The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate a paid leave policy.
by Jennifer Jordan

As we grow up, most of us dream of starting families and having successful careers. However, many American women struggle to flourish while doing both. Currently, the United States’ policy for maternity leave is ranked last among developed nations, and many developing ones, and policy makers are debating whether maternity health coverage should be mandatory or optional.

In order for women to succeed as working members of our society and as mothers, our culture and policy must change to reflect the importance of their needs.

The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate a paid leave policy. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), parents are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, most families can’t navigate this financial burden, and new mothers end up returning to work sooner than they are ready. Additionally, FMLA only applies to businesses that employ more than 50 people. Employers who do not meet the FMLA criteria are free to provide paid or unpaid leave as they choose, which unfortunately results in many employees lacking any kind of leave at all.

With an increasing number of in-home care providers offering services in new mom care, less maternity leave can translate to fewer business opportunities. A lack of paid maternity leave has a chance to significantly alter revenue streams and business models. Salary.com estimates that all of the jobs and roles a stay-at-home mom performs are worth an annual salary of $143,102, so homecare providers have an opportunity to alleviate some of the burden so that mothers can focus on tending to their newborns and building strong relationships.

Current policy overlooks the importance of parents bonding with their babies, recovering from birth and emotionally preparing to return to work. Negative effects can include a higher risk of postpartum depression, and mothers struggling to breastfeed despite their doctors’ recommendations to provide breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. Access to a breast pump and a private lactation room in the workplace can help facilitate this. However, the best plan for continued breastfeeding is having a paid maternity leave that allows mothers to firmly establish a breastfeeding relationship with their newborn.

Being a working mother has its own set of challenges outside of policy and health coverage. It is a constant struggle for parents to balance work and life needs, without compromising too much of one or the other. Leaders in government need to take children’s health seriously and create policy that promotes health from day one. Healthy People 2020 has set breastfeeding objectives to reach ideal numbers of babies being breastfed throughout the first year of life. The benefits of meeting these goals aren’t just about health; there are economic incentives as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) performed an analysis of the cost savings of ideal breastfeeding rates, and found that “a minimum of $3.6 billion would be saved if the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding increased from current rates to those recommended by the Surgeon General.” If we are to meet these goals, the overall policy and cultural attitude toward working mothers and breastfeeding must change significantly.

Employers are at the helm of the absence of a comprehensive policy for women. Many researchers agree that the longer the maternity leave is, the better. Longer maternity leaves can actually affect maternal and infant mortality rates as well.

Prior to becoming pregnant, working women may not have fully examined their health care policy and maternity leave benefits. They may not have realized that their employer offered a less than stellar paid leave, or if maternity health care reverts back to an optional coverage they may not have the ability to add coverage after becoming pregnant.

The risk of eliminating women’s health coverage is the elephant in the room that politicians are not discussing. Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), low- and middle-income families shouldered the biggest burden when paying for health care.

I challenge our political leaders to evaluate how maternity leave, health coverage and access to resources are affecting the health of our children. If we are to empower the next generation to become strong, contributing members of our society, we must give them the tools to succeed from the beginning of life—beginning with their mothers.