Protecting our Families: How the U.S. Falls Short in Protecting New Mothers (and Fathers) by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, Bible, Gender, Violence, Ursuline, John CarrollLast 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.
American Progress, Maternity Leave, Women and Benefits, Family and Medical Leave Act
Original image found at American Progress (

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

Michele stopera freyhauf, maternity benefits, maternity leave, U.S.A., American Mothers, Feminism, Activism
This is me with my first child

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 Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

13 thoughts on “Protecting our Families: How the U.S. Falls Short in Protecting New Mothers (and Fathers) by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. Fascinating! But not surprising. Mothers Day cards and candy and flowers are nice, but it would be nicer if mothers were truly honored and supported with paid leave. When my son was born in 1968, I had just finished my master’s degree. Graduate students were (and probably still are) further down in status than just about anyone else. My husband was in the navy, so the only support I received in addition to my salary as a secretary to five psychologists was a meager amount of child support from the navy. It was hard going. Somehow, my son and I survived.


  2. Do you know that thousands of Mothers are holding a demonstration at the White House on May 10-11,2013….Battered Mother’s Justice in the courtroom. The inequality and abuses by the courts in child custody cases determined by family law courts is the bases. Mothers who are protecting their own lives and the lives of their children in intimate and domestic violence homicides are receiving unequal justice with severe sentencing instead of short manslaughter terms to return them home to their children. Maternal Wounding of both Mothers and Children is the outcome of decisions made by courts. Gender role sterotypes, the endless Mother Bashing, maiming of women surround their sexual activitites, along with the “good little girl” cultural expectations and for breaking the silence in this rape culture. Women must be empeccable in both behavior and appearance.


  3. Thank you, Michele, for posting this. These statistics are shameful, shameful, a direct result of the attitude of the insidious patriarchal values in this country while we pretend we are pro-women, pro-mothers, and wag our fingers at other countries. We are 90th in the world in terms of electing women leaders to government. There was one moment in US History when things almost changed. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and the National Women’s Party put their lives on the line, suffering inhumane and horrendous situations so that American women would gain the right to vote. In anticipation of women voting the men out of office, the Sheppard-Towner Act was passed to promote the welfare and hygiene of mothers and infants. Infant mortality rate was 111.2 per 1000 live births at that time. It provided paid maternity and infant care, and led to the establishment of over 3,000 child and maternity health care centers. It brought down the infant mortality rate. Where is it today? Where is our government’s interest in the health of mothers and children? The Act was rescinded in 1929 when the men realized the women were not taking to independent thinking but were voting the way their husbands told them to vote (and after being successfully opposed by the American Medical Association).
    It is very interesting today’s word of the day is mammonism which means the greedy pursuit of riches. Because that’s the bottom line when it comes to people, women, children, health.
    I am reading a wonderful book right now “Feminine and Feminist Ethics” by Rosemarie Tong. She refers to Virginia Held’s mother/child paradigm as a better substitute for today’s autonomous man paradigm. Instead of being focused on contracts and rights (which leads to paranoia, mistrust, sanctions, penalties, confrontation), Held suggests rebuilding society around the mother-child relationship (which is permanent, not voluntary, not equal, based on positive and negative rights, symbiotic, and caring). It’s not about power (okay, except in the terrible twos and teen years). She says change our vocabulary–“true empowerment comes from growth and love, not from death and domination”.


    1. I will put Tong’s book on my list to read. Held’s “mother/child” paradigm sounds wonderful. Does she have any suggestions for how to go about making this happen? I worry that all of our writing and talking is having little impact on the reality of the patriarchy. Are we just “preaching to the choir?” What is the best way to make a difference? How do we make changes in the system without becoming a part of it? Most people are so resistant to change – even if it looks like it might be a good sort of change. How can we get people to THINK, when most of them are over-worked, under-paid, and just trying to keep body and soul together? Must I just be patient, given that 5000 years of injustice will take time to change? Does anyone have a sense that things are changing for the better? I’m getting old, and I’d love to see some signs soon. Must I run for political office? Yuck.


      1. Hi Katharine. When women gained the right to vote in Oregon in 1912, the male city council members of the town of Umatilla woke up to discover they were all voted out of office and that there was a newly elected all-female city council. The reason the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote in the United States was because of a concerted and united effort where people put aside their differences and pet concerns and they worked together. As long as we are all separated and fighting for gun control, peace, immigration reform, abortion, civil rights, same-sex marriage, climate change, pollution, prison reform, jobs, marijuana reform, healthcare, etc, etc, etc, we will get nowhere. Tactics of separation keep people separated. In Howard Zinn’s incredible book “The People’s History of the United States”, he shows how enflaming discrimination in the 17th-19th centuries kept blacks and poor whites separated so that they wouldn’t gang together and overthrow the outnumbered elites. The UN Women organization says we need a rallying cry to bring us together. Anyone have any ideas what that would be? so I will beekp writing until I can. hello. hello.fff ffffdf dff dfjk


  4. Thank you for speaking to us on Saturday (I was the largely pregnant woman from CA in the audience)! You had very insightful data and a passion for what you do!
    As a pregnant mother (and woman) I find it disturbing that our fetal and maternal death rate is so high. What do we do differently? Intervene! A woman’s body is an amazing thing and it is well equipped for pregnancy and childbirth. Other countries support natural childbirth and offer home birthing services. I had my son in sept 2011 at a hospital with a midwife. The cost of his birth was nearly $20,000! I had no pain medications what so ever, declined an IV, and literally reached down and delivered my son myself! So basically the cost was for occupying a hospital room and having medical professionals watch me give birth. This time around I’ve been fighting with my insurance to have a home birth (which would only cost them $3,500 for prenatal care AND delivery) with no such luck. I do believe doctors have their place (high risk pregnancies) but pregnancy and childbirth had turned into a mutli billion dollar industry that does not benefit women and babies! Ok, off my soapbox : )


  5. We are not much for political rhetoric in the UK. In fact, the very moment we hear any “elevated” language we shut our ears and turn away. This is why we’re a bit taken aback every time American politicians say lofty words about “this great country”. But also, knowing the facts like the ones you Michele shared with us – I mean… is there a chance they stop saying “this great country” and start doing something to make it at least decent?

    Originally, I come from the Soviet Union and every child there was guaranteed state-subsidised child care, so that Mothers could work. Most women worked. A small minority chose not to – not because they were forced out of a job or out of lack of child care options. If the US had spent less resources on vilifying the Soviet Union and more on ensuring that Mother and children in the US are protected…


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