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What’s the Right Amount of Time for Paid Parental Leave?

Topics: Current Events

Something’s gotta give with paid parental leave (or lack thereof) in the United States, because our situation is dire. Just how bad is it? NPR reports, “Out of 193 countries in the United Nations, only a small handful do not have a national paid parental leave law: New Guinea, Suriname, a few South Pacific island nations and the United States.” But, even if paid parental leave is granted to working parents in America, one question still remains: how long is long enough?

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Image Credit: Wayne Evans/Pexels

Today’s households and workplaces look a bit different than they did back in the 1950s. Back then, a father’s main role was to bring home the bacon, while mom cared for the kids and the home. Nowadays, nearly half of two-parent households have both parents working full-time, and “in 40% of all families with children, the mother is the sole or primary breadwinner,” according to Pew Research Center. As progressive and developed as we are, our nation’s paid parental-leave mandates sure paint a different picture for its working parents.

The Embarrassing State of Parental Leave in the U.S.

In America, a new parent is granted 12 weeks of uncompensated maternity leave over the course of the child’s first year of life. Even then, nearly a quarter of new moms end up returning to work just two weeks after giving birth, mostly out of necessity. What this means is that there are a whole lot of new mothers returning to the workplace and not at home caring for or bonding with their newborns — and that’s a problem.

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A Pediatrician’s Perspective

In an interview for NPR’s Stretched: Working Parents’ Juggling Act, an All Things Considered series, Dr. Benard Dreyer, who is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the New York University School of Medicine and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says that “parental leave is better the longer it is” and “there’s no cutoff for the increased benefits of longer leave.” In fact, if it were up to Dr. Dreyer, he’d have America’s paid parental leave policy be a minimum of six to nine months, which is still shy of the 12 months of paid maternity leave that most of Europe and Canada offer working moms. (Plus, Canada and Europe offer paid leave for dads, too — something Dreyer supports.)

Father-Child Bonding

“Just two weeks or so of paternity leave can make a big difference in a dad’s long-term engagement with the child,” says Dr. Dreyer, who also points out that this time off (read: bonding time) for dads also encourages them to be more involved in the child’s life in the months following birth, which “decreases stress on the family and contributes to father-infant bonding.”

The early months of a newborn’s life — usually the first six to nine months — are so crucial for parent-child bonding. From a health and developmental perspective, having at least one parent around for the first year of the child’s life is extremely beneficial.

Decreases Postpartum Depression

Dreyer also stresses, “There’s very strong evidence that family leave decreases maternal depression.” Postpartum depression is more common than you may think, but, unfortunately, it’s also something most moms are too ashamed to admit. It’s stressful enough not having a sufficient income or time off to be with your new baby. Then mix in the “mom guilt” of having to drop your 3-month old off with a stranger at daycare so that you can return to work (read: earn a paycheck) while dealing with the debilitating cost of childcare — well, that’s enough to drive anyone mad. What’s more, “maternal depression prevents mother-infant bonding and has negative effects on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development,” warns Dreyer. Adequate paid maternity leave could very well lessen or even eliminate the burden of dealing with all of these issues shortly after giving birth.

The aforementioned benefits are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to offering paid parental leave to working parents in America — but here we are, lingering at the bottom of the global list for paid parental leave for far too long.

Learn more about what it’s really like for working parents in America, here.

Tell Us What You Think

In your opinion, how long is long enough for time off with a newborn? Join the conversation happening on Twitter, or leave your answer below in the comments.

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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