The issue of paid parental leave for all parents – yes, this includes fathers, those who adopt, and same sex couples – is a big topic with the presidential candidates. And the answers are clearly divided along party lines – Democrats: pro. Republicans: con.
Becoming a parent is certainly no party, and parental leave deserves serious discussion, not mere political grandstanding during an election year.
Parental leave is different from vacation, disability, or sick leave. Ask any parent. Being home with an infant is no vacation, and in most cases it's more an issue of healthy leave than sick leave. But in America – unless you're Mark Zuckerberg and can take two months off to care for your new baby or lucky enough to work at a place like Netflix where you get up to a year of paid leave – that's how most parents have to cobble together enough paid time off to stay home with their newborn babies.
An elementary school teacher, who spends her days making sure other children get the education, guidance, and emotional support they need, told me she had to use all of her accrued paid time off to do the same for her own baby.
She commented, "It was important for me to be home with my child for as long as I could, but I had no PTO left when I returned to work eight weeks later. What if my baby got sick or I did?"
A father once told me that he and his wife wanted a second child, but were delaying because they couldn't afford the loss of income.
In America, "afford" seems to be the key issue. How can business and the government afford it? Perhaps the best answer to that question is the one I got from a Swedish mother who responded, "How can American afford not to?"
In Sweden, parents get up to 16 months of leave at 80 percent of their salaries. Each parent is required to take three months or lose the remaining ten. Fathers are especially encouraged to participate because the country believes in fostering gender equality. Sweden isn't alone. Most countries in the world provide some form of parental leave – the United States is part of very small group that doesn't.
And as clearly demonstrated in the political debates, too many of our elected officials don't see the reason why we should.
But there are lots:
For Baby and parents
Reduces infant mortality by as much as 10 percent
Children are more likely to get immunizations and make all scheduled well-baby visits
Provides long-term benefits that improve a child's brain development, social, emotional, cognitive development, and overall well-being.
Mothers who stay home breastfeed twice as long as women who do not, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, babies who are breastfed are less likely to get certain infections and are at lower risk for asthma, obesity, and sudden death syndrome.
Fathers who stay home become more competent in their parenting skills and more likely to remain committed and involved parents.
Mothers and fathers are both able to be there during the critically important first months when healthy and secure lifelong parent-child attachments are formed.
Parents who receive paid parental leave become more committed to their employers and more productive when they return to work.
Increases retention and reduces turnover especially for mothers
All businesses may find it harder to compete for talent internationally, as paid leave is more common in other countries
How do we pay for it?
There are a variety ways, but most countries cover costs with a combination of contributions from government, employers, and employees. This is often done as payroll tax deductions just like social security and unemployment.
Mauricio Avendano, associate professor of social science, health and medicine at King's College London and the Harvard School of Public Health states, "This is really what economists call a human capital investment. You invest in this, you will end up picking up the benefits of this policy even years later."
It's time America caught up with the rest of the world in providing parental leave, and we may be closer than ever before.
It seems the sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats may finally be blurring a bit on this issue. When Paul Ryan demanded "family time" as a non-negotiable condition of becoming speaker of the house, he sent a very strong message about the importance of mothers and fathers putting their children and families first.
For more information:
United States Department of Labor: It's time for America to #LeadOnLeave
Huffington Post: 8 Countries That Put U.S. Paternity Leave To Shame