even increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.”
With all of this in mind, the complaints against paid parental leave — complaints which are a specifically American phenomenon — are especially cruel. Maternity leave is needed. Not just a few weeks, but a few months at least. The benefits for parents and children are so great that denying the importance of paid parental leave is tragic.
Women around the world recognize the United States’ devastating lack of maternity leave. I know because I asked.
Out of the 100+ responses I got when I requested opinions on U.S. parental leave, not a single one said, “Why should I pay for you to have a baby?” In fact, the vast majority expressed deep sympathy for the plight of American mothers. This is how women around the world feel about maternity leave in America:
- “Heartbreaking. I can’t even imagine. I feel bad for my fellow Canadian moms that have to go back after 12 months of PAID leave. 6 weeks is unbelievable.” -Rachael, Canada
- “I’m in the UK and this would have broken me. It’s utterly barbaric.” -Nancy, United Kingdom
- “I’m from Norway, and for me, the American practice of “maternity leave” is a joke. A cruel, inhumane joke. You, as a whole, must force your government to change legislation to protect the most vulnerable citizens – the newborns. They say you’re the greatest democracy on earth. Democracy literally means “governed by the people,” and now is the time to show them that women and children are, in fact, people, seeming as they, the government, blatantly ignores your intrinsic rights.” –Renate, Norway
- “Here in BC Canada we have 1 year paid maternity leave (which is combined with mat leave and parental leave) you can also share your parental leave with your spouse so they get to spend time with baby as you head back to work early. 1 year is definitely not enough time with breastfeeding and emotional connection to your baby. 6 weeks is insane — physically a woman is not even healed and not to mention attachment parenting is greatly hindered when baby is away from mama. That causes emotional stresses for both.” -Yesenia, Canada
- “I think it’s shocking! In the UK I had 12 weeks full pay, 16 weeks half pay then up to 9 months government maternity pay which was around £534 a month.” -Ann, United Kingdom
- “It’s horrific! I wasn’t ready to leave either of my children after 52 weeks of paid leave, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like at 6 weeks. It took 10-12 weeks to even feel some kind of “normal” again & not so anxious about the ups & downs of breastfeeding. It’s most definitely a crime against humanity.” -Julia, Canada
- “It’s ridiculous, when I first heard you get 6 weeks I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke.
I’m from Slovakia, we get 6 months paid maternity leave and afterwards you can stay at home up to 3 years, single mums up to 6. I think (your job is secure and you get paid some money but it’s not much). Is there nothing you can do about it? I think it’s absolutely heartless, stupid law you have there, children are the future, they should be with their mums (or dads) and not raised by strangers… Is there any union or someone fighting for change???“ -Ivana, Slovakia
- “For me, living in Sweden with 480 days paid parental leave, 6-12 weeks seems impossible and cruel.” -Emma, Sweden
- “In Chile we have 12 weeks before due date and 24 weeks after birth of paid leave, of these weeks, you can give to the father up to 12 weeks to share. I think that it reflects on how, as a society, you perceive kids. Children are the future of a nation, their health, their education, is necessary and important if you want to have adults that will contribute to make it better. When you have highly selfish societies that consider children property of those who “decide” to birth them and thus their sole responsibility, you have laws like the one you have in the US. Some people think paid leave is a benefit for parents, but it isn’t, it’s a child’s right. When you think about it that way, it only makes it obvious that every baby should have the right of being taken care of by both their parents in the crucial first months.” -Rosario, Chile
- “It makes me anxious and physically uncomfortable to think of all the American women forced back to work at 6 weeks. It’s insane. Breastfeeding isn’t established, the mama is not healed, the baby has to deal with turmoil and change when it should be adjusting to life outside the womb. So upsetting. I’m glad to be in Canada.” -Carla, Canada
- “It’s disgraceful and downright anti-woman and family. I’m Polish and in Poland women get 1 year of paid leave to be with their babies, fostering the family unit is of utmost importance and takes priority over everything. It’s sad what the policy is here, really sad and disappointing.” -Anna Maria, Poland
- “In Canada as well. One year, couldn’t imagine having to go back to work barely even healed from birth!” –Cassy, Canada
- “Here in Britain we get 6 weeks full pay then I think 9 months majority pay. It just seems barbaric in America. I always think of poor American mum’s going back to work on barely any sleep and leaving their tiny babies and think what a horrific and cruel society. American mums deserve so much better.” -Georgia, Great Britain
- “Here in Germany we get a year paid maternity leave (8 weeks is a must by law, 12 for twins) and your job is reserved for you up to three years (2 years no payment then).6 weeks is ridiculous! 12 weeks is not much better. I don’t know how moms do that. It would break my heart. I quit my job when I had my son in the US four years ago. But we shortly moved back to Germany afterwards. It was a no brainer.” -Janine, Germany
- “I am in Canada, and my children, my husband and I are so fortunate because of it. Maternity leave can last up to one full year. I took that full leave with my first child and my husband took 3 months of paternity off with my second child. It makes ALL the difference to be supported, both financially and without fear of losing your employment status, during your child’s first year, arguably THE MOST important developmental time in their lives. The bonding that occurs early on was as good for me and my husband as it was for my children. Raising and nurturing your infant is the most fundamental and necessary thing on the planet and I believe that the lack of support and lack of respect for a woman’s body is a human rights issue. When they are forced to return to work so soon after childbirth with hormones still in a state of flux, the guilt, the sleepless nights… unimaginable. I am not sure that I would have had children if I knew I couldn’t be with them until they were at least one year old!” -Tanis, Canada
- “Here in New Zealand we can take up to 1 year unpaid maternity leave. And we receive payments for 14 weeks after baby is born from the government. Not covering our full pay, but something at least. I hadn’t even left the house when my baby was 6 weeks old, everything hurt and I just sat on the couch feeding all day. I can’t even imagine! I’ve just returned to my part time job recently and my baby is now 13 months. Luckily I am an ECE teacher so he comes with me each day.” -Anonymous, New Zealand
- “I’m Swedish and here in Sweden we have amazing parental-leave! We have 480 days of paid leave, the days can be divided freely in between both parents (accept for 90 days per parent). You can also cash in a number of days/week of your choosing. For example, I took 4 days paid leave per week and could therefore make the paid leave last much longer than if I had taken 7 days per week. To leave my baby after 6 weeks… I could barely take a shower the first few months, I just wanted to hold my babies. It breaks my heart that motherhood has such low status in society when it’s the most important work on this planet!” -Therese, Sweden
- “I’m really sad for American mothers. I’m in Canada, and for my first I was able to go on mat leave for 15 weeks before baby was born, and then a year after paid. I cannot imagine having to go back after 6 weeks.” -Patricia, Canada
- “Here in the UK, I think it varies as you might have seen from other comments, but it’s still very generous as it should be! With my work, I get a year off. My work is quite generous and gives 6 months full pay, 3 months statutory pay (only £500 a month for those three months, but it’s still something) and then 3 months nil pay (but I tend to use any annual leave I’ve built up to cover those 3 months).My work also has an obligation to accept me back, or find me another role in the organization with the same pay when I return.I found it a wretch leaving my kids after a year — leaving them after weeks would break my heart.” -Shruti, United Kingdom
- “I am from Canada and currently on month two of my second maternity leave with the same employer, 12 months paid with each leave. The United State’s system for maternity leave is pathetic and harmful to families and their emotional well beings. I can only imagine that it must contribute to PPD in a lot of instances, and would most likely lead to a decrease in job productivity and possible loss of employment. Everyone benefits from longer maternity leaves. The mother, the child, the family and the employer. I hope one day things change in the U.S.” -Robin, Canada
- “I actually only became of this recently that Americans get so little time off, I was astonished! In Ireland it’s 6 months off. 2 weeks minimum before baby’s due… but it’s on the onus of the employer whether they pay anything towards the time off. If you’re working full time the state pays 70% of our wages. We can take up to another 6 months off but that would be completely unpaid.” -Ellen, Ireland
- “In Canada we have one year and that even feels rushed! There are talks about extending it to 18 months which would be so much better! I can’t imagine leaving my 6 week old with anyone but myself to care for…not to mention I was nowhere near healed after my C-section at 6 weeks! Absolutely insane!” -Melanie, Canada
- “Six months here in Ireland and I don’t think it’s near enough. I don’t know how anyone copes with 6 weeks. It’s unimaginable.” -Claire, Ireland
- “I’m a stay-at-home mom from Canada and when I hear of moms going back to work after 12 months it breaks my heart. Many try to stay home a little longer. I can’t even imagine having to go back to work after 6 weeks, that’s goes against nature. It’s torture, to both mom and baby.” -Mon, Canada
- “Ireland has 26 weeks paid followed by I think 16 unpaid. Any time I read about the American maternity leave, I’m equal parts shocked and sad!” -Aisce, Ireland
- “I think it’s astonishing. I wasn’t even healed physically by 6 weeks, let alone have enough time to bond with my baby. I’m stressing like crazy because I might not meet the hour requirements for a paid maternity leave when my baby is born, I don’t know how women can do that in the USA every single day. I’m in Canada btw and we have a year, most of it paid depending where you are and your job. Can also take more than a year but that’s unpaid.” -Anonymous, Canada
- “I’m in the UK, I had 3 months paid and 6 months mat pay, and then a few days of holiday not taken on top. 6 weeks is crap. How on earth do you do it? Fair enough if it’s a choice but enforced is awful.” -Zoe, United Kingdom
- “Australia mums get paid maternity leave (funded by government) & are entitled to 12 months unpaid leave. Fathers also get paternity leave paid by government for a few weeks to stay home and support mums and bond with bub. 6 weeks is so unfair! I’ve had 12 months off with all 3 of my kids and got some payments for most of that 12 months (combined government funded & paid by work). I really feel for American mums.“ -Amber, Australia
- “We get 1 year here in Canada and it is possibly going up to 18 months. I can’t even begin to describe what it must be like for American families to have to leave their babies so young. It’s not right, it’s unjust and heartless. It’s shocking that such a developed country such as the US still has these laws and guidelines. It criminal!” -Nicole, Canada
“In Denmark and we have 52 Week between the two parents. (Denmark recognizes same sex parents equally to heterosexual sexual couples.)
The rules apply to both singletons, multiples, adoption and stillbirth after 24 weeks GA.
4 week prior to delivery only for pregnant mom
14 weeks following birth only for birthing mom
2 weeks only for the non-birthing parent
32 weeks to share as desired.
Both parents will for the most part be eligible for 26 of the weeks as paid leave – divided between them as they wish.
The rest of the weeks are paid by the government – again to share as mentioned above.
If unemployed or employed with out the right to paid leave – the entire 52 weeks are paid for by the government.
This means that even if you are unemployed when you give birth – you are guaranteed a minimum of 14.000 DK KR – equivalent of 2000 American dollars prior to taxes – 10.000dk kr after taxes = 1500 American dollars after taxes.
Bear in mind that ALL medical in Denmark is free.
Homebirth: A midwife will come to your house
Hospital birth: You still get to bith how you want
C-section: No problem
Baby nurse comes to your house 48 hours after birth to make sure everything is ok and then as often as you would like – standard is 3-4 times in the first 6 months.
Vaccination, doctors visits, being re-admitted to hospital – EVERYTHING is free, covered by taxes.
When your leave is over – you can choose to stay at home and care for your own children and will get 750 American dollars from the government, as a help to pay bills.
If you choose daycare – the cost is about 400 USD a month until 3 years where it drops to half that.
The government guarantees daycare for all children at least 6 months old.
You need a special agreement to put a baby less than 6 months in daycare.” -Mia, Denmark
And there we have it. Dozens of insights from mothers who live in countries with laws supporting families, laws which promote breastfeeding, laws enacted to protect maternal and child health. No complaints about the cost. No complaints about the effect on the economy. No complaints about paying for someone else to have a baby. Just concern and compassion for the anomaly of the broken American system.
So what can we do to make change? Vote. Vote for people who support paid parental leave. You can write to your senator or House representative and let them know that we stand alone in our lack of paid leave.
You can use MoveOn.org, Change.org, or other petition sites to start a petition to implement paid parental leave. There are already numerous petitions to sign, but starting a local effort and delivering it to your local representatives is important.
Talk about it. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of parental leave and the evidence which shows it can be life-saving. Post about it, write about it, create art about the topic.
Form a protest. March to the capital. Make signs and t-shirts. Invite your mom friends. Spread the facts. Take your power back and protect future generations by forcing our government to finally catch up with the rest of the world.
(Comments edited only for length and clarity.)
Image credits: Michelle Warren Photography and Lisa Hanson