The European Union Commission has proposed a new directive, to be voted on in March, that would make maternity leave compulsory for the first six weeks after a woman gives birth. You read that correctly -- compulsory. As in, women would be forced to stay home, regardless of their own wishes, if they have children.
Beyond the obvious affront on personal free will, the problems with this proposal are so numerous and egregious it's making our heads spin. Firstly, Europe as a whole already suffers from low female labor participation rates; continent-wide, only six out of ten women work. This is a major problem for the region, as it turns out women have been the key factor driving economic growth worldwide in recent years ("women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India," according to a pre-mancession article in The Economist). Stigmatizing women by telling employers outright that women will not, by law, be as committed to the workplace as men is a foolish and self-defeating move.
Potential economic impact aside, what really riles us up is the huge step backwards the proposition would entail in social and cultural terms. By mandating that women take maternity leave, and saying absolutely nothing about fathers, the EU would send a continent-wide message that being a parent is primarily a woman's responsibility. Some individuals happen to believe this; that's their opinion and they're entitled to it. But this viewpoint and the mandatory maternity leave proposal violate the EU's own official goals, which state that women and men should have the same opportunities to combine their work, personal, and family lives. Not only would the mandate push women back into an antiquated role of homemaker and caretaker that many of us have struggled, for centuries!, to free ourselves from, it would signal to the citizens of the European Union, and to the world at large, that women belong at home with their babies, and that work, for childbearing women, comes second. Whether or not you would personally make the choice to stay home for the first weeks or months or even years of your child's life is one thing: feel free to do as you please. But forcing everyone to do this is a sign that, from the top down, society has reached a verdict on parenthood, and that verdict places women firmly in the role of primary caregiver.
Not only does this possible mandate have a potentially disastrous effect on women, but on men as well! For the past couple of decades reform has been slowly but surely brewing regarding fatherhood. Official policy has not always caught up with social norms. The view of the "modern father" of the twenty-first century is not the suit-clad man who returns home from work late at night; he is the Baby Björn touting playground regular who sees fatherhood as a hands-on job. Sweden has provided paternity leave for fathers for decades. The rest of Europe has, in recent years, been catching up. Each day of paternity leave given to fathers is not just a day won in the life of a family, but a huge achievement in the direction of a cultural paradigm shift- one where shared, even equal, parenting is the norm. The damage the EU mandate, which completely ignores fatherhood and sends the message that the care of children is only a mother's right as well as responsibility, may have on the view of parenting can't be overstated.
To put it simply: the EU proposition sends a message that is at odds with all the progress recent years have shown about cultural views of parenthood.
Don't get us wrong, parental leave is a wonderful thing. It gives parents the opportunity to bond with their babies. It gives families options. But mandating that all women take leave for the first six weeks is preposterous! What if the woman is the sole breadwinner in the family? What if she has post-partum depression? What if the couple prefers that the husband be the primary caretaker during the first six weeks? What if she can't breastfeed? (Breastfeeding seems to be at the core of those arguments that support women staying home rather than men with young children. But not all women choose to breastfeed and some cannot, and some choose to pump so other caregivers can feed their baby breast milk So don't use breastfeeding as an argument for why men are not as qualified as women to take care of babies. We're not buying it.)
Sweden, which already guarantees mothers and fathers 18 months of parental leave to be split between the parents as they see fit, has slammed the proposal. In an op-ed, Sweden's Minister of EU Affairs, Birgitta Ohlsson, writes "On a personal level, if the proposal were to come into force it would prevent me from working. As a mother-to-be I would have had to turn down my new job as Swedish Minster for EU Affairs." If the proposal passes, it threatens not only to put Ohlsson out of a job, but also to compromise Sweden's uniquely egalitarian parental leave policies as a whole. Don't bring bad decisions down on countries that already have better policies of their own.
Hey EU Commission: scrap the proposal! And write a new one that guarantees a certain number of weeks of parental leave for women as well as men -- but don't force anyone to take it. That would truly be taking a step in the right direction.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.
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