The case for universal paid family leave is extremely convincing

From child vaccination rates to economic prosperity, paid parental leave benefits us all.

Lauren Smith Brody: The United States ranks dead last in the world in terms of the support that it gives new parents after having a baby. It’s just fact. Of the top 18 economies in the world, the United States is the only country that does not allow for any paid leave at all.

So we do have unpaid leave, which is a little bit of a misnomer. People think, “Oh, well you can get parental leave. If you’re a dad or a mom you can take time.” Well, you can if you can afford it.

First of all, only 56 percent of American workers qualify for FMLA because of the stipulations. You have to be at a company that has 50 employees. You have to have worked full time for a year. You have to be working within a certain radius of your company’s home base. So that automatically disqualifies a lot of people.

But then when you look at who can actually afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave per child, the numbers go down even further. And what you end up with is that 25 percent of new American mothers go back to work less than two weeks after having had a baby, which is just so markedly different from how it is in the rest of the world.

And I think a lot of people think, erroneously, that it would be really costly for our country to have some sort of paid leave program, but when you look at the other top performing economies in the world, these other countries that have—first of all, they have parity between moms and dads. They have the same leave for adoptive parents. They have all kinds of things that just make this about actually helping produce the next generation in a way that will make that generation go on to also support the economy.

So in Norway—Norway is consistently ranked as the happiest country in the world. Wonderful. That makes sense. They have almost a year of paid leave. Moms and dads are allowed to share it. It sounds great. But when you look at the economy, they are also the top producing—their GDP is the highest per capita of any top economic country in the world. It’s kind of amazing.

And on top of that, they have more moms who work than any country in the world. They also have more moms who work full time, which is a really important distinction. It’s not just that they have, you know, mothers really involved in the workplace. They have mothers who are REALLY involved in the workplace, are also incredibly happy, have also taken this time away from their jobs. And somehow the economy is still moving forward at a good clip.

This is so far away from what we have in the United States, it’s almost—it’s sad, but it’s almost laughable

The women I interviewed told me that they felt better, kind of more back to normal physically at about the 5.5-month mark after having a baby. And I was careful to define that as not necessarily back in your pre-pregnancy jeans, that’s not what I meant. It’s really more about feeling comfortable in your skin. So that’s the 5.5 month mark on average for all these women.

And these were women who had all approaches to career and motherhood. There were single moms, adoptive moms, there were mothers who worked in hourly wage working jobs and more professional jobs, really as broad a spectrum of approaches as I could find. These women reported feeling back to normal physically after 5.5 months. Emotionally, it was actually a little longer, it was 5.8 months, which is really interesting because when you look at the science of what a good parental leave looks like, it is six months of paid leave because, according to the research that's been done, six months is the point at which a mother is much less likely to suffer from a postpartum mood disorder or anxiety disorder. That is also: six months of paid leave is the protective amount for baby’s health. And babies who have had mothers who have been able to take that amount of leave paid are much more likely to be vaccinated on time, are actually less likely to have ear infections and respiratory infections, it’s been shown—which sounds really specific, but it is actually due to their mother’s ability to breastfeed longer which—and I’m very much of a “fed is best” kind of person, however you feed your baby, great, I just want you to be able to make the choices that are best for you.

So basically all of the science shows that it takes at least six months to start really feeling normal again. And that’s because you are hormonal. Your body has been through the most enormous change any body could go through, and yet you are expected to be back on the job just the way you were before.

So yes, unfortunately, we—the ‘we’ is not me, the ‘we’ is our greater society and culture—undervalues parents in the workplace, particularly moms.

Three not-so-trivial reasons America needs paid parental leave? Happiness, health, and productivity, says Lauren Smith Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester. Of the 18 top-performing economies in the world, the United States is the only country that does not allow guaranteed paid leave, and it's ranked in the bottom 10 of 193 UN member states. "When you look at the science of what a good parental leave looks like, it is six months of paid leave," says Smith Brody. Research shows that six months is the point at which a mother is much less likely to suffer from a postpartum mood disorder or anxiety disorder, that children are more likely to be vaccinated on time and suffer from less ear and respiratory infections. It's also a boon to the economy, as nations like Norway show by giving 12 months of paid parental leave while maintaining the highest per capita GDP of any top economic country in the world. Paid parental leave is not the drain on resources people erroneously assume, says Smith Brody. The United States could and should have a policy that helps support the economy, and creates a healthier and happier next generation that can contribute in turn. The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby