Researchers studying maternity leave rates recently found that the number has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-1990s: On average, 273,000 women took maternity leave each month in 1994, the same rate as in 2015.
What’s more, less than half of them – 47.5 percent – were paid for the time spent home with their babies. The authors of the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, noted that the number of employers providing paid maternity leave is increasing in the United States, but only at a rate of .26 percentage points per year.
In contrast, however, the number of fathers taking paternity leave tripled in the same time period. An average of 5,800 dads per month took paternity leave in 1994, an average that rose to 22,000 in 2015. Another area where researchers noted a gender gap was in pay: A much higher percentage of men, nearly 71 percent, were paid for their time off.
The stagnant maternity leave rate since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act went into effect 22 years ago doesn’t surprise Kelly Kasper, MD, gynecologist at Indiana University Health. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen a decrease,” she says, “because the United States doesn’t do a good job giving paid time off for leave.”
Despite a continuing rise in the cost of living in this country, federal law only requires employers to give workers three months of unpaid leave. “A lot of people can’t walk away from a paycheck for three months,” says Dr. Kasper, who adds that many of the families she sees take fewer weeks off than they could due to financial constraints.
The big increase in paternity leave makes sense as well, says Dr. Kasper, noting that society is more amenable to the idea of men taking time off from work after a birth than it was 15 years ago.
In addition, it could be that in households where the mother’s salary is higher, couples might decide that it makes more sense for her to return to work sooner and for him to stay home and care for the baby, an arrangement that’s more accepted now, she says.
Families who can’t afford to take that time are missing out on potential health benefits of longer leaves. A 2012 study found that less than eight weeks of paid leave was associated in higher rates of depression among mothers, and another paper concluded that generous maternity leave policies appear to reduce depression.
A big reason that a lengthy leave benefits parents and babies is, simply, sleep, Dr. Kasper says. New parents are severely sleep-deprived, and babies generally aren’t yet sleeping through the night at six weeks old, when many parents go back to work.
Figuring out how to balance childcare and work duties on no sleep is difficult for most parents, Dr. Kasper says. And when they’re chronically fatigued, they’re less likely to be patient, focused and present with their babies, which can affect everyone’s well-being.
Possible changes to federal law regarding paid leave remain to be seen, but Dr. Kasper says she hopes the United States will take a more European approach to paid family leave in the future, which would have a positive impact on families’ health. “Having the ability to step away from work and simply give the body an opportunity to rest and recover from a pregnancy has a lot of health benefits, for mothers and ultimately for children,” Dr. Kasper says.
-- By Virginia Pelley