I try mostly to stay away from politics on this blog. I could justify that in many different ways, but it boils down to this: I want people to like me, and eventually to buy my books, and not be put off by my political views. It’s too easy, when people only “know” you online, to come across as obnoxious and preachy and I don’t want to be either of those things. I probably am both of them in real life, but in real life I also hug people, laugh with them over glasses of wine, and make their babies smile. Even if I disagree with them politically – as I do with some of my closest friends – I remain a person, rather than a one-dimensional online figure they can, to borrow the horrendous grammatical phrase, “hate on”. (See how easily I slip into preaching mode?)
Anyway, all of that being said, I woke up in the middle of the night last night and checked my email (as, of course,
you do), and lo! My long-set-up Google Alert on family leave had yielded something. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I also still can’t quite believe that despite my virulent interest in politics in general and this issue in particular, and despite the fact I am currently interning in Congress, it has taken me a week to catch up to this news, but better late than never and I am belatedly and metaphorically drinking champagne as we speak.
The news is this: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have introduced a bill for paid family leave.
It’s an issue close to my heart, because in my first novel, Inevitable, the main character is a Senator who does the same.
I also wrote a speech last year on the subject. The occasion was a competition at American University commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s commencement address, which was the famous speech in which he called for a nuclear test ban treaty. (“Not just peace in our time, but peace for all time.”) We were supposed to imagine him giving another commencement speech and choosing another policy area to speak on. Granted, it is unlikely he would have picked paid parental leave as his topic, but nonetheless, that was what I went with. So for those interested, and because I want to be part of this conversation, here is the speech I wrote back then.
President Kerwin, members of the faculty, Board of Trustees, distinguished guests:
I’m glad I didn’t scare you off the first time. I guess I’d need to come up with something more frightening than world peace to do that.
In all seriousness, thank you: it is an honor to speak again at this university.
A global outlook. Practical idealism. A passion for public service. The values of AU are the values that beat in my own heart.
From the beginning, American University broke new ground: out of its first 28 students, five were women.
This was at a time before women could vote.
A time when women expected to stay home after getting married.
A time when women could not easily divorce and were often trapped in loveless marriages.
Yet we have an unfinished task before us. Across the world, women are still not receiving equal pay for equal work. Girls are still not being educated at anything like the rate of boys.
And right here at home, there is one issue which gets hardly any attention, and yet desperately needs that attention.
For the sake of our children, our families, and our businesses. For the sake of the economic health and the social well-being of America.
It’s an issue that affects all of us, because all of us are someone’s child, and many of us are or will be parents. It’s also an issue that disproportionately affects women.
It’s the issue of paid parental leave.
Parenthood is full of sacrifice. Your moms and dads here today can attest to that.
Today is the culmination of all they have worked for.
All they have toiled for.
All they have hoped for.
You have made it through. You have made them proud.
Your mothers and fathers, I guarantee you, have been looking back on the task of parenthood today.
They remembered bringing you back from the hospital, little fists balled up in your oversized mittens.
They remembered wiping away a tear as they dropped you at kindergarten for the first time.
They remembered packing suitcases and sending you off to college, their hearts heavy, their homes emptier.
You have all of that ahead of you with your own children. And it may seem a long way off. It may be a decade or two away – but those years will go past quicker than you think. And then you will be faced with a decision: work or kids? Which to prioritize?
That may sound like an easy choice. On the day you bring your firstborn home from the hospital, it will seem like a no-brainer. But the reality as it stands now is that the choice will not be so easy.
You will have three months – just 12 weeks – to bond with the child.
To get used to being a mom or dad.
To recover physically from the birth if you are the biological mother.
And you only have those three months if, like around half of Americans, you work for a company or organization with fifty or more employees.
If you are lucky enough to be eligible, 12 weeks are guaranteed by law. That, at least, was progress when the Clinton administration passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. But those 12 weeks are not guaranteed in practice.
And that’s because few people can afford to take three months of unpaid leave.
There is plenty to worry about with a newborn: is he eating enough? Is she eating too much? Does he need his diaper changed? Is she running a fever? Will this child ever go to sleep?
To those natural worries, our nation is the only one in the industrialized world that unnecessarily adds the financial concerns of unpaid family leave.
Take Carolyn Stout. She planned carefully for the birth of her daughter Catherine. She saved up enough vacation and sick days to take 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. But her baby did not arrive on her due date. They often don’t.
Wisely, Carolyn stopped work nonetheless. She didn’t want to be 30 miles from home, just in case. (My wife also informs me that being nine months pregnant is not all that conducive to sitting at a desk for eight hours a day.)
Baby Catherine arrived a week late. That left 11 weeks.
Then she developed an infection, and had to stay in the hospital another week. That left 10 weeks.
10 weeks to bond with her mother.
10 weeks to be breastfed – when the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life.
Baby Catherine doesn’t always take the bottle well. She sometimes gets hysterical and needs her mother to nurse her to calm her down. But 10 weeks after baby Catherine went home, her mother was taken away from her.
Afghanistan, a nation where just one in four people can read, gives its new mothers 12 weeks off with pay.
Djibouti, plagued with drought and civil war and populated by nomadic herders, has a fourteen-week paid maternal leave policy in place.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, among the very poorest nation on earth, pays new mothers to stay home with their newborns for fifteen weeks.
And those are not the nations to which we are accustomed to comparing ourselves.
We are more accustomed to comparing ourselves, for example, with the United Kingdom. 39 weeks of paid leave for the mother and two weeks for the father, with plans for increases in both.
Or Denmark, where the mother and father can share up to a year of paid leave.
Or Canada, where employers are required to accept new moms back into their jobs after 17 to 52 weeks of paid leave.
America should not the trail the world.
America should lead the world.
America should inspire the world to greatness.
So let’s put in place what others have had for decades. That’s the least we can do. Let’s give our new moms and dads unpressured times with their little ones. Three months, at least.
Paid parental leave is good for the economy. Studies show that women and men who get paid leave after the birth of their child receive less public assistance. They don’t go into debt as much. They have greater family economic security, and that means they can continue spending.
Paid parental leave is good for business. Google increased its leave allowance to new mothers in 2007. After that, they found that twice as many new moms stayed in the company. Given the cost of hiring new workers, and the hard work of training them, that’s not nothing.
Paid parental leave is good for mothers. Post-partum and post-adoption depression rates are lower for women who have it.
Paid parental leave is good for fathers. It gives them the chance to bond with their child and to feel included, which lays a foundation for a healthy family life.
Paid parental leave is good for children. Kids whose mothers go back to work within 12 weeks of giving birth are less likely to get all the medical check-ups and immunizations necessary in the first year and a half of life.
That seems like something we should want to fix.
It’s been said – rightly – that women’s right are human rights. Well, my fellow Americans, so are children’s rights.
Children’s health, a family’s emotional well-being, benefit to business: all of these are good for our country. All of them are good for our economy. All of them are well worth the investment.
That’s why I’m calling on Congress today – calling on anyone and everyone listening who has the power to change the status quo – to look into implementing at least six months of leave, three of it paid, for all mothers of newborns. And not only to look into it. To actually implement it.
My fellow Americans, we went to the moon. We planted our flag in a distant satellite and we were rightly proud. We did it not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
Will we shrink from the challenge of providing for our families?
This challenge which is perhaps harder than it ought to be – but which is nothing compared to space travel?
This challenge which, instead of displaying American glory, will develop American growth, by strengthening our families?
Our families, who are the backbone of our society.
Graduates of American University, you have been well-trained by this excellent institution for a productive and positive role in society.
Some of you sitting here today will go to law school. You can make a difference.
Some of you will run for office or help others to run. You can make a difference.
All of you can play your part. Vote. Encourage others to vote. Organize. Call your Representative in Congress. Make your voices heard.
You can make a difference. You should make a difference. You will make a difference.
We have never been a nation who shrinks from challenges.
Let us not shrink from this one.
- How The New Paid Family Leave Bill Will Benefit Everyone (thinkprogress.org)
- Length of Maternity Leave and Postpartum Depression: A Connection? (medhealthwriter.blogspot.com)
- Longer maternity leaves lower women’s risk of postpartum depression (eurekalert.org)
- We are FAMILY (Act)! (ladyeconomist.com)