08/09/2010 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The U.S. Needs Paid Parental and Pregnancy Leave

A recent article in The New York Times shows that while the feminist movement has made significant gains for women in the workplace, mothers are still punished for taking time off and being unavailable to work the long hours of their male or childless female counterparts. The Times illustrates this by comparing the last three men nominated to The Supreme Court (Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito) to the last three women (Harriet Meyers, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan). The men are married, with seven children between them, while the woman are single and childless.

The odds are against mothers having as successful a career as non-mothers, and a Wall Street Journal article from May, 2010 posits that stay-at-home dads also face an uphill battle when returning to the workplace.

Not surprisingly, the gap between mothers and non-mothers grows as you look further down the economic stratum. A wealthy mother can afford childcare and continue her career, while lower-income mothers tend to take more time off, thereby jeopardizing chances of advancement in the workplace, or find the cost of childcare a more crippling economic burden.

For me, this issue came to light before our son was even born. While my wife didn't suffer from morning sickness, pregnancy greatly fatigued her, and she took some small amount of time--an afternoon here, a couple hours there--off of work to rest. Furthermore, the frequent appointments--to the OB, for ultrasounds, etc.--necessitated time off. It bothered me that her absences counted as "sick time," as if her pregnancy were an illness, like a cold or stomach virus.

We were fortunate enough that her time off caused no financial hardship, nor did my wife's bosses give her any problems about it. But what if that wasn't the case? There should be a pregnancy leave option, providing women a certain amount of paid leave to deal with her health and that of the fetus she carries. Ideally this leave would extend to fathers-to-be who want to be there at the important moments such as ultrasounds and genetic counseling.

After our son's birth, my wife was given a guarantee her position would be held for her for one year, but she received zero paid time off, and had to deplete her reserves of sick and vacation days in order to be at home with the baby for the first three months. Again, we were fortunate. But why should our situation be unusual?

The United States is the only wealthy nation that does not offer parental leave. In the many countries that have such leave, working mothers are provided either all or a percentage of their income, often for a minimum of 10 weeks. Australia, until recently a hold-out on adopting such a policy, will begin offering mothers 18 weeks of leave at minimum wage in 2011. This falls far short of Sweden, which offers parents 16 months of leave to split, or Canada, which provides 15 weeks for the mother alone, and 35 weeks for parents to share. But at least it's something.

A national paid parental and pregnancy leave program in the U.S. would lessen the impact of having children upon a woman's economic resources, and would make the time off my wife was able to take a right, not a luxury--a luxury that required my wife to carefully orchestrate her maternity leave and hoard the time off available to her in the years leading to her pregnancy.

Our society values providing children a high level of care, and also recognizes that healthy, involved parents lead to well-adjusted children. On logic alone, it makes sense that parents should be encouraged to be present for their kids, and no American should view having children a hardship or hindrance to their professional goals. Though given the weak state of our economy, and the contentiousness over national health issues, it seems unlikely that any policy addressing these issues will be adopted in the U.S. soon.

The cynic in me wonders if, as men become more and more likely to take at least some time out to help care for newborns, there won't be some move toward making such time off less punishing professionally. Or as Time Magazine suggests, only children may become more of the norm as parents attempt to balance work and child-rearing by cutting back on the size of the families they have, thereby limiting the amount of time they need to take out of their careers.