During President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, few sections received bipartisan applause. One notable exception, however, was his announcement that his budget would include nationwide paid maternity leave.
In recent years, this issue has gained more attention with advocates spanning the political spectrum, including Hillary Clinton and the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. A report from the International Labor Union, a branch of the United Nations, found that among 185 countries and territories, the United States is one of only two that provide no cash benefits for women during maternity leave.
Legislators have tried to address the problem, introducing bills such as the Economic Security for New Parents Act and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), but Congress has yet to reach a consensus meaning many American women must forego pay in order to spend time with their newborns.
In the months leading up to August 2018, as she waited in anticipation for the birth of her son, math teacher Angel Jacquin grappled with how she would prepare for her maternity leave. She spent months working on detailed lesson plans and finding a suitable substitute teacher. Jacquin teaches Pre-Calculus, Preparation for College Algebra and ACT Preparation, and, as she would be gone for 12 weeks, she knew she needed to find someone who could competently teach the material.
After experiencing serious medical complications during her pregnancy, Jacquin needed time for physical and mental recovery as well as medical exams. When her 12 weeks of leave were up, she was conflicted about returning to school. Jacquin wanted to be available for her students but also felt sad about missing major aspects of her child’s development, and she felt overwhelmed by trying to balance the two.
Though Jacquin worried about how her leave would affect her students, her diligent preparation prevented problems. Junior Jaime Crites did not find the transition from the substitute to Jacquin to be difficult. To her, any small inconveniences seemed far less important than Jacquin spending time with her child.
“It was easy for me because the way the other teacher taught was almost how Mrs. Jacquin taught. The transition of her coming back was not very rough at all,” Crites said. “I think there should be more bonding time between the mother and the kid. The students are able to adapt to these things whereas [for] babies, it’s a little bit different because this is [their] first part of life.”
Early childhood bonding is essential for a child’s emotional, social and cognitive development, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Loving interactions and communication contribute to the development of neural pathways that help the formation of memories and relationships as well as logic and learning. These interactions have a myriad of other benefits, according to Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, such as reduced infant mortality, longer periods of breastfeeding and decreased risk of postpartum depression for mothers. Parents and children having enough time to form a close bond is crucial for optimal growth potential. When a lack of leave deprives children of this time, they are put at a disadvantage from the very start of their lives.
Art teacher Abbey Gorsage, one of the eight teachers who took parental leave this school year, gave birth to her second child in August and knew the importance of forming a connection with her baby. Full time staff members receive 10 days of paid sick leave per year, so Gorsage started saving these days up when she found out she was pregnant. Despite planning ahead, she only had eight weeks of paid leave, which is two thirds of the time off guaranteed by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Her transition back to work was especially difficult because she was experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression and felt she did not get the most out of her time spent at home.
“I feel like, looking back, I didn’t have as much bonding time where I felt like myself, when I felt connected to my baby, and then it was time for me to go back to work,” Gorsage said. “I am thankful that I am in a career that I do get leave time. . . and so I had an easier time with transitioning to motherhood. But I feel for the mothers who have to work, who have to have an income to support themselves and their newborn, and they don’t have a choice to stay home and bond with their baby and recover physically and emotionally from labor.”
Indeed, the effects of a lack of paid family leave hit low-income parents especially hard. The FAMILY Act, reintroduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, would guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 66 percent of monthly income. In addition, it would be more inclusive than FMLA, covering lower-wage, part-time, self-employed and contingent workers. To be eligible for FMLA, an individual has to have worked for a company with more than 50 employees for at least 1,250 hours per year for at least one year.
These requirements make it less likely that low-wage workers will be covered as they are more likely to change jobs or work part-time. For example, if one works several part-time jobs that amount to full-time hours, they still may not be eligible for FMLA. Under the FAMILY Act, small employer and employee payroll contributions of 0.2 percent would fund paid family leave.
This issue is important to Crites because she plans to have children when she’s older. She worries about how a lack of financial support affects lower-income families and their ability to have children but is optimistic about the future.
“I feel like in Congress [paid family leave is something] that they don’t necessarily think about right now. It’s not their first priority. . . but I do think they’ll come to a compromise,” Crites said. “We’re talking a matter of whether the future people of America are going to be healthy, going to be successful.”
The FAMILY Act would cut down on the number of families who are in poverty after taking unpaid leave by 75 percent, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Having time off while still receiving wages would allow low-income parents to spend time with their newborns and contribute to closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthy peers. Parents would have time to establish a loving environment for their children and to form bonds that will impact their children’s development for years to come.
“I think every woman should have the option to have children and become [a mother] if that’s something that they see for [themself],” Gorsage said. “It’s disheartening that we’re in a society where some women are making that choice based on their income instead of being able to know that they’ll be able to support themselves or receive the time off to support their newborn while they’re also figuring out the rest of their life and motherhood.”
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