Last weekend, I had the privilege of speaking at the National Convention for American Mothers, Inc. about motherhood in the 21st Century. Because this is such a vital issue for mothers that live in the U.S. (since a large majority of families have two full-time wage earners), I thought it would be appropriate to share my speech here. With the understanding that this a forum for feminism, I believe that this topic fits this forum because it continues to show how unequal the treatment is between the sexes – whether it is pay, position in employment, healthcare, education, or simply balancing the responsibilities of family/career. For those that live in the United States, there is often a sense of exceptionalism, and as I clearly demonstrate in this speech, we are certainly a far cry from being role models that when it comes to protecting mothers (whether by birth or adoption) and families.
As a side note: One topic that was not explored, due to lack of data, is how maternity/paternity leave impacts same sex couples who become new parents – I have to believe that this is a topic to also examine (and I am would encourage any feedback here).
Recently the United States ranked 25 out of 165 countries for being the best place to live if you are a mother. This number is up from 31 a year ago and places us between Belarus and the Czech Republic.
You may be asking yourself, Why isn’t the United States in the top five or even in the top ten? The answer to that question becomes evident once we examine how that determination is made. The categories examined are:
- Mother’s education;
- Child’s Health;
- Economic status;
- The Election of women to government office;
- Breast feeding programs. In the United States 75% of mothers breastfeed their babies, 35% continue to breastfeed after six weeks. The number shrinks because mothers usually return to work and find it difficult to to pump at the office;
- Maternal death rate is another factor, which stunned me when I found out that the US has the highest maternal death rate of any industrialized nation. Approximately 1 in 2,100 women are at risk of dying during child birth;
- Infant death rates is another category. Infant deaths are estimated to be 8 per 1000 births – a number that throws us behind 40 other countries;
- The final item is maternity leave benefits for mothers working outside the home. This seems to be one of the biggest problems. That is why I think it is important to take a closer look at this issue with the hope of educating ourselves so we can perpetuate change.
Expectant mothers who work outside the home in the United States would fare better if they lived in almost any other country except for Sierra Leone, Liberia. And Papua New Guinea. All three of these countries rank with the United States as the only country who does not provide paid maternity leave benefits for new mothers. In the US, maternity benefits for moms working outside the home, receive little protection. The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, provides 12 weeks unpaid leave with job protection and continued benefits. BUT exceptions exist unless you are a teacher, military, or part of inflight airline crews. Businesses who have 50 employees or less are not bound by this federal law. In other words, small businesses do not have an obligation to pay an employee for maternity leave, provide them time off, or if time is taken off after the birth of a child, guarantee that their job will exist upon their return. Something I learned one month into my maternity leave, after the birth of my first child, when I found myself at the unemployment office with my newborn because my job was eliminated. What was supposed to be one of the joyous times of my life, was now compounded with the fear of not paying our bills and trying to find a job while adjusting to motherhood for the first time.
At best only about half of working mothers in the United States qualify for benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Some individual companies do offer paid maternity leave benefits (some even pay paternity leave). Some women receive income during their leave by using a combination of short-term disability (if available), sick leave, and vacation. For women who own their own businesses, extended breaks or leave after childbirth is not an option – there is really no one that can fill in for them. For those with no employees – they are on their own. For those that do not receive paid leave, they either incur significant debt or turn to public assistance around the birth of a child.
According to Catalyst, in 2011, women who received paid maternity leave with the birth or adoption of their first child was 28.5%. For those who used a combination of sick leave, disability, and vacation for income during their leave is 18.4%. For those who were unpaid during their maternity leave – 25.9%. Approximately 14.3% of first time mothers quit their jobs, 2% are let go, and 1.8% did not take anytime off. No where in these statistics do we see pregnancy complications that throw mothers on bed rest for an extended period of time.
I am happy to tell you that two states, California and New Jersey, took the lead and implemented their own version of the family medical leave act that added paid benefits for maternity leave and removed the exceptions. Without increasing burdens on employers to spend additional money, an insurance program, financed through payroll taxes already paid by the workers make this benefit possible.
Does paying maternity leave benefits cost employers a significant amount of money? Statistically, Employers who offer paid maternity leave save money associated with employee turnover – a number that could range from 50 – 200% of a worker’s salary. For example when Google lengthened its maternity leave from three months to five months, and began paying employees while
on leave, new mom attrition fell by half.
Additional benefits that we, as a society, receive by offering maternity benefits are:
- Increased breastfeeding rates;
- Mother’s better mental health;
- Lower perinatal, neonatal, and post-neonatal mortality rates as well as lower child mortality;
- Higher maternal employment;
- Reduced child poverty; and
- Mothers are less likely to rely on public assistance after the birth of their child.
It is my hope, that by discussing this important topic, we can open more eyes to the problem, offer solutions so that our working moms are given the time necessary to care for their children without the fear of losing their job or going into financial ruin. It is time that we make an investment in our working mothers, our children – really the entire family unit. Through that investment, the return will be prosperous families, healthy children, and strong communities.
I would invite you to share your stories and observations about this important topic.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religionat Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll Universityin Theology and Religious Studies, is a Member of Sigma Nu, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.