09/27/2011 04:28 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Rocking Cradle to Career With Paid Family Leave

Over the weekend, at the wedding of a mutual friend, I reconnected with a Berkeley-based nurse practitioner, whose line of work is obstetrics and gynecology. After the usual pleasantries, we got down to the business of early care and education. She, channeling all the conflicts, ambivalence, and frustrations of young mothers trying to balance it all; I, lamenting the lack of support in the U.S. for families with young children. The conversation flowed easily, as only it could for two veterans of the "mommy wars," second-wave feminism, and parenting life in late 20th and early 21st century America.

Suddenly, the health care provider lobbed a hard ball at the policy analyst: "What's your vision?" she asked. "That's a good question," I said, as I watched the groom's grandchildren pirouette on the dance floor. "Well, to start," I said, "paid family leave," reminding her that the United States is the only developed country on the face of the earth without it.

Not that we haven't tried. But our efforts have been meager. In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees up to 12 weeks of leave to recent parents in businesses with at least 50 employees. This guarantee extends only to those who have worked for at least a year and have met a threshold of 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months. The bottom line: 40 percent of U.S. workers are not eligible for FMLA benefits. And the other 60 percent toil in a workplace where only a quarter of employers offer fully paid maternity leave. The reality is bleakest for middle- and low-income families. Two in five working parents with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level have no paid sick or personal days, not to mention vacation. Given their circumstances, unpaid family leave to care for a child is a non-starter.

Here in the land of self-sufficiency and family values, foremost of which is the sanctity of parental childrearing, anything that smacks of social welfare statehood is a tough sell. Never mind that nearly 57 percent of women with children under age one are in the workforce. We remain a country in denial.

FMLA, sadly, is all we've got, and it barely begins to address the needs of new moms, dads, and kids in this most critical, and vulnerable phase of human development. This is a time for bonding, for sensitive, stimulating, and consistent care. In the first months of life, the synapses in children's brains are firing at rapid pace, building connections and the very foundation for children's social, emotional and cognitive development. School readiness begins in infancy, says J. Ronald Lally, Co-Director of the Center for Child and Family Studies, at WestEd. But "American babies, compared with those from other developed nations, are getting inadequate prenatal care, less time at home with their parents during the first year of life... and inadequate, sometimes damaging child care, that gives little attention to what and how they are learning."

I'm green with envy when I look at other nations' policies. Most developed countries offer between three months and a year of paid family leave -- to mothers, and in some cases, to fathers. Our northern neighbor, for example, offers 34 weeks of paid parental leave (in addition to 15 weeks of maternity leave, and, in the province of Quebec, three to five weeks of paternity leave). Sweden and Germany, with their 47-week packages, top the list of countries providing paid family leave, followed by Norway, Finland, Canada, and Spain, all of which offer leaves of at least six months.

In typical U.S. fashion, states have taken up the cause -- with varying degrees of success. California, ever the social and cultural vanguardista, passed legislation -- amid the vociferous protest of the business community -- way back in 2002. The state's PFL program provides up to six weeks of wage replacement leave at 55 percent of weekly earnings, up to a maximum benefit of $987 per week for employees to bond with a new biological, adopted, or foster child. Surveys of California workers and employers, conducted in 2009 and 2010 by sociologist Ruth Milkman and economist Eileen Appelbaum, revealed that the "vast majority" of employers, who had feared catastrophic consequences, reported minimal impact on their business operations. Much ado about nothing.

The skills that children need to be ready for and succeed in school, and in life, blossom in their earliest relationships with their parents. We cannot recoup that time. The losses -- reflected in grade retention, high-school dropout rates, low college completion, incarceration, high poverty rates, diminished competitiveness in the global economy -- reverberate through the life span, and society at large. When are we going to wake up, and rock the cradle?