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Why Parental Leave Is Just the First Step

When it comes to paid leave, there are bigger, better goals ahead.

flickr / Penumbra

The U.S. is out of step with much of the world when it comes to paid leave policies. Of the 193 countries in the U.N., the U.S. joins a small smattering of nations — such as Suriname and New Guinea — that don’t have laws on the books supporting paid parental leave. The U.S. is the only high-wealth country on that list of seven. In his budgets, President Obama also pushed for paid family leave, but was thwarted by Congress. The issue was not a part of the 2016 Republican platform, but Ivanka Trump reportedly swayed the current president on the issue. In his 2018 budget proposal, Donald Trump included a new federal policy for paid parental leave — six weeks paid, six weeks unpaid.

“Even though Trump’s is a draconian budget, it embeds the idea of paid parental leave, however paltry, into our dialogue,” says Vicki Shabo, Vice President of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “It suggests that paid leave is not just a pipe dream — it’s an idea that requires serious deliberation,” she says.

Public policy advocates like Shabo, would rather see a policy double that of Trump’s proposal —  twelve weeks paid. It’s a reasonable goal, she posits, and an entire month less than the policy recommended by the European Union for its member states. But she admits Trump’s plan is better than nothing.

More interesting than its inclusion is the fact that you can search the Trump’s budget document without finding a single reference to “maternity leave,” let alone “paternity leave.” Even the Trump administration — not exactly a bellwether of progressive politics — is referring to their proposed policy with the non-gendered term “family leave.” So what became of the fight for paternity leave? In short, it became the fight for family leave.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that this a reflection of the recent and progressive idea that maternity and paternity leave are essentially intertwined.

“The general trend is in the bonding phase — the first four to six months — fathers are taking on a more active role. Taking time off of work promotes that,” says Dr. Brad Harrington, Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. “If only women are given paid leave, they have all of the momentum in caregiving, and it continues that way.”

Apart from pointing to the long-term benefits of an active father in his child’s learning abilities, Harrington has found that an equal split of the child-rearing work is good for a father’s mental health. The fathers Harrington calls “egalitarian dads” — those who share a split of child-rearing work 50-50, are happier in both work and life than conflicted ones — those dads who believe the work should be divided in half but admit that their partner does more.

Research is also proving out the benefits of parental leave at the same time it’s showing the potential benefits. A recent report from The National Partnership for Women and Families shows that, in addition to helping new parents, strong paid leave policies relieve significant financial and time burdens experienced by younger generations caring for family members age 65 or older —a population expected to double by more than 30 million in the next 15 years. The report reveals that more than half of those caring for an older parent say it negatively impacts their job. While this may not seem particularly novel, the type and amount of care these adults are providing is changing significantly, particularly when it comes to older adults.

Harrington understands this issue. “The same people who are championing paid parental leave realize that time for elder care is critical too,” he says.

Another benefit for paid leave in equal measures for both mom and dad: studies have shown that a woman’s future wages increase with every month her partner takes parental leave. When the majority of the childcare burden falls on their shoulders, mothers are likely to miss promotions and raises. Those possible salary bumps, of course, affect a kid’s life. “Everything from the school they’re able to go to, to the food they eat, to the safety of their neighborhood, to their college choice,” says Shabo.

The growing awareness that spending time with teenage children could be almost as critical as spending time with a new baby blurs the line between what constitutes caregiving and parental behaviors. Gary Barker, President and CEO of the NGO Promundo and the founder of MenCare, a campaign to promote men’s involvement as equitable caregivers and parents, points to the Nordic models. Leave policies in such countries as Sweden offer each parent four months of paid leave, plus four months shared between them, from the time of a child’s birth to be used anytime before they turn twelve.

“There’s no reason that couldn’t be until they turn sixteen. These models are moving toward flexibility,” Barker says. “In the long term, family leave doesn’t add up to much — offer an employee the flexible time off they need and they may stay five or ten years with your company, rather than a year and a half.”

At least in part for this reason, companies in tech and finance – places like Facebook, Adobe, Discovery, Netflix, and Patagonia–have pushed forward with progressive leave plans. In October, financial services company Deloitte introduced a comprehensive plan that offers 16 weeks of fully paid leave to support employees’ care of spouses, children, or elders — and six months of paid leave for new mothers. That’s the kind of leave that matters.

Still, a truly progressive federal parental leave policy is unlikely to congeal tomorrow. Trump’s modest plan relies on state unemployment insurance, which in many cases is underfunded. It may prove more talking point than policy effort.

Where will public progress come from in the short term? States, cities, and forward-thinking companies. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island currently have family leave plans; New York state comes online with one in 2018, and Washington D.C. in 2020.

“The agitators are going to be local,” says Barker. “So far, progressive companies, towns, and states are doing far more than the federal government. Personally, I think that’s where things are gonna go.”