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“Are you returning to work after the baby is born?”

Some women are insulted by the insinuation that their careers vaporize once they have children, but in America it’s a legitimate question, thanks to our lack of federally mandated paid maternity leave options.

In today’s America a new mother not only has to navigate lists of potential baby names, top-rated carseats and strollers, choose between bottle or breast, and make a place in her home for a new little person, but she needs to dig heavily into her finances to accomplish that. If her employer doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, she must decide how long she can stay home with the baby, then how much childcare will cost when she returns. Will it even be financially prudent to return immediately or should she just wait until her child is old enough to attend school?

Some mothers don’t have the luxury of weighing these options. In many households the mom needs to work, so recovery from child birth is often cut short, as is critical bonding time with the baby. Add to the list the inevitably long duration of sleepless nights that both parents can tally thanks to a newborn, and it’s not wonder new parents often report being sleep-deprived, frustrated, and generally unhappy. The lack of this social service isn’t just an injustice to American women, it’s an injustice to all American parents, fathers and mothers, gay and straight, and to our society as a whole.

Around the World

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In Sweden new parents have 480 days (68.6 weeks) of leave while earning 80% of their pay, mothers get an additional 18 weeks.

In Serbia, moms can take 20 weeks of 100% paid leave, then stay on leave for another year, but their compensation diminishes at regular intervals, eventually reaching 30% of regular pay during weeks 40-52.

Japanese mothers can take leave six weeks prior to giving birth and up to eight weeks after birth. They’ll receive 66% of their regular pay while on leave and both parents can opt for another year of unpaid leave.

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Poles receive up to 52 weeks of leave where mothers and fathers can split the allotment. Poland even took leave a step further by offering Childcare Leave, where parents are entitled up to three years worth of leave during the first five years of a child’s life.

North Korea claims to offer 240 days of maternity leave: 60 days before the due date and 180 days after the baby’s birth. 

And America? Land where we strive to be the best and take care of our own? Sorry new parents, as of April 2017 we still don’t have a federally paid maternity policy. Of the world’s 196 countries, the countries that don’t have any form of paid maternity leave are: New Guinea, Suriname, a handful of South Pacific island nations, and the United States.

What Can a New Mom in America Expect?

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The Family Medical Leave Act dictates that employers of 50 or more workers must allow new parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a newborn. This means you’ll get time off and still have a job to return to. However, in many cases, the leave is unpaid.

Some states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) offer paid leave through employee-paid payroll tax. But even 12 weeks off may not be enough: The International Labor Organization asks countries, at a very minimum, to offer parents 14 weeks leave paid at 2/3 normal salary, up to a cap. Many countries go above and beyond this benchmark.

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The Long-Term Benefits of Paid Maternity Leave

To add insult to injury, our lawmakers are not blind to the benefits of paid maternity leave. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee released “The Economic Benefits of Paid Leave: Fact Sheet.” It champions the need for paid maternity leave in order for America to remain competitive economically and educationally with other world nations.

Paid maternity leave greatly aids single mothers, mothers that underwent complications during labor, low-income families, and those with less education. As of 2015 the Department of Labor reported women make up 46.8% of America’s work force, with a projected increase to 47% by 2024. How many of those households rely on the female to make ends meet? How many rely on the female as the sole provider for the household? How many women will simply decide not to have children, in turn decreasing our nation’s population?

Studies show women who are given paid maternity leave are more likely to continue working and developing their skills, resulting in a bolstered national economy. Keeping women in the labor ranks ensures equal gender balance in the work force, and can help decrease gender pay gaps. Children benefit as well: having mom around those first few months helps a child’s long term health and development. In the cases where fathers are given paternity leave, children can better bond with their fathers, who otherwise would spend those first few formative months away at work.

The thing about paid maternity leave is that it isn’t necessarily a free-for-all. In most countries there are stipulations, such as being employed for a certain length of time prior to taking paid maternity leave. Most governments set up the system in a social insurance structure, much like America’s social security system.

It is well-known that investing in a large demographic, in this case mothers procreating the members of our nation’s future society, is well worth the effort.

Jessica Shortall, a strategy consultant and author of Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Guide to Surviving Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, gave a TED Talk where she explained why America needs to get her act together when it comes to paid maternity leave. Shortall said in her speech, “It’s not a women’s issue, it’s an American issue.” By looking at the economical and social benefits of paid maternity leave, she’s absolutely right. Let’s start calling our congress representatives now.