Mother's Day unifies the nation as we all scurry to find the right Hallmark card, fancy flowers or some proverbial chocolates to honor she who labored us into this world. The treats, however, can't sweeten a bitter fact: our country, while touting that it values families, gives scant evidence of doing so, particularly when it comes to infants and their care. Our public policies in these arenas could, but don't, give mothers (and fathers) who work outside the home what they need to nurture our next generation. To create healthy, thriving families and communities, we should start when children are young. Babies develop a set of social, emotional, and cognitive skills that lay the foundation for the very skills they will need to be successful in school and in the workplace. In short time, these tiny bundles begin to crawl and then walk and in a blink they become young adults and workers determining our nation's productivity and global role.
Consider how our nation's policies currently play out.
DeeDee, who is 22, has a job on the janitorial staff of a local community center. Her son is three weeks old and she is back on the job full time. She feels lucky since, unlike many of her friends, she got to use her one week of vacation when the baby was born. The two weeks of unpaid leave were tough. While she wanted to breast feed, her doctor says the stress from her financial worries was a key reason she did not produce enough milk. DeeDee would like to spend more weeks at home with her son but she just can't afford it. She's found a neighbor to watch him while she's at work, but she worries about her son's care. She knows it's the best she can do, though; she visited other family and local child care centers before her son was born but they were just too expensive.
The reason DeeDee (a hypothetical mother) faces this situation is that in the United States, no federal law provides for paid family medical leave for workers. This despite the evidence that paid leave helps babies get the immunizations and check-ups they need to be healthy and is associated with longer duration of breastfeeding. We have some funding to help low-income parents pay for child care, but only one in six children who qualifies gets any help. The lowest income families pay on average up to 40 percent of their income on care. Infant care is the most costly of all child care and is hard to find. With average costs of infant care exceeding public college tuition in many states, even middle class paychecks are no match for the child care bill.
We could be a smarter nation. If we give moms and dads paid family leave they can care for their infants in their earliest months. We can then fund quality infant care in later months. Lining up supports in this way, we can get our babies off to a much stronger start for becoming productive adults and workers. That's a smart deal.
Right now, the U.S. sits far in the back of the class when it comes to paid family leave. America is an exceptional nation alongside only Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as countries without a paid maternity leave law. The Family Medical Leave Act permits up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child (or address a serious illness), but even this is available to less than half of the nation's workforce because of the law's eligibility rules. DeeDee was able to use her vacation time for maternity leave. But, fully 40 percent of low-income working parents (those earning up to about $38,000 annually for a family of three) have no paid leave whatsoever. That's no vacation days, no sick days, no personal days.
As a country, we also pay too little attention to the child care options available to new moms and dads when they go back to work. Much of the available infant care is low quality. Quality care that is nurturing and responsive to a baby's needs matters, giving kids from families with the least resources a solid foundation for skill development and learning. Care that fails to meet quality standards can have the opposite effect.
There is some good news. On paid parental leave, state insurance programs in New Jersey and California are demonstrating the idea is doable; businesses can implement paid leave policies without much headache; and dads, along with moms, want this time to bond with the baby. Federal policymakers also have recognized the importance of building the parent-child relationship by including funding for early childhood home visiting services in the recent health care reform legislation. Far more resources and improved policies are needed to improve the quality of infant care for families.
This Mother's Day, when you pick out that special card or place your bouquet order, consider the working mom at the register. She too needs a gift. It's time for us to unify around more than our purchases and realize that what moms (and dads) want and what our nation needs is for their children to thrive. It turns out that if our infants do well, our nation does well too. By packaging paid family leave and quality affordable infant care, we can give babies a strong start in their first year of life. That's a package of policies ready for wrapping.