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Getting Real About Paid Maternity Leave

Putting a price tag on paid maternity leave in the United States helps me understand what’s really at stake when I rant about our lack of a national policy.

When I last discussed our country’s relationship with breastfeeding, I hinted that the core of the issue has way more to do with policies like national maternity leave than titillating images of a woman nursing a pre-schooler. Breastfeeding your child for at least six months is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the World Health Organization (which actually recommends two years) as a protection against chronic illness, obesity and allergies among other things—and it’s even linked to higher IQ scores.

But for many, breastfeeding while working full time is such a hardship that it becomes almost impossible to do while providing for your family. The United States is one of three out of 178 industrialized nations that do not offer paid maternity leave benefits, let alone paid leave for fathers, which more than 50 of these nations offer. According to Save the Children’s 2012 State of the World’s Mothers Report:


“Perhaps the most effective way to improve breastfeeding rates is to provide longer periods of paid maternity leave. Countries with generous maternity and parental leave policies – such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden – tend to have high breastfeeding rates… Apart from the United States, all developed countries now have laws mandating some form of paid compensation for women after giving birth.”

But with a struggling economy and a deficit crisis topping the list of most people’s concerns in the upcoming presidential election, it’s no surprise that neither candidate is championing paid maternity leave as a tenet of their campaign. When the topic comes up, questions about how much it would cost are invariably not far behind.

Recently, Kelly Bonyata, an International Board-certified lactation consultant and writer of the successful parenting/breastfeeding blog Kellymom.com, gave her best guess at what it would cost to implement universal maternity leave.

Kelly’s estimate assumes we would pay new mothers 75 percent of the median income for women for one year after birth and pay all mothers, regardless of their work history. She also lists several unknown costs and savings, then decides that—in the interest of keeping it simple—we may assume the unknown costs and savings cancel each other out.

Using statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Kelly figures out that if we paid new mothers 75 percent of the median income for women in the United States for one year after birth, it would cost each member of the U.S. workforce “$796 per worker per year (or $66 per month).”

I have no idea how close this would be to the actual number, but the methods she uses, which are detailed in the blog post, look solid and as she says, there aren’t other estimates accessible online. So I’m glad to see her numbers to put a price tag on my rantings of late.

Now I’m left to wonder if most Americans would find it worthy to give up $66 a month for such a national policy. With times so tight nowadays, I would assume that many would have to give something up in order to allocate these funds. Sixty-six bucks is the amount of my cable bill. Could I go without it? I also spend at least $66 a month to make sure my family eats organic, on music classes for my toddler, or to stock my fridge with a dinnertime glass of beer or wine.

So if I were to give up TV, organic food, music class or adult beverages, what would I be gaining? First and foremost, the selfish gains: I’d know that if I or any woman I love were to have a child, we would be able to care for that child without doing outside work for a full year. This means having the time to heal, bond and transition into a new role without the concern of having to rush back to working a full-time job. The healing part of this is just as key as the others, by the way. For some women, post-birth complications can mean a mom may not be fully healed until that year is up. It would also mean we could easily breastfeed, in full contact with our child, without having to pump milk in a car or janitor’s closet and constantly worry about our supply going down.

I want that for myself and I want that for my friends, family and daughters when they grow up. I also want to know that families all over the country would have that same support. Too, I want to live in a country where future adults have a strong option for all the benefits of great health, both physical and mental, of breastfeeding.

In addition to all these personal and societal benefits, longer paid maternity leave makes for a stronger economy because it’s been linked to better return rates for women who may choose to give up their job if expected back too quickly. Robert Drago, research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington told the Bloomberg News Service, “If we don’t make motherhood and work compatible, there are long-term economic losses. They include productivity and earning power lost when women have to interrupt work and costs when employers have to find and train replacements.”

I wonder how many of us would be willing to sacrifice a portion of their paycheck every month for such benefits. How many of us can? More importantly, I wonder when we will be given the chance to decide.

Carolyn October 01, 2012 at 02:06 AM
Hear, hear!!!
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