Thesis statement: The US has the worst maternity/parental leave policy in the world.
As a political science student in university, I remember hearing about Sweden’s liberal parental leave policy from my Western European Politics professor. He did some graduate studies in Sweden, and his first child was born there. What I remembered from my professor was that Sweden offered 2 years of parental leave, to be divided between the mother and father as they wish. While on leave, parents received 80% of their salary.
To a 20-year-old college student, this was interesting, but not personal. Today, nearly 10 years later, maternity leave has suddenly become very personal.
Hold on; this is going to get a little boring before I get to my main point. In September, I’ll get 12 weeks of leave, unpaid. I can use my accrued vacation time and sick time during those 12 weeks and be paid depending on what I have accrued, but other than that, I’m on my own.
I also had the option of signing up for short-term disability, which meant a portion of my paycheck would go into a sort of savings account. The short-term disability would pay me 60% of my salary for the unpaid portion of my leave (i.e. the part after using my vacation and sick time). So really, this isn’t a benefit, this is me paying a form of insurance out of my own paycheck. And if I didn’t use the short-term disability, that money would be gone.
I was curious about how US parental leave compared to other countries. Rather than relying on my foggy college student memories, I decided to do a little research. And that’s when I saw how truly poor our system is. Not only is it bad, but I would argue that the US has the worst system in the world.
The Danish are reported to be the happiest people on earth. There are surely many reasons for this, but a generous social policy plays a big part. In Denmark, new parents can take 52 weeks of parental leave at 100% pay. Two of those weeks must be taken by the father (to encourage equal parenting), but the rest of the 50 weeks can be divided between the couple as they wish.
And what about my hazy memories of Swedish policy? Were those right? Swedes get 460 days (16 months) of parental leave at 82% pay, which again, can be divided between the couple.
In my husband’s passport country, The Netherlands, women can take off 16 weeks at 100% pay and up to 26 weeks unpaid. The government gives about 50% pay to workers on unpaid leave through tax breaks. Romania, one of the poorer nations in Europe, gives women 126 days off (about 4 months) at 85% pay.
Even African nations offer between 12 to 14 weeks of leave, at about 100% pay. Tunisia, which only offers 4 weeks of leave, gives that leave at 67% pay. And in Ecuador, where I hold dual citizenship, the time off is the same as the US (12 weeks), but at 100% pay. (I realize that in many developing nations, these policies are available only to professional women. The working poor are likely forced to return to work a day or two after giving birth, in order to keep their jobs. It goes without saying that this is inhumane.)
What about Canada, our closest neighbor in both vicinity and culture? My college roommate moved to Canada with her husband and got a job at a Canadian nonprofit. She took a year off (50 weeks) for maternity leave, at 55% pay. By law, she could have shared 35 of those weeks with her husband.
So it’s fair to say, the US has, if not the worst, among the top 5 worst parental leave policies in the world. In a way, I understand it. I see that it’s going to be a hardship on my company (and my coworkers) for me to be gone for 12 weeks. I see that our American values put priority on work and especially on working hard. These policies definitely favor business over the individual. According to my husband, our hard work has made us a wealthy nation. (China, a country poised to become a world economic powerhouse where hard work is also prized, gives women 90 days off, at 100% pay for maternity leave.)
It’s good that our country values hard work, but what about families? When we sacrifice family time and especially those first two critical years in a child’s development, what are we saying? Is that what we want our country to be: a nation that puts businesses and moneymaking ahead of people and children? No wonder we have so many social problems. No wonder we have so many more violent crimes than Western Europe. I’m not saying that parental leave policy leads directly to social problems and crime, but those problems are directly related to our national values.
I don’t expect any of this to change at any time in the near future. Look at our health care problems, which we’ve known about for years. So I guess all it boils down to is this: 1) I should have moved to another country before deciding to start a family, and 2) don’t have a baby in the US.