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Wanted for Mother’s Day: paid time off

The U.S is the only developed nation that doesn't mandate paid time off to care for a new baby.

Across the country this Mother's Day 2013, moms will wake to pancakes and juice in bed and some assortment of cards, gifts and children sticky with syrup and ready (at least for an hour) to serve their mothers' every need. Missing from this familiar tableau will be the "gift" that would really make a difference for moms and families – comprehensive paid parental leave. While 163 countries provide paid maternity leave, the United States remains the only "developed" country missing this most basic benefit in support of family health (and family values) – the ability to take time off, with pay, to care for a new baby.  How out of step is the U.S when it comes to parental leave? The only other countries that do not mandate paid parental leave are Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea.

New Jersey, at least, is one of a handful of states that allows for partial salary through disability insurance.

The benefits of paid parental leave have been well documented. It is associated with lower infant mortality, increased breastfeeding, and better child and mother health outcomes. Parental leaves for dads have been shown to strengthen father/child relationships and increase the amount of time fathers spend with their children. Healthier children and healthier relationships don't just impact family well-being, they inevitably result in societal and economic benefits: fewer sick days, lower health care costs, and less need for family or child intervention.

Unfortunately, most parents are forced to return to work quickly because they simply cannot afford to lose the income. Under current law, the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and only for those working in companies with more than 50 employees, leaving almost half of American women without even this inadequate benefit. It is not uncommon to find women returning to work within four weeks of birth, long before mother or baby are ready, and often before both are getting regular, uninterrupted sleep or feeding patterns have been adequately established. While women lucky enough to work in larger companies can now enjoy breast-pumping breaks protected by the Affordable Care Act, many others work in companies or industries where pumping milk is neither a protected right nor a realistic option (think bus driver, corner grocery store, fast food worker).

We can do better.

Five states have already taken steps to provide paid leaves. New Jersey, California, New York, Hawaii and California adopted Temporary Disability Insurance programs that allow women to use these benefits to partially cover salary after birth.  In addition, there appears to be a growing national interest in, and openness to, improving supports (including paid leaves) for working families. A recent National Partnership for Women and Families exit poll showed 73% of Republicans (87% Independents and 96% Democrats) thought the federal government should consider paid family leave.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) is one of those pushing to go beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act. "The FMLA is unpaid leave," she said in February, the 20th anniversary of the law, "and many eligible workers cannot afford to take it – eight out of 10 by the most recent survey. We need to modernize and expand the FMLA. And we need to pass paid leave legislation that I have long championed. Being a working parent should not mean choosing between your job and taking care of yourself and your family."

In a time of automatic budget cuts and ongoing paralysis on Capitol Hill, shrinking state budgets, and a Philadelphia City Council and mayor that cannot even approve a modest bill covering workers' sick days, one might wonder whether we can we afford to even consider paid parental leave. We must. Babies (and their families) cannot wait.  Let's all work to ensure that paid parental leave will no longer be the gift for which mothers and families must continue to wait. Happy Mother's Day!

Bette Begleiter is deputy executive director, of the Maternity Care Coalition, a Philadelphia nonprofit that works to improve maternal and child health and well-being.

Read more about The Public's Health.