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Why Aren't More American Women Taking Maternity Leave?

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Americans are guaranteed 12 weeks of *unpaid* maternity leave, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed back in 1993. At the time, that was a pretty big deal, since until then your employer could give you no time off after you had a baby and get away with it. But it's time we raise the bar. Countries like Norway, Canada, and Sweden offer 26 weeks of paid time off. Denmark, Austria, and South Korea offer up to a year. For real.

To try to improve the situation, individual states like New York, California, and Rhode Island have passed laws that provide leave that is actually paid, although often at a lesser percentage of what the employee usually earns. The amount of time that can be taken off with pay varies widely from state to state; Rhode Island offers four weeks, while New York will eventually offer 12 by 2021. These new laws are definitely steps forward, but clearly, more is needed. Some companies, like Netflix, have instituted much more flexible plans, allowing both mothers and fathers to take up to one paid year off after having or adopting a child. Of course, these businesses are the exception to the rule, and only a lucky few get to benefit from their policies.

That's why the findings of a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health are troubling, but not all that shocking. Researchers found over the past 22 years, since two years after the FMLA was introduced, the number of women taking maternity leave has hardly changed at all. This number has remained the same even in states that offer new, better laws, and even though the economy has improved significantly overall since the original law's introduction. 

So why aren't women taking the time they're entitled to? Probably because even though the new state laws are better than the federal one, they're still not good enough. Imagine not getting paid for three months (or getting paid at a fraction of the rate you're used to) and also having a new baby. You still have all the same expenses like rent/mortgage and food, plus medical bills and baby-related expenses. Research shows that 63 percent of Americans don't have enough money saved up to cover a $500 expense, and having a baby costs a LOT more than that. In light of this, it's not hard to see why many new mothers would turn the current options down in favor of going back to work, even if they really want to stay home. The authors of the study found that the women who do take maternity leave tend to be economically better off than those who don't, which just confirms that a better paid-leave policy really is necessary to help the parents who need it most.

Paid parental leave is a pretty hot issue right now, especially since Donald Trump said during his presidential campaign that he would institute a six-week paid maternity leave policy across the U.S., which would at least begin to help those moms who aren't taking it for financial reasons. "There's a lot of research that shows the benefits of allowing parents, especially mothers, to spend time with newborn children. Unfortunately, the number of women who receive those benefits has stagnated," said Jay Zagorsky, lead author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research, in a press release.

He's right. Science shows that paid maternity leave reduces infant mortality and increases the likelihood of babies getting the vaccines they need. Studies have also determined that a maternity leave longer than 12 weeks can help reduce the likelihood of postpartum depression and improve the general health of the mother. Essentially, the science is clear that having time off is necessary and benefits those who have the opportunity to take it. (Here's more info on the truth about postpartum depression.)

Considering that this study found that laws at the state level had virtually no effect on the number of women taking the time off they're entitled to, we hope that paid maternity leave becomes a thing at the national level—and soon, especially now that the Senate has voted to stop free birth control.

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