On the eve of Mother’s Day, the day when we spend thousands of dollars honoring our mothers, is a good time to reflect on how our country feels about motherhood. While millions of dollars go into the corporatization of celebrating Mothers Day, the U.S. is one of five developed countries that do not offer paid leave; nor do we provide affordable childcare or real breast feeding friendly workplaces for mothers.
One study (from Harvard University) shows that out of 173 countries, only five provided no paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, Swaziland, Liberia, and the United States. France and the Netherlands offer sixteen weeks of paid leave; six before the child is born and the remaining ten after the birth. Sweden, the most generous of all, gives women eighteen months of maternity leave and the option of a six hour work day with benefits until the child reaches school age.
Of course there are some “progressive” companies that do offer their employees paid leave in the U.S., but even that amount is paltry. Approximately 8% of women in this country actually get some sort of paid maternity leave. Furthermore, only 8% of the “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers” offer more than 12 weeks paid leave. 20% of them offer 7-8 weeks, but these numbers are minimal compared to 18 months in Sweden (Institute for Women’s Policy Research). At the state university where I work, the faculty and professional staff are given the federally required 12 weeks of FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), but most women and men cannot afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, so they take what they can from their personal, vacation and sick time, averaging seven or eight weeks at the most. New Jersey is currently considering a bill to provide six weeks paid leave to care for newborns.
When women do return to work, often sooner than they would like, they struggle to continue breastfeeding. While 70% of mothers breastfeed, only 36% continue when their children are 6 months old. Only 14% of children over 6 months old are exclusively breastfed (Breastfeeding Medicine). One of my colleagues wanted to breastfeed for a full year and stopped after her son was 6 months old. After returning to work, she could only manage to breastfeed for another six weeks because the only place she could pump was in the restroom in a residence hall, which is not the most sanitary place to pump nor was she offered the appropriate amount of time in which to take the time she needed to pump as often as she should and her milk dried up. She, of course, felt as many women in her situation do; that she had failed her child and was a bad mother for not breastfeeding for a year.
This same woman is not able to choose to have another child because having two children in childcare would cost her more than what she makes at her job. She would have to stop working if she and her spouse had another child. She wants to work and be a mother to more than one child, but cannot afford to do so.
So on this Mother’s Day, if you really care about mothers, perhaps along with sending your mom a card, you could also drop a note to your Congressperson to support reform on maternity leave that is dictated by family friendly policies rather than corporate greed.