In September, my wife Karaka and I will welcome a baby girl into our family. I’m overjoyed. We’re already the parents of a 3-year-old boy, William, who makes me laugh harder and more often than anyone I know. Granted, for a long time William woke us up two to three times a night, and it took us almost three years before he began regularly sleeping until a reasonable hour. I know Baby Girl, when she comes, will also turn me into a sleep-deprived zombie version of my normal self.
But for all its challenges, frustrations and pitfalls – being a parent is entirely exhausting and all-consuming – parenthood has already been one of the great joys of my life. I hope and fully expect it will continue to make me incredibly happy.
Before William was born, Karaka and I planned out how she and I would split time off from the date of William’s birth until we had to return to work because of financial and legal pressures. We decided Karaka would take 14 weeks off of work; about three-and-a-half months.
FMLA Offers Unpaid Leave — for Some
In America, where we live, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), guarantees parents of newborn children “up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year, and requires group health benefits to be maintained during the leave as if employees continued to work instead of taking leave.” (It’s very important to note that FMLA maternity leave policies don’t apply to all workers; the law only applies to employees who have worked for at least 12 months at a company with at least 50 employees, and there are various other restrictions.)
In case you glossed over “unpaid” in the previous paragraph, let me bring your attention back to that one crucial word. FMLA guarantees “up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.” Living in Seattle, there was no way we could afford to cut one income out of our family for that length of time and make ends meet. So of the 14 weeks Karaka took, two were vacation, and four were short-term disability; during the latter, Karaka received 60 percent of her normal salary up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. (The cap has since been raised to $2,000 a week.) With our savings – which we reduced to effectively nothing during this time – this made it possible to take time off to see our new baby for lengthy durations of time on a daily basis during the crucial early days of his life. Not to mention keeping him fed and alive.
When Karaka returned to work, after what seemed to be an entirely too-short amount of time, I took a month away from my job; “paternity leave.” This, too, would have been entirely unpaid leave, had I not scattered the occasional vacation day among my unpaid days off.
Even When It’s Available, Taking Leave Isn’t Easy
Paternity leave was a kick in the ass.
Presuming I’d be caring for a baby who spent most of his day asleep, I drew up an entire list of “to-dos” I thought I could accomplish around the house while Will napped. I accomplished none of them.
On my first day home alone with Will, also Karaka’s first day back at work, she returned home to find us both still in our pajamas, asleep together on the bed. I hadn’t showered and had barely eaten all day. When Kar came in, I opened my eyes long enough to say, “Take him.” Then I passed out for four hours.
That night, I reset my expectations. I realized the only realistic goal for the next four weeks would be keeping our newborn fed, clean, and safe. From that moment, my every waking moment was doing just that. I showered while Will napped, poking my head out from behind the shower curtain every five seconds or so to make sure he was OK. I ate when I could, which wasn’t regularly; I vividly remember a morning when I shoveled down a huge bowl of leftover spaghetti Bolognese at about 7 a.m., knowing it might be my only opportunity to eat until Karaka came home from work.
If you’ve never cared for a newborn, let me tell you; it ain’t easy.
But I’m so, so glad I took those four weeks away from work to be with William. I felt – and feel – that those four weeks were when I really became a father. I learned how to properly change a diaper, how to soothe a crying baby, how to get him to take bottle … and I know we forged a bond that we might never had had a chance to had I stayed in the office. And eventually, my parenting skills evolved. Near the end of my leave, I was even able to put Will in the jogging stroller for laps around our local park!
Despite the financial stress that Karaka and I experienced during our time away from work, we know we were tremendously lucky. Even though our leave was largely unpaid, we were financially stable enough to absorb the hit to our bank account and still make rent, pay for food, and even enjoy the occasional dinner out … once we were confident Will wouldn’t scream at the top of his lungs throughout the meal.
Why Many Workers Can’t Afford to Take Leave
Because FMLA only guarantees unpaid leave from work, not everyone can afford to take time away from their job to care for their newborn children. It breaks my heart that so many new mothers and fathers are forced to leave their children so soon after they’re born. It’s truly a crushing thought, and a harsh reality of life.
Many other countries easily surpass our national standard in terms of maternity and paternity leave. In fact, the truth is that the United States falls at the back of the pack in this arena.
Because FMLA only guarantees unpaid leave, not everyone can afford to take time away from their job.
As reported in Fortune, according to a survey released in 2014 by the United Nation’s labor agency, “of the 185 countries and territories it had data for, all but three provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave. The exceptions to the rule? Oman, Papua New Guinea, and — you guessed it — the United States.”
Other countries offer much longer leave, and ensure at least some of a worker’s wages continue to be paid while they’re away from work. Iceland, for example, guarantees “3 months for the mother, 3 months for the father, and 3 months that can be taken by either parent (total of 9 months).” And during this time, 80 percent of wages continued to be paid. In Germany, 65 percent of wages are paid to the mother for up to 14 months!
Paid Parental Leave Benefits Everyone
The fact that the United States only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave can be unhealthy for both the baby and the parents.
According to a 2015 study by CNN:
…paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10%, and increases the likelihood of infants getting well-baby care visits and vaccinations. Paid parental leave can also increase the rate and duration of breast-feeding. A 2011 study in California found that women who had paid leave breast-fed twice as long as women who did not take leave. Babies who are breast-fed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are less likely to get a variety of infections and are also at lower risk for asthma, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome. There are benefits to mothers, too, as women who breast-feed are less likely to get breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC.
Paid leave also benefits the mothers of newborn children. The same study found:
There can be mental health effects, as well, of having job-protected, paid leave after the birth of a child. In one study, women who took longer than 12 weeks maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression and improvement in their overall mental health.
And there are benefits for fathers, too, and on how fathers interact with their growing family. As reported in The Economist, a study of children born around the turn of the century in America, Australia, Britain and Denmark showed that:
…after controlling for income and education, the researchers found that fathers in all countries who had taken time off work when their child was born were more likely to pitch in than others. Five out of ten who had taken paternity leave claimed to change nappies daily, against four out of ten of those who hadn’t; they were also more likely to feed, dress, bathe and play with their child.
… the survey showed that these habits, formed during the child’s first year, seem to stick. By the time the children were aged two, dads who had taken leave still reported doing more than those who hadn’t. And as their children got older they branched out from routine drudgery to more educational interaction. In Britain dads who took time off at birth were almost a third more likely to read books with their toddlers than those who hadn’t; in America the difference was nearly a half. Paternity leave is too new in most places for longer-term effects to be known. But a Norwegian study found that it improved performance at secondary school; daughters, especially, seemed to flourish if their dads had taken time off.
As the expectant father of a little girl, that last line really jumps out at me.
There is hope for American parents, however, for both moms and dads.
According to CNN, though it’s still far from common, at least 17 big employers have either introduced or expanded paid leave options for new dads in 2015 and 2016:
Only one of them – Hilton – offered what is considered the bare minimum of 2 weeks. Other companies, by contrast, now offer anywhere from 6 weeks to 26 weeks, or in the case of Netflix, as much time as a new parent needs in the first year.
You read that right. In 2015, Netflix announced employees can take unlimited paid parental leave during the year after their child is born, and their full salaries are also guaranteed over the course of that time. Yowza. And it seems more and more American companies are getting onboard with similar plans.
And while it can be expensive to pay employees while they’re not actually working, there’s an incentive for employers to offer paid family leave, too: they’re more likely to keep their best workers.
“Netflix’s continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field. Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home,” said Netflix chief talent officer Tawni Cranz when the company announced the change to their policy, as reported by CNN.
Additionally, there may be hope at a national legal level, too. Just this week it was reported that Republican Senator Marco Rubio and daughter of the president Ivanka Trump are working together to arrive at a compromise in terms of providing paid family leave and new tax benefits to parents. Indeed, President Trump’s recently proposed budget includes a six-week paid leave plan for new parents.
Compared to many other first-world countries, it may not be much. But it’s something.
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Does your organization provide leave for new parents? If so, tell us how you make it work. Share your story in the comments.
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