Family medical leave, and specifically maternity/paternity leave, has only recently been an issue of concern that has faded in and out of the political media in terms of its coverage and popularity. The last piece of major legislation regarding the matter passed in the United States was signed by Bill Clinton and conveniently entitled the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
According to a paper published by the United States Department of Labor, the act does not mandate employers to provide paid time off; however, it does mandate employers to offer “job-protected” unpaid leave for eligible employees (as determined by a certain amount of hours worked per year). These employees receive the unpaid leave for “up to 12 weeks”, are assured that they will be able to keep their employer-sponsored health insurance and return to their same job. This same paper states that “The resources and supports available to infants can have critical and sometimes lasting effects on their health and well-being. In the early years of life, children experience rapid rates of brain and nervous system development (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000) and form important social bonds with their caregivers (Schore 2001).”
When a baby is born, they already have nearly all of the neurons they will ever have in their entire lifetime. Their brain doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 per cent of its adult volume. Child development specialists and research scientists have proven the environment of a child’s earliest years can have effects that last a lifetime. It is plausible to think that perhaps our family leave of no more than twelve weeks might be too short for moms and dads and all other caregivers in between when, as per the Urban Child Institute, the most important period of development in a child’s life span is from conception to age three.
Aside from a longer maternity leave being more beneficial for the health of infants in their current stage and throughout their lives, research studies have shown “that women who take a longer maternity leave (i.e. longer than 12 weeks of total leave) report fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression, and, when the leave is paid, an improvement in overall and mental health[…]”
With this in mind, and after examining the family medical leave policies of various other nations, it is important to consider promoting change in the way we encourage working men and women to cultivate time spent with their newborns and young children. If care providers are stressed out financially or because they simply cannot have the time off to assist with the development of their children, severe health and social consequences may come about.