Monday, May 7, 2012

Thoughts on parental leave

Late last week my wife returned to work after spending nearly four months at home following the birth of our daughter Fiona in January. She has a pretty prestigious job, and her employer has one of the more generous maternity leave provisions you will find in the US labor market. When she went back after her leave with Liam I was in the second and final year of my graduate program, and the plan was that after graduation I would find a full-time position in my field and Liam would then be in day care three days a week while continuing to spend two days with my mother-in-law (grandma will not be denied!). For this to make financial sense any job I would take would need to pay me at least what it would cost to cover day care, the other incidentals that come with being employed, student loan payments, plus a little extra left over (else why go through all that trouble?). Given the extremely weak market for state and local government jobs at the time I graduated in August 2010 (my masters is in public policy), one which has not improved much in the time since, the plan did not come to fruition as hoped and I continued to be the main caregiver for Liam through all of 2011.

Now that the leave for Fiona is over, I am returning to this role for at least the next several months, with the only difference being that on the grandma days I will be at my part-time gig, which sort of fell into my lap late in January. I realize that my situation puts me squarely within a couple of growing male demographics, those being men who are primarily stay-at-home dads and men whose wives bring in the majority of the household income. I imagine that in many cases the latter enables the former, as it certainly does in mine, since if your wife has the higher earning potential it makes sense for her to remain in the labor force while you take care of the kids. However, I also realize that for a variety of reasons not everyone can afford to have someone stay home as a full-time caregiver, a situation I was reminded of yesterday when I read that the best friend of one of my sisters was going back to work after having her baby a mere six weeks ago. Combine this with the front page feature in the Sunday Star Tribune being about the disturbing rise in infant day care deaths, and the subject of parental leave is very much in the forefront of my thoughts today.

The article was framed using the story of a couple in one of the more rural MN counties whose infant son died in a home day care after being put to sleep face down. As anyone with young children knows, this is completely against all current recommendations on how to position an infant for sleep, but the provider did it anyway and then also failed to check on him every 15 minutes, which is the licensing standard for a home day care. While there is no way of knowing whether the infant's death could have been prevented if the provider had just followed the recommendations, the other, just barely mentioned tragedy is that his mother was already back at her $9/hr job less than two months after giving birth, with the father having already returned to his job sometime before. Now there is probably some heartless bastard out there who will ask "If a couple needs to rely on the income from a $9/hr job to get by, why are they having children in the first place?" To which I would reply: so that there might be someone around to take care of your old cranky ass when the callous kids you raised (if you had any) unceremoniously leave you at the nursing home. But seriously, though I agree that there are plenty of people out there who should not have kids but do, one cannot base someone's fitness as potential parent solely on their paycheck.

It is wisdom like this that has been absorbed and implemented in policy by pretty much every high-income  country out there, and some middle-income ones as well. The EU, Japan, and other OECD members have at least some government guaranteed paid parental leave (some countries have separate maternity, paternity, and parental leave provisions, others roll it all into the same system), except for the good old US of A. While there are some state-level leave requirements and supports, the only thing at the federal level is unpaid FMLA, and you'd better hope grandma doesn't get seriously ill in the same year. Employers thus have a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not to offer paid leave as part of their benefit packages, and so they run the spectrum from the relatively generous leave my wife was able to enjoy to none at all. Thus situations like the one in the Star Tribune article and that of my sister's best friend are relatively common, and on the whole we all suffer for it.

What the rest of the rich world (especially the Nordic countries) has learned that we choose to ignore is that children whose parents are able to stay home with them in their early years will on average be much more likely to be socially well-adjusted, fare better in school, and grow up to be productive members of society than those whose parents are forced by economic necessity to be away earning income. The initial investments to support generous parental leave may be large, but they are paid back several times in the form of lower crime rates, improved mental and physical health, and a generally happier citizenry. In short, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to set up a system like they have in Sweden, where its benefits are already evident, or else we will continue to pay up the wazoo for not having it. Businesses will of course protest as they are dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but we give the child the vaccination even though we know they will cry as it is being administered.      

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Norm!

    I had 6 weeks for my first child, and 3 weeks (the end of regular summer break) for my second, though as a condition of going back my 3 principals agreed I could take off at lunch the 1st three weeks of school to nurse my son while my in-law were kindly taking care of him in our home.
    Sadly, even with that small amount of leave, I feel we were lucky! I was allowed to use 6 weeks' accumulated sick leave (luckily I usually used just 2 days a year), and my job was waiting for me when I got back.
    We do need to do better. My brother, who is married to a Frenchwoman, has never considered having children in the U.S. If they have children, it will be in Europe.