With a struggling economy and the explosion of debates about abortion and contraception, family leave for workers has not been at the center of campaign dialogue. Nonetheless, the issue of paid parental leave should be more important than ever to families in an era in which women are often primary breadwinners. Imagine the dilemma of a young couple thinking of starting a family, but whose budget and expenses center around the potential mother’s employment. Do you hold off and hope for the husband to advance to a more secure financial position in which you might be able to leave work? Do you try for the child now, and try to piece together sick days with help from family and friends? Or do you try to negotiate a better option with your employer, who, in most US states, has no legal obligation to provide any paid leave to start a family?
The issue of parental leave has received attention around the world, and US laws lag well behind most countries. In fact, earlier this year, Forbes reported that the US was one of only three countries in the world, along with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, not to offer paid maternity leave. In addition, the US fails to provide any guaranteed leave (paid or unpaid) to fathers, while more than 50 countries worldwide guarantee new fathers paid leave. The most important piece of legislation governing parental leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), applies only to women, and has important exceptions for businesses. For example, businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, and employees must work within a specified radius of the workplace. Guaranteed leave is limited to 12 weeks during the year, and it is unpaid. Although the law has since been amended, the substantive components remain largely unchanged, and it continues to be the defining national legislation on the topic. Although states such as California and New Jersey have made inroads to state specific laws, in most places protections beyond those guaranteed by the FMLA are left to employers’ discretion. As a result, most new mothers and fathers struggle to balance the demands of a new family with the needs and financial necessities of the workplace.
While the issue of changing maternal leave in the FMLA to paid leave has received considerable attention, making paternal leave more readily available deserves a more prominent place in the conversation. As numerous individuals have noted, there are widespread benefits to offering paid leave to fathers as well as mothers. Sharing the burden of new parenthood equitably between parents makes the employment of women during childbearing age less of a liability, contributes to more equal opportunities for advancement in the workplace, and frees women from implicitly becoming the primary or only caregiver in the family to which nurseries, schools, and sports coaches will all turn at later stages. Options for paternity leave also allow more flexibility to families in which women are the primary breadwinners, and for whom twelve weeks of the mother’s salary loss poses a potentially insurmountable obstacle.
In a widely read article in the Atlantic this spring, Anne-Marie Slaughter highlighted the struggles that young professional women face in their careers and suggested that they might best peak professionally in their 50s and 60s as family responsibilities decline. But another side to the issue that could readily be highlighted is that women will struggle less to define themselves professionally in their child-bearing years when men are able to assist them with family responsibilities. When it comes to parental leave, men’s rights might be the issue most worth fighting for.
– Diane Kuhn