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This article was written by Kristen N. Hubbard.

The Problem With FMLA

The United States is the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which does not have mandatory paid, parental leave. FMLA or the Family and Medical Leave Act, grants up to twelve weeks off unpaid for medical emergencies and childbirth. However, FMLA only applies to employers and employees who meet certain criteria. According to the BLS, in 2018 only 17% of civilian American workers had access to paid leave. That same year, 89% had access to unpaid leave. 

FMLA as it currently operates forces working class Americans to choose between raising their newborn or getting a paycheck. Both mothers and fathers are at higher risk for postpartum depression in this scenario no matter what choice they make. Mothers often return to work before they have recovered, increasing their risk for maternal mortality and medical complications. Infant mortality rates are higher and infant health issues are more prevalent. When working moms have to step away, fathers become the main source of income. Protecting working class families and their newborns, mentally, physically and financially, requires change. Changes that need to happen include FMLA being mandatory nationwide, at least 40 weeks long and paid. 

Infant Mortality

According to the CDC, in 2018 the United States experienced 5.7 infant deaths per 1000 live births. Compare that to Estonia, which provides 86 weeks of paid leave. Their infant mortality rate is  2.4 infant deaths per 1000 live births, less than half that of the United States. Every month of paid maternity leave has been proven to reduce infant mortality by 13% for countries of every income level.  Christopher J Ruhm, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia, found that 40 weeks of paid time off saved the most infant lives. Even unpaid maternity leave can help reduce infant mortality. For a mother to benefit from unpaid leave, she usually has to be a married college graduate. They are often in better positions financially. 

Infant Health and Development

Paid time off for new parents also positively affects infant development. A study was conducted for Economic Record which analyzed paid parental leave and child health in Australia. Mandatory, government funded paid leave had a direct correlation to fewer health problems in young children. These results were especially prominent for the children of low income families. Considering how many American families are making low incomes, these results can’t be ignored. Another benefit is greater access to breastfeeding. According to UNICEF, longer periods of breastfeeding positively impact overall infant health. Pumping and breastfeeding children if new mothers have time and privacy. 

Paid leave also reduces instances of child abuse. A study was conducted for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which examined the effect of California’s paid leave policy on pediatric abusive head trauma hospitalizations. AHT is a leading cause of infant fatality and long term impairments in newborns who survive it. The study found that under California’s paid leave policy, the number of AHT hospitalizations decreased by 5.1 for every 100,000 children under the age of 1. For children younger than 2, the rate of AHT related hospitalizations decreased by 2.8-3.2 per 100,000 children. 

PPD Risk

Sufficient paid parental leave is clearly beneficial to the health and wellbeing of infants. What might be less obvious is that both mothers and fathers need that time and income for their own postpartum health as well. Both mothers and fathers are at greater risk of postpartum depression because of the lack or total absence of sufficient paid time off. Increased stress is the key factor.

According to Postpartum Support International, women are at risk of postpartum depression during and 12 months after pregnancy.  Jonathan R Scarff MD, found that men are most susceptible to postpartum depression 3-6 months after birth.  However, just like mothers, PPD in fathers can develop across a year. Symptoms of PPD include, but are not limited to feelings of emptiness, guilt, despair, doubt and thoughts which could lead to self-harm or the harm of an infant. Stress, especially the long term kind, can exacerbate mental health issues. Therefore, abruptly thrusting parents back into the workplace is not a good idea.  

Parental Leave and the American Economy

Being abruptly thrust back into the workplace is the reality for most American parents. A report done by the non-profit magazine, In These Times, found that 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. The gap between rich and poor has only gotten wider in recent years. Taking that paltry twelve weeks off can put working class people in dire financial straits.

A perfect example of being unfit to work, but needing to work is  Jessica Rebeschini. Rebeschini gave birth by Cesarean. Rebeschini’s doctors advised her to spend six weeks healing. Unfortunately, her leave was unpaid and she had bills. So Rebeschini found a night job as a waitress. Rebeschini endured miles of walking, constant heavy lifting and bending, all with a barely healed C-section wound. Maternal mortality in the United States stands at 17.4 deaths per every 100,000 live births. This is not even counting the rates of maternal death secondary to self harm such as suicide and drug overdose. Those numbers are likely to hold steady if not increase since new mothers are having to risk death and/or serious medical complications to pay the bills. 

The Father’s Burden

Men in heterosexual couples have to pick up the slack after the birth of a child. This is not just due to physical risks to the new mother. In 2017 Pew Research found evidence of growing support for paid parental leave coming  from 69% of Americans. Societal expectations alongside American policy is holding men back. Men can face stigma at their job which could impact their future financial gains if they prioritize their children over their work. Because of this, some men will only take ten days or less off after the birth of their child, if they take any leave at all. Leave is also inequitable based on gender. The same Department of Labor study shows that women are twice as likely as men to receive paid parental leave. 

Further Benefits of Flexible, Paid Parental Leave

Cis men who become fathers are not at risk of tearing open C-section wounds, or lacking access to breastfeeding upon returning to work. They do deal with being the sole breadwinner and lacking quality time with their child. Fathers taking paid, flexible leave has been proven to reduce divorce rates, lead to more equitable sharing of household chores and make dads more involved in parenting. A Swedish study found that fathers having flexible, paid leave, meant fewer mothers needed antibiotics and anxiety medication. Fathers being unable, or afraid to take that leave makes the situation worse.     

American Parental Leave Needs To Change

FMLA in its current form fails American families. It’s creating high levels of long term stress, harming mothers and their infants and costing lives. Government mandated, paid leave of at least 40 weeks is the answer. It’s time for American policymakers to act with the American family in mind and give parents as much paid time off as they need to raise healthy children. 

Hopefully, you enjoyed this article about changing the current FMLA policy.