By Arielle Hines
On my first night home for winter break, I was sprawled on the couch, mindlessly gazing at my iPhone 5 when a New York Times article caught my eye — and eventually my emotions.
The New York Times reports that the number of working women between the ages 25-54 has dropped by five percent since 1999. However, in other countries, including Switzerland, Germany and France, the number of women participating in the workforce continues to increase.
How is the United States different than these countries?
It’s the one developed country without federally mandated maternity leave.
Think about that. Women in every developed country have paid maternity leave except this country, the one that likes to proclaim itself the “best/most powerful” country in the world.
The 1993 federal Maternal Leave Act provides 12 weeks leave for workers with a new child, newborn or adopted, or an ill family member. However, there is no guarantee that time is paid.
California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only states that offer paid maternity leave.
An infographic created by the Huffington Post compares maternity leave women receive across the globe. For example, mothers in South Korea and China get 90 days fully paid maternity leave. Women in Indonesia and India get 84 days of fully-paid maternity leave. French women receive 112 days of fully paid maternity leave.
I have known for a while that American maternity leave is pathetic compared to other countries, but I wasn’t aware that it was actually affecting how many women were in the workforce.
Why it’s a problem
A Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times/CBS News poll shows that women are much more likely than men to not work because of their families.
Sixty-one percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men. Of women who identify as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.
It takes a lot to make me angry, but I found this to be infuriating. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older.
I’m turning 21 this month, the same age my mom was when she became pregnant with me. A growing number of my peers are becoming engaged or hope to start families within the next couple of years.
I just got through a great, but stressful, semester. I took 15 credit hours, worked for four publications, served on the e-board the Society of Professional Journalists and was involved with an honors fraternity. On top of that, I started the agonizing process of applying for summer internships, and I covered the midterm election for Reuters.
There was something about reading that Times story that made me realize this would probably affect my life and my friends’ lives.
When I shared the link on Facebook, several women of a wide variety of ages and ideologies commented on how difficult it is to balance a career and motherhood. Women my age commented how they weren’t sure how they were going to balance work and family.
Then, I was really nervous because I realized my reaction was the same as other women. Normally, it’s comforting to know people feel the same way as you, but this time it was frightening because it meant that it was real.
Many women my age, including me, have been taught that we are able/expected to have both a family and career, that we can “have it all.” I began to wonder if my generation had been misinformed.
In a perfect world, both political parties would support having longer and paid maternity leave for women.
Republicans often try to present themselves as the party who supports family values, hard work and often are against government assistance. It seems that having paid maternity leave would encourage women to have families and give the newborn the best start in life.
It would also be easier for women to keep their jobs and, therefore, would be less likely to require government support.
However, the GOP doesn’t feel that way.
In 2013, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Family and Medical Leave Act. The bill would have given .02 percent of workers’ paychecks to the Social Security Administration, which in return would pay for 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and caretakers. Parents would the only receive 66.6 percent of their pay during that time.
So, what happened to the bill? It went nowhere in the Republican House. Not a single GOP representative supported it, and neither did dozens of Democrats. Paid leave would hurt small business, they said.
I’d be willing to believe this concern if it wasn’t for every other developed country having paid maternity leave. Small businesses in England, Australia, France, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa and most of the planet have survived. Why would America be any different?
Federally mandated maternity leave seems to be a radical concept only to Republicans in Congress. It’s ironic that a party tied to its pro-life stances don’t seem to care much for the well-being of a baby once it’s born.
As I sat sprawling on the couch, I didn’t know if I wanted children. Would I be provided with paid maternity leave? If not, would I be able to afford going three months without pay in order to care for my baby? How would I be able to maintain my career and raise children?
I still don’t know. But children are born every day to moms in America who have to answer these questions.
Maybe I and others my age won’t ever have to.