For the past century, a vast majority of European countries have provided working mothers with paid maternity leave, with some even incorporating free medical care, nursing breaks, and paternal involvement. In the Land of Opportunity, paid leave is a figment of an impossible future. America is the only post-industrial country to not guarantee paid leave for any reason, be it sickness or pregnancy. For the 186 countries who do have paid leave, the average length is 29 weeks for new mothers, and 16 weeks for new fathers. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and even the dreaded Russia (start growling, America!) allow over a year. So, what’s taking America so long?
When the Mayflower docked into Plymouth, Massachusetts, the grumpy, likely seasick elderly gents shook their colorless, bug-overridden dead-lion-mane-looking tresses and decided they were not, absolutely not, going to be like other girls; no more dreaded monarchies and lousy feudal systems. Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset calls this “American exceptionalism.” Unlike Europe, America was founded on the basis of zealous individualism; the founding fathers fled from the severe class disparities and tyranny of monarchical England. Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says our uniquely American aspirations of ambition explain our obsession with small businesses: “[Lipset’s] argument was that Americans identify with the social class that they aspire to rather than the social class that they were in…So Americans have a lot of sympathy for small business because American people you would have thought were workers historically thought of themselves as potentially being small-business people.” Consequently, America sustains a collective obliviousness of social class. Lisbet points out that this attitude results in wariness of unions, which are often the proponents of reconciliatory bills for childcare. America’s ignorance, explains Lisbet, allows wealthy Americans to view union-mandated policies from the view of a small business owner. Nearly 70 percent of American employees predict negative consequences of paid leave on small businesses. We can thank the progressive colonists for our collective blind eye to childcare issues, and America’s biggest frenemy: misogyny.
During her 2015 campaign trail, Hilary Clinton labeled the problem with paid maternity leave as a gender issue right off the bat. She asserted that paid leave is a way of keeping women in the workforce. For the states that do have paid leave policies, there is a nearly 20 to 50 percent reduction in the number of female employees leaving their jobs. Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA, explains that the issue stretches way back to before the modern girlboss: “In the 1800s — as soon as women started moving from working at home to working in factories — countries realized they needed to do something to ensure that women could work and care…So they started to provide across Europe and across Latin America and elsewhere paid maternity leave — leave that would care for families, for kids and ensure that economies could succeed.” Meanwhile, America took a century-long nap, and began on a quirky quest for individuality: The World Wars.
Both World Wars, regardless of the overall worldly consequences, were originally explosive disputes of European rulers. Most American soldiers came home, while many European soldiers did not. As a result, returning American soldiers replaced the jobs of more than 3.5 million women. Contrastingly, the then-pile of rubble and ash called Europe offered no employment. The rebirth of Europe would require more babies and working women, while America required a nap– and that’s what each of them got. Many European countries began to even mandate leaves to encourage working mothers. Across the Atlantic, America didn’t even have an unpaid leave program until 1993. One would assume that the United States of America would finally be united in its desire to keep modernization alive in healthy newborns, but remember? She dozed off.
However, researchers like Jody Heynman seem to be wide awake: “so there are powerful, long-term studies showing that providing paid maternity leave, for example, lowers infant mortality,” says Heynman. “We know that women who have sufficient paid maternity leave are much more likely to breastfeed, and breastfeeding lowers the risk of all sorts of infectious diseases, it increases and improves cognitive outcomes, and it benefits the woman’s health.” Is it really surprising, then, that for a developed country, we have some of the highest infant mortality rates? Well, it might depend on who you’re talking to.
“I’m looking at everything,” commented Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on the Democrats’ recent paid leave plan. “But to put this into a reconciliation bill — it’s a major policy — is not the place to do it.” What is the place? Where are the necessary funds going; are they drowning in a submarine, exploding up on the moon? The U.S. spends about $200 a year– 0.2 percent of its GDP– per child under the age of two. It seems that a reconciliation bill is the perfect place– with a few budget cuts, as enforced by Mr. Manchin himself– to implement some sort of paid-leave system. And we’ve got the perfect, modern American foundation to do it.
If the birth of progressive, revolutionarily-quirky America came about while snoozing, providing trendy, modern child care must be a walk in the park. America’s 12-week unpaid leave is already extremely modernized due to its tardy arrival, with a definition of a caregiver that is broad and ungendered. There are many benefits to paternal leave: increased involvement allows for more engaged dads and smoother postpartum recovery for moms. In many countries, paternal involvement is simply not as common– here, the US is truly a modern pioneer.
With a paid leave program, America would see an increasing horde of current and future healthy mom-bosses. But perhaps we’re already slipping into another nap.