Here’s What Women Around the World REALLY Think of U.S. Maternity Leave

U.S. Maternity Leave for families

Every developed country in the world offers its families some form of paid parental leave. All but the United States, that is.

And though President Trump signed legislation into law late last year, for federal employees to have paid parental leave, the United States is still one of just two countries in the world without a mandatory paid leave policy for all citizens.

Initially, even the new legislation had a catch–tens of thousands of federal employees weren’t covered under the Federal Employee Paid Leave ACT (FEPLA). Those included federal employees who are not covered by Title 5, specifically much of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), some at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and some employees of the District of Columbia. Its ambiguous wording also left room for whether workers that are covered by other parental leave statutes would have access to this new parental leave.

Earlier this month, Congress rectified that, and granted ALL federal employees coverage.

Joining pretty much the rest of the free world, FEPLA allows FEDERAL employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption or fostering of a new child. It’s the first of any kind of effort to pay allow parents any paid leave that even comes close to matching that of other countries in generations.

Still, it’s not for all citizens.

Currently, 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.

The benefits of maternity leave have been researched, and the evidence makes an incredibly strong case for it. It is in fact so important, that a child’s life — and the mother’s — might depend on it.

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 afterward. 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 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 Weeks 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

Here's What Women Around the World REALLY Think of U.S. Maternity Leave

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.

In fact, several acts are already promising, and it’s worth your while to research and support as you see fit.

Sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro ((D-CT), the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, is one of the oldest and most expansive on the table. It would basically let anyone needing to take unpaid leave under FMLA to get paid leave instead. And it would apply to all workers, including those who work part-time or are self-employed.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) sponsor the New Parents Act (NPA). The NPA  would let new parents take paid parental leave of up to 12 paid weeks by accessing their Social Security benefits early.

Another promising act is the Advancing Support for Working Families Act (ASWFA). It would allow new parents to take paid leave by reducing tax credits on their taxes for the next 10-15 years and instead taking that credit as paid parental leave.

Two of the three options that are quite possible would have you take your own money ahead of time, but…hey…at this point? With the history America’s had with parental leave? They’re steps forward.



(Comments edited only for length and clarity.)

Image credits: Michelle Warren Photography and Lisa Hanson

13 thoughts on “Here’s What Women Around the World REALLY Think of U.S. Maternity Leave”

  1. A large business can afford to offer paid maternity leave but small businesses simply could not. I am a mother of five and my husband has a small business. If one or two members of his team of 12 takes off it is he who has to do the work that they left behind to be at home. This hurts how much time he has with his own family, my workload at home not to mention the clients that they service. Hiring an additional people is not an option for both financial and skilled applicants are not available.

    After my children grow up I have a dream of starting a small, organic dairy with a couple employees to share a huge workload that must be attending to seven days a week. If one of my employees takes off for six weeks my little dairy would go belly up.

    Guys! Work doesn’t stop or go away just because you have a baby even if your a stay at home Mom who runs a farm. Stay at home to raise your children and don’t destroy other peoples live in the process by forcing businesses who can’t afford certain benefits to offer them.

      1. Off the top of my head, I would think the government not the business itself would pay for the leave and the business would hire temps until their employee can return.

    1. The businesses don’t pay people to be off. Every working person (unless you own your own business and opt out) pays into something called Employment Insurance. Then, that is what is used to pay for parental leave, being laid off, sick leave, compassion leave etc. Some companies do a top up (because EI only pays a portion of your income while you are off). That’s it. It’s super freaking simple and it literally saves families. This is the program in Canada and I imagine something similar to this is done in other countries. Small businesses don’t shut down because people have babies. It really is just that simple.

  2. Thank God I made the choice not to go back to work after I had my twins. I was barely healed from my C-Section and I couldn’t imagine leaving my infants and stuffing my bloated, exhausted body back into office clothing. My job was given to someone else when I could not come back after six weeks. I don’t know how the heck we lived on one income but we did. We were often broke but I spent all my kids childhood with them and I left the office politics nonsense behind. Those memories are all mine and I’ll always remember fondly the wonderful times we had together reading books, laughing, cuddling and answering all their seemingly endless questions about everything, those were the days…….xoxo

  3. Women should have Maternity Leave . But in different country Maternity Leave rules is different . Can you please write details on it.

    Thank’s for your informative writing here.

  4. I’m from the U.S. It is appalling that women do not get guaranteed leave here, let alone paid leave. Working at a small business, my employers made me feel they were doing me a favor by holding my job for me while I was off on unpaid leave. While I was pregnant with our son, a co-worker spoke up for me and told them I needed to do less physical work. I was very grateful to her, as they reluctantly agreed to give me lighter duty. (had to lift up to 50 lbs & other physical duties which are a no-no if you’re pregnant.) Even with lighter duty, 6 weeks before my due date, I left work to go to the hospital due to exhaustion and high pulse rate. I was in pre-term labor, which they were able to stop with medication. I had even lighter work duty after that.

    When I had my son via emergency C-section, my employers were not pleased since that meant I HAD to be off work for 6 weeks before returning. I was the manager at my place of employment. My co-workers did my duties and my boss surprisingly gave me 10 weeks off (unpaid of course). We could not afford for me to not go back to work. It was mentally difficult to return to work and I felt very guilty about putting my son in daycare. As a result I ended up with some depression and a lot of anxiety (I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder to this day). I was breastfeeding my son, which meant pumping at work with no true clean space to pump in. I did my best and my employers made me feel like I was not doing my job fully, that pumping milk to nourish my son was taking away from the work day. They confronted me saying they would not pay me while I had to pump 2x per day. I had to stay at work longer every day to make up for the time spent pumping. A co-worker told me about a time she was looking for me to ask about something work related. She asked our boss where I was. His reply was “She’s upstairs doing that thing”. Seriously!!?? He couldn’t even say I was on break or that I was pumping…I would have been fine with that. They pressured me & stressed me out so much that after 4 months of breastfeeding, I weaned out the pumping sessions. For 2 months afterward I was able to breastfeed my son before work, after work, and at bedtime. I was mentally ready to wean him at 6 months old, which later I regretted, because he ended up having a soy allergy. Soy is in ALL baby formula. Even with conducting tests, his pediatrician could not figure out why he was sick all the time. We only figured it out when we switched to a soy (no cow’s milk) formula and he couldn’t keep it down, broke out in hives, and his breathing was strained (went to ER as result). Switched him to regular cow’s milk from store and he did well on that.

    Due to these experiences, when my Husband and I talked about having another child a few years later…I told him that I WOULD NOT return to work after having another child. We were in a better place financially at the time so I was able to stay home with our daughter. My daughter decided she was ready to be born 3 1/2 weeks early. I had another C-section, because in the U.S. doctors refuse to take the risk of VBAC. My daughter was perfectly healthy and we went home after 3 days. Even with staying home, I had problems breastfeeding which I didn’t have with my son. I also ended up with post-partum depression and severe anxiety. My Husband did not know what to do to help me and was not able to be there for me mentally. I was fortunate to have my sister nearby to come help me (she had also gone through PPD so understood what I was going through). Our daughter is now a toddler and I am still a stay at home mom, for which I am grateful for. I missed out on so much with our son, that I get to enjoy now. Parental leave is so important for the baby and the parents. I wish our government could truly see and understand that.

  5. I find it really interesting that is spite of it, the US has a higher birth rate than any of the countries mentioned that has long maternity leaves and/or socialized medicine. (US – 13.42/1000, UK – 12.22/1000, Australia – 12.19/1000, Sweden – 11.92/1000, Canada – 10.29/1000, Denmark – 10.22/1000). It’s clearly not deterring them from having babies! (Disclaimer, I’m a stay-at-home mom in Canada, my husband takes the parental leave portion whenever we have babies)

    1. It does deter educated women from having babies, though. The birth rate is the highest among those with a high school diploma or less. And keep in mind that teenage girls and poor women can have a very hard time gaining access to contraceptives here. Even if they are able to find transportation and money for an exam (never mind insurance), our laws allow doctors and pharmacists to refuse to prescribe or dispense contraceptives based on religious or “moral objections”–which is very common in rural areas, precisely where poverty is highest and healthcare access is the most scarce.

      Also, Hispanic immigrants have been buoying our fertility rate for the past decade or so. Conditions may be terrible here for mothers compared to other wealthy nations, but I’m sure for many of them it’s still better than their country of origin.

  6. My doctor would not realease me until 6 weeks after i had my daughter. Pay wise it hurt. I see both sides of the coin with this. I went stir crazy for that amount of time but if our government is going to pay for drugs to reverse overdoses and treatment for drugs then they can pay for maternity leave.

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