In a recent conversation, my dear niece, who is about to give birth to her second child, expressed some concern about how she is going to cope once the new baby is born. She has just started a new job as a contract worker and, consequently, is not eligible for paid leave. Her husband is a salaried employee in a new job but has not been employed long enough by his company to be eligible for paid family leave. They must both take leave without pay to care for the new baby, and they cannot afford to go without any income for very long. In addition, because she just started this new job and is a contract worker, she feels she will risk losing her job if she takes leave for more than a short time. And did I mention the high cost of day care for their two-year-old? No wonder she feels worried.
My niece’s situation is a common one for working parents and by itself makes the case for the need for extended parental leave for both parents. New research, however, adds to our understanding of the need for extended parental leave: a new mother’s health and the health of her new baby may depend on the father or other parent being available on a flexible basis to care for both the mother and baby. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times reports on a new study by researchers Maya Rossin-Slater and Petra Persson, economists at Stanford. Miller notes, “The researchers . . . studied the effects of a 2012 Swedish law that allows fathers to take up to 30 days, as needed, in the year after a birth, while the mother is still on leave.” Miller explains that in the first couple of months after giving birth, often referred to as the fourth trimester, mothers are particularly vulnerable for multiple reasons:
- Physical and mental recovery from pregnancy and delivery
- Sleep deprivation
- Exhaustion from round-the-clock care giving and possibly breast-feeding
- Potential need to work to earn a living wage during this vulnerable period
The researchers found several positive effects when Sweden changed its law to allow fathers or other parents to take up to thirty paid days on a flexible basis:
- A 26 percent drop in antianxiety prescriptions
- A 14 percent reduction in hospitalizations or visits to specialists
- An 11 percent decrease in antibiotic prescriptions
The key to these changes, according to the researchers, was that “the policy allowed fathers [or other parents] to take intermittent, unplanned days of paid leave” when the mother needed it to sleep, seek preventive care, or get antibiotics early in an infection. In fact, the typical father in Sweden took only an extra couple of days of time off, but his flexibility when it mattered most had a significantly positive impact on the physical and mental health of the mother.
Miller points out that the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have mandated paid leave. Shamefully, this leads to some alarming statistics:
- American maternal mortality—which includes childbirth-related deaths in the year after a birth—has increased 50 percent in a generation.
- African American infant and maternal mortality is especially high due to the added stress of dealing with racism.
- Other developed countries have much lower maternal mortality.
- Sweden offers sixteen months of paid parental leave for parents to divide between them. In the United States, only seven states offer paid leave for between four and twelve weeks but often only for the mother.
We are actually moving backward in the United States. The United States Department of Labor is reviewing the Family and Medical Leave Act with a goal of reducing “the burden on employers” of being required to offer even unpaid leave. We can do better than this, but we will have to put pressure on our lawmakers at both the state and federal levels to pass laws requiring flexible paid leave for both parents for reasonable periods of time—more than four weeks and probably more than twelve weeks. Research such as this new study reported by Miller can go a long way to help make the case. We must all call and write our legislators and vote for candidates that support paid leave.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash