THE BLOG
01/20/2015 03:48 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

How America Is Failing Working Moms

KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

I'm seven months pregnant with my first baby. So far, I've been blessed with an easy pregnancy, but with my due date less than three months away, I'm starting to grow concerned about how to manage a new work/life balance once there is a baby involved. As I began to research "maternity leave" on the Internet, I was shocked to discover how far behind the U.S. has fallen in comparison to the rest of the developed world.

With so much talk over the last few years about women "having it all," it seems as though the government and employers don't do very much to help support women remaining in the workplace once they have a child. Perhaps that has contributed to the rise of mommy pill poppers over the last few decades. It's also contributed to nearly one in ten "highly educated women" dropping out of the workforce to care for their little ones. According to the Pew Research Center, this new trend might be less about these women making the choice to opt-out of having a career and more about "being pushed out, due to the difficulties of balancing work and family in the U.S." They go on to cite a 2009 survey performed by the Center for Work-Life Policy in which they found that "among those who had stepped away from their careers, fully 69 percent said they would not have done so if their workplace had offered more flexible work arrangements."

So just how bad do mommies in the U.S. have it?

12 Weeks of Unpaid Pay Is Not Enough

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows a woman 12 unpaid workweeks of leave once you have a baby, but only to women who a) work at a company that employs 50 or more people and b) have worked at least 1250 hours at that company in the year prior to taking maternity leave.

While three months off from work might seem like a long time to many, the reality of it is that 12 weeks of unpaid leave is simply not enough. Many women don't have the financial security to go 12 weeks without pay and are compelled to return to the workforce before that time is up. It's hard on the baby and it's hard on mom's body, especially if she had a C-section or is breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life and having to return to work after three months might not be ideal for reaching that goal.

An article on Slate.com examines two different studies on European maternity leave policies published in Economic Journal in 2000 and 2005 found that there was a significant drop in infant deaths when there was a 10-week extension for paid leave. The author of the study went on to say that the ideal amount of time for both women and babies is 40 weeks, which is roughly nine months, and six months longer than most women in the U.S. are able to have access to.

It's Affecting The Economy, Stupid

A recent article in The New York Times on "Why U.S. Women Are Leaving Jobs Behind" found that women who struggle with work-life balance after having a baby are more likely to leave the workforce altogether and it has a significant impact on the economy. According to the article "as recently as 1990, the United States had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, but it has now fallen behind many European countries."

Countries like Switzerland, Australia, Germany Canada, Japan and France have pushed the U.S. out of the top ranking position for women's participation in the labor force during their prime child-bearing years.

Francine Blau, an economist at Cornell University, told The New York Times, "Equality, both in the larger society, but also in the family, seems to be advanced by having women work outside the home."

Added Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College who specializes in gender and employment, "It's tougher and tougher for women to make it worthwhile to work. For low- and middle-income families, it literally isn't worth going to work if the cost of child care exceeds what you'd bring in, and that calculus is exacerbated in an economic downturn."

Countries That Support Women Across the Globe

An article that was printed in Business Week recently cited a shocking statistic, courtesy of the United Nations' International Labour Organization: "there are only two countries in the world that don't have some form of legally protected, partially paid time off for working women who've just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S."

So what do these other countries give their new moms that the U.S. does not?

  • In the United Kingdom, women receive 52 weeks of maternity leave following the birth or adoption of a child, 39 of which are paid.
  • In France, women receive their full salary for 16 weeks, and can receive both more time and money from the government for Baby Number Two and beyond.
  • In Spain, new moms also receive pay for a full 16 weeks after giving birth. The only requirement? They need to be Spanish citizens who has contributed to social security for at least 180 days in the seven years prior to having a baby.
  • Italy provides women with 20 weeks of paid leave at 80 percent of their salary. And, as an Italian citizen, both mom and dad are able to take up to six months of the year off of work for the first 8 years of a child's life while still receiving 30 percent of their daily salary.
  • In Canada, women can take a full year off of work after the birth of a child with guaranteed work security. Women receive about 55 percent of their salaries for 15 to 17 weeks depending on where they live.
  • In Russia, new moms receive 20 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of their salary -- half of which is taken before the baby comes and half of which you receive post-baby. An added bonus? You can choose to extend your leave to up to 18 months after the birth, at 40 percent of your salary.
  • New moms in Sweden get 16 months of paid maternity leave with each child, and the entire first year of your leave you receive 80 percent of your regular salary. You can even choose to space out your parental leave throughout the years until your child turns 8.

What Is The Answer?

It's hard to pinpoint one solution to this problem, but having the government chime in and acknowledge the difficulties that young working mothers are facing would be a good first step. Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D., NY) introduced a bill called The Family Act to congress in 2013. The bill would make employers, regardless of their size, provide three months of paid leave to new parents at 66 percent of their salaries. Unfortunately, the bill has been stalled in Congress for over a year now.

Pointing out that 80 percent of Congress is older and male, Gillibrand told Business Week that, "the issue isn't being raised because too many of the members of Congress were never affected by it. They're not primary caregivers. Most members of Congress are affluent and are able to afford help or able to support their [wives]. It's not a problem for most of them."

But it's a problem for me. And if it's a problem for you too, let your local Congressional representative know that they should make this a priority for 2015.