I’ve been covering work and family for more than a decade, and it seems about once a year, the fact that we have no federal system of paid parental leave is an issue that goes viral. Often the topic is in the news because of legislative tussling, as with the Build Back Better plan making its way through Congress; a provision for 12 weeks of paid family leave was removed from the bill, and as of this moment, a four-week provision is back in.
When the paid leave topic breaks through, people tweet and retweet global maps showing what an absurd outlier the United States is. Norway and Sweden are routinely invoked as paragons of humanity. Mothers take to social media to share their postnatal struggles.
An example of this kind of consciousness-raising tale is one on Instagram by Mona Amin, a physician married to another physician, who reported that she had no paid leave after a “traumatic birth.” Eight days after she delivered, she said, she was in an ICU while her son was in an NICU, and she and her husband had to battle with her employer and the insurance company to manage her postpartum care and “to make sure I would still get a paycheck so we could pay off our $400,000+ hospital bill.”
Another is from novelist Lydia Kiesling, who wrote for The Baffler about how her maternity leave benefit was originally denied and she had to untangle a “bureaucratic snarl” in order to receive it while still wearing what amounted to a maternity diaper. “I am talking a lot about blood and torn vaginas and incisions here because birth is a physical trauma that affects the body in ways they don’t even tell you about beforehand,” Kiesling said. “It’s been four years since I had my second child, and my pelvic floor is still not quite right. Please Google ‘rectocele,’ and let your imagination run wild.”
Too many stories
After hearing hundreds, maybe thousands, of testimonies like this, I’m enraged that we are still having to tell these stories, still having to splay our vulnerability and torn-up bodies out to the universe to get some legislators to prioritize mothers as humans in need of the barest social supports. Four weeks?! If that even survives the ongoing Capitol Hill sausagemaking.
I had difficult pregnancies and then relatively easy births, and four weeks postpartum with my second child, I was so exhausted and out of sorts caring for a newborn and a preschooler that I bit my inner lip while eating — so hard that I needed expensive oral surgery. I also had a prolapsed uterus (don’t Google that) that ultimately resolved itself, in part because I had the opportunity to rest during my two months of paid leave. And I considered myself lucky to get that much time off in the first place. My husband had no time off at all.
Though I haven’t spoken to all of them, every member of Congress surely knows, deep down, that mothers shouldn’t be returning to work a mere two weeks after giving birth, which, In These Times reported in 2015, nearly an estimated quarter of employed moms do. And yet mothers such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are still forced to explain to colleagues such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia how vital paid leave is. Even though — as a father of three and grandfather of 10 — he really should know.
That’s pretty clear, because he said he’s not against paid leave in theory but framed his concerns in terms of more general worries about the Build Back Better plan’s overall price tag. He said he would be more likely to support paid leave if it were considered as separate legislation under regular order (not the reconciliation process being used to avoid the possibility of filibuster). And while Republicans increasingly say they support paid leave, some of their proposals for it are ungenerous, relying on funding mechanisms that involve borrowing from future Social Security benefits.
The obstacles are mostly political
The problem, then, isn’t one of awareness. It’s one of political calculus. And for the moderate Senate Democrats Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and most congressional Republicans, it doesn’t seem to be adding up.
Christine Matthews, a public opinion pollster who has surveyed voters on the issue of paid family leave, said that while most Republican voters want it enacted, Republican legislators know they will not be punished for voting it down. “It’s not that Republican voters don’t support it. It’s that politicians know they’re not voting on that particular issue,” she said.
Neither Democrat nor Republican voters seem to list paid leave as a top legislative priority. A 2017 Pew Research poll showed that only 35 percent of Americans listed paid leave as a top priority for President Donald Trump and Congress. A 2021 Pew poll of legislative priorities didn’t list paid leave, with most Americans citing the economy and COVID as their biggest concerns. And according to an October CBS News/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans think the Build Back Better plan would help them and their families (with 33 percent saying it would hurt them and 31 percent saying it would have no effect at all).
The 2017 Pew poll found that paid leave provided by businesses rather than government was viewed more favorably. I worry, though, that if we leave it up to the private sector, it will never happen for the majority of parents, particularly working-class parents.
If we’re going to move large numbers of American voters toward more full-throated support of government-funded paid leave, we need more fathers — and men in general — to be vocal about it. Abby McCloskey, who has served as policy director for Republican and independent candidates, pointed out that while she’s no apologist for Trump, she thinks his public support of family leave helped senior Republicans become more “willing and open” to it. After all, around 2 million federal workers now have 12 weeks of paid family leave because of a Trump-era policy.
Matthews believes we can increase the salience of paid leave for men and for more conservative voters by elevating new narratives. Many people tune out these new-mom stories (which is why I’m so full of rage right now), but if we want to be savvy about getting support for this issue, we should start telling stories like the ones Matthews heard from rural men when she was conducting focus groups.
“They’re talking about having jobs that are very inflexible, where they don’t get time off to support their wife who has had a baby or a serious illness or problem,” she said. Because they live far away from medical services or extra help, they feel the lack of paid leave particularly acutely.
This doesn’t mean women should stop telling their stories. I will continue to tell mine. We should continue forever because these stories are worthy on their own terms. But as political motivation, perhaps we need a different tactic.
Would I prefer to live in a country that actually cared about women and their physical and emotional pain? I would. But if I can’t have that, I want paid leave for any people who need it to care for themselves or their loved ones. And if listening to men’s stories is what it takes, let’s hear them.
Tell us about how you bonded with a new child or helped a parent through an illness or saved somebody’s life. Drown out the Tucker Carlsons and the Joe Lonsdales who claim men taking parental leave are losers. Just do it now, while there’s still time for this bill, because while four weeks is not nearly enough, four weeks is better than nothing at all.