I have recently been on the move again, which seems to be second nature for me by now. After a few adventure-filled years in Alaska and N.Y. State I have moved to Australia to join the University of Sydney's faculty. I came here for an interview in December of last year and I remember an eerie feeling, similar to the one you get entering a ghost town, when I entered the department. It was not only a summer break (Santa really sweats on his Christmas rounds down under), which most academics are using for traveling to collaborators, but apparently a highly contagious epidemic of pregnancies hit the department and many of the faculty members were on parental leave. I finally joined the department 8 months later and I was keen on meeting many of the members who were on leave during my last visit just to find out that some were still on parental leave...
Australia is one of the stingier countries when it comes to compensation for parental leave. It provides 18 weeks of paid leave at a minimum wage level -- AUD$2500 (about USD$2600) a month -- for anyone who earns less than AUD $150,000 annually. The scheme is also available for adopting parents, allowing them to bond with the family's latest addition, and a great couple, which happens to be comprised of two of my colleagues, is currently benefiting from this policy. However, Australia also allows the primary caretaker of the child, who chooses to do so, to stay home for a full year with their job available for them to return to. Thus, I'm still waiting to meet some of my new colleagues who have been away for 10 months by now...
Australia, as I've mentioned, is not considered particularly generous with its parental leave policies. In the currently conservative UK a parental leave can last up to 80 weeks (although only 13 weeks of it is paid), and across the La Manche Canal, the French offer an unheard of up to 6 years leave (22 weeks paid). Our great neighbor to the North, Canada, offers a paid parental leave which lasts 28 weeks, Norway offers 100 percent paid leave for 44 weeks (in which the parents can share the leave to enable both to bond with the newcomer), and I can go on and list more than one hundred countries with much more dire economical situations than the U.S. but with distinctly superior parental leave benefits. In fact researchers from Harvard and McGill placed the U.S., together with economic powerhouses Papua New Guinea and the Kingdom of Swaziland, in the bottom 3 countries out of the 181 they surveyed when it comes to parental leave policies!
Interestingly, unlike Australia, which designates the support for families whose income is more modest, the reality in the U.S. is such that the individuals who are likely to be in less of a need are the ones who might get a paid leave after all. Financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Chase Bank are among the companies which offer some sort of employer initiated paid leave, something that Joe the plumber (or his wife) can probably only dream about... When Wall Street leads the Federal Government on social policies, it is quite worrisome.
If I had to make a guess, I'd suggest that the hilarious Monty Python's sketch "Every sperm is sacred" fromThe Meaning of Life, in which a woman is giving birth while doing the dishes without even stopping her greatly important cleaning duties to pick up the newborn, was inspired by the American parental leave policies... Similar to the preface scene for the clip, it seems that the American mom is just expected to show up at work a day after giving birth if she wants to have the funds to buy diapers.
It is even more ironic that the individuals who champion family values and cry it from mountain tops left and right (mostly right) are the ones that are conspicuously absent when it comes to providing families with such an important provision as a decent parental leave when so many studies indicate the familial benefits of such policies. If they would have paid as much attention to the actual newborns as they do to the first 6 months post-conception we would undoubtedly have had the most progressive parental leave policies in the world by now!
But it doesn't have to be like that.
Australia was one of the only countries that did not offer paid parental leave until quite recently. They have finally realized the importance of such a policy and remedied the situation. I realize that parental leave is not really a hot topic in this coming election in which other divisive policies are acrimoniously flung across the room (when the campaigns take a break from showing how the other side is made out of a bunch of buffoons and actually address governing policies, which from election to election just seems to happen less and less). It is quite unfortunate, but may reflect the attention paid to other issues which may be of less immediate concern for the average American (rich) man. It may be up to the "sisters are doin' it for themselves" movement to correct this for the real benefit of the American family. With Mr. Romney's dire need to improve his numbers among this demographic, conditions might never be better to raise awareness for this issue.