I love the United States of America. I’ve spent lots of time in your great country, as a student and a tourist, sometimes a little of both. You have some of the greatest public institutions in the world and a diversity of learning environments that is simply incomparable. Your geography is breathtaking and your history is full of the kind of sweeping narratives that sometimes (true story) we’re a little jealous of here in the Great White North where our history tends to be more incremental. I’m a fan.
But here’s the thing, America: This discussion about paid family leave has me down. Because my studies have been focused on dance and early childhood, feminized professions if ever there were ones, almost every American with whom I’ve developed a relationship is a woman. Most of them are younger women, many in my own child-bearing age bracket. And let me tell you, I observe their postpartum lives and I shudder.
My grandmother had her first child in 1951 and went on to have three more before the ‘60s were over. I asked her (via text… yes, my 92-year-old grandmother texts; she’s the bomb) how much time she took off after having her kids. Here’s her response:
“Usually a month or so. I often worked just part-time for a while. We did not have maternity leave in those days and sometimes we lost our jobs.”
Sound familiar, America? That’s circa 1951.
My grandmother is a worker. She likes to keep busy (I come by it honestly) and she was very good at her job as a public health nurse and later as a nursing administrator. Her family also relied on the financial contribution her work made to their bottom line. Contrary to the social convention of the time, she kept working after having kids. There was no such thing as paid maternity leave in those days, but women like my grandmother—women who flooded into the workforce during World War II and stayed there—created the need for a public policy change.
That change finally came in 1971 when mothers began to be able to claim up to 15 weeks of benefits after the birth of a child. In 1990 that became 25 weeks, and in 2000 it was extended to a full year—the first 15 weeks of which have to be claimed by the person who gave birth, but the remaining weeks can be claimed by either parent.
Because I’m a teacher and both of my kids were summer babies, I was able to take 14 months off with both of them. No system is perfect, and believe me, there are lots of criticisms of ours but, in general, it’s pretty good.
My American friends, on the other hand (at least the ones who aren’t in the financial position to be able to quit their jobs), have had to leave their babies after a few measly weeks of unpaid leave. They have to put their tiny babies into daycare long before either of them are ready. This is insanity, it’s dangerous, and frankly it’s inhumane. An American working mother has to leave her baby at approximately the same time as I was ready to have my first cringe-free postpartum poop.
So into this fray gallops Donald Trump on his white stead offering the women of America the fabulous possibility of taking six weeks of paid leave. Six whole weeks! Can you run up a set of stairs without wetting yourself at six weeks? Can you pump without weeping? Can your baby hold its head up? Can they communicate to a caregiver when they’re hungry? Dirty? Hurt? Six weeks! It’s such a ridiculous number that I can hardly articulate a response.
It’s not 1951. It’s also not 1971. Working women are incredibly important to the economy and the evidence shows that providing paid leave makes a difference in retaining women in the workforce. Women are more likely to come back to a job if they’re able to take an appropriate amount of leave.
Parental leave creates space for families to bond, to create the kind of loving, nurturing, healthy relationships that we all want and frankly, that we all need for society to function. Children who are traumatized often carry that with them for a lifetime, and being separated from your parents before you cut your first tooth is nothing if not traumatizing.
1951 was not the “good old days” for women. 1951 was when my grandmother had to leave her babies to go back to work because there was no paid leave and she risked loosing her job. The America I know can do better than six measly weeks. You are a nation that dreams big; six weeks is many things… big it is not. My friends deserve better than that, and I really hope they get it.