I was lucky when I had my first baby; I worked for a big company with a great parental leave policy. It meant I could take four whole months of maternity leave, and I was paid for most of that time off. At the same time, my husband was able to take two weeks off from his corporate job, also fully paid.
But most families in America are not so lucky. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, only 14% of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. This means moms are back to work within days of giving birth. Meanwhile, dads — even high-income earning dads — take little to no leave at all when a new baby is born.
This happens for two simple reasons: First, most workers simply cannot afford to stay at home to care for a new baby without a paycheck. And second, it’s still not super common for dads to take paternity leave (although new reports show this is finally starting to change — yay!).
But here’s some good news: Republican and Democratic lawmakers are finally starting to acknowledge that we need better family leave policy in America. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump addressed the issue on the campaign trail, which was something of a first. According to Vicki Shabo, the vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, while family leave has been on the progressive agenda for decades, “the fact that it came up in the general election by the Republican candidate was totally unprecedented.”
And here’s the even better news: Yesterday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), along with 27 other state senators, introduced the FAMILY Act. If passed, the bill would create a comprehensive national paid leave program to help meet the needs of new moms and dads, as well as people with a serious personal or family health issue (such as caring for an ill child or caring for an ailing parent). It would also provide 12 (yay!) weeks of partially paid leave per year for all American workers facing those situations.
The best thing about this bill is that it’s focused on families — not just moms. It recognizes the truth that dads want to spend time with their newborns too, and so do adoptive parents! It also recognizes that some families are made up of two dads or two moms, and that all of those parents are entitled to paid leave.
Widely-available parental leave isn’t just good for parents, either; it’s good for babies! Studies show that dads who take paternity leave are more likely to be involved in the hands-on care of their kids months and even years down the road. And according to the Department of Labor, when dads are engaged with their children, their kids have better developmental outcomes. One study even suggested that longer paternity leave resulted in higher cognitive test scores for their kids.
While I appreciate any discussion around paid leave at all, talking about maternity leave alone is outdated. It’s a dinosaur of a term. That’s one reason I’m so excited about Senator Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act — it recognizes the diversity of American families and the need for all parents to have access to paid parental leave. And that can only lead to positive things.
So take heart, moms and dads. While this bill probably has a long fight ahead of it, we are making progress. Our lawmakers are listening to us, and we’re going to work towards a better solution together.