Spanish Professor Dr. Brandan Grayson returned to AU this week to resume teaching classes after taking a 12-week leave to care for her new baby, Theo, who was born in July. Although she is grateful that the university made it possible for her to receive pay during her time away under the protection of a sick leave policy—a benefit that she acknowledges not all new parents have access to—she does not feel as though her leave was long enough.
“My baby is three months old, not sleeping longer than four hour stretches, teething is just around the corner, but the federal government says it’s time to return to work,” Grayson said.
Indiana has no family leave law at the state level, only offering protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers with 50 or more workers within a 75 mile radius to allow employees up to 12 weeks of leave following a pregnancy. This act does not, however, cover small business employees, nor does it guarantee pay.
“In my personal opinion, state and federal policy needs to recognize that it’s in the state’s best interest that people have children at a reasonable rate since children are future taxpayers whose earnings will support the state’s activities, including Social Security for retirees,” said Grayson. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that the population be as healthy as possible.”
Two studies conducted in Europe and published in the Economic Journal in 1995 and 2000, reveal that a longer, paid, 10-week extension on leave time was associated with a 20 percent dip in infant death in the 16 countries that were researched. Grayson cited that a longer paid leave has also been associated with lower high school dropout rates and even higher IQs.
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding a newborn for at least six months, which can subsequently lead to numerous health benefits, including increased resistance to colds, lower rates of allergies and asthma, and even fewer ear infections. Even mothers allotted the pre-established FMLA leave time are forced to miss this standard by half, returning to work after a mere three months.
“For these reasons I believe that Indiana should absolutely change its laws to include paid family leave,” Grayson said. “Although, at this point I’d take the option to have unpaid family leave as long as it guaranteed all mothers in all types of work access to leave.”
Today, it is not uncommon for new mothers to need to return to work in order to maintain a decent standard of living for their families, given that more than half of all women in the U.S. with children under the age of one work outside of the home for wages. “The image of the mother who spends her days as a full-time homemaker is simply not the norm and hasn’t been for quite some time,” said Dr. Jaye Rogers, chair of the department of history and political science.
Rogers believes that too many women who have recently given birth return to work before they have even physically recovered because they can’t afford not to, noting that on top of normal daily expenses, they now have the added stressor of pricey medical bills. “A policy that allows a woman to take maternity leave but does not ensure she still has some income during that leave is only addressing part of the issue,” Rogers said.
“I absolutely feel that all mothers deserve access to paid leave, as well as dads,” Grayson commented. “My husband and I are in the trenches of sleep deprivation right now, and we have what is considered an ‘easy’ baby, a phrase that I feel ought to be an oxymoron!”
While the issue of paid maternity can be difficult to navigate, especially for small business owners who may not have the means to both provide funds to an absent worker while simultaneously covering their work load, other countries have been finding alternative methods to providing pay for both maternity and paternity leaves.
“Many, many years ago, courts ruled that even people, like the elderly, without school-age children, should contribute to the tax structure that supports public schools because society as a whole benefits from an educated population,” said Rogers. “Perhaps it is time we think of paid maternity leave in a similar vein.”
Rogers also suggested that returning to work too quickly out of financial necessity can be detrimental to a mother’s health, both physically and mentally. “Do we truly value the work that women perform both as mothers and as members of the workforce?” she inquired. “If so, then we need to adjust policies to reflect that.”
“Bringing home a baby entails sleep deprivation, learning a new skill set of infant care, and altering your worldview to always consider a tiny human,” said Grayson, knowing all too well both the joy and rigorous adjustment having a child can be.
Even being in healthy shape prior to giving birth, Grayson said that it still took her two full months to recover from the physical pain of child birth and to establish a good breastfeeding relationship with her baby. “Forcing women to work before their bodies are healed and before they have had a chance to work on breastfeeding is unthinkable in every other industrialized nation in the world,” she said, “and having been through it, I absolutely understand why.”
As one of only three countries that do not guarantee paid maternity leave, the U.S. ranks last in the world for its policies (or lack thereof) regarding parental leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12 percent of Americans have access to the paid parental leave, an only 5 percent of low-wage earners receive paid maternity leave.
“I would love to see Indiana be a leader in issues like this instead of lagging behind or resisting change,” Rogers said.