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How much maternity leave is enough for new moms?

Pregnant woman at home
Posted at 3:44 PM, Mar 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 19:26:47-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For parents, life is a balancing act.

However, for working moms, one of the first tests of balancing the demands of work and home comes shortly after a child is born.

Unlike most countries, the U.S. doesn't have mandated maternity leave.

As part of KSHB 41News' Women's History Month coverage, we're taking a closer look at how maternity leave has evolved and why many parents and doctors say it's still not enough.

Out of 193 countries, the U.S. is the only high-income country without a national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers.

Compare that to 12 weeks paid maternity leave in Mexico, 36 in Japan, 43 in Germany and 82 in Estonia.

Although not all of that time is fully paid, it at least guarantees a mother will receive a percentage of her salary during that time period.

In the U.S., there's no such guarantee, forcing some families to make tough decisions.

For Kansas City mom and Jackson County employee Whitney Miller, her maternity planning began years before she had her son, Harrison.

"When I was first at the county and single with no children, I think I took probably four or five years without taking a vacation because I knew eventually I would want that and I would need the leave," Miller said.

In total, Miller took 12 weeks off. Five of those were paid parental leave and the rest of that was covered by time she'd accrued and rolled over from year to year.

Since then, Jackson County has increased the paid maternity leave it offers employees.

"They also have to be in a situation where they can not only take care of their babies, but also recover themselves," Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. said. "And so we looked at paid family leave and at that point, it was five weeks. And we thought it would be better serving our associates if we took it to 12 weeks of paid family leave."

White says making the switch has not only improved the lives of working parents, but it's helped attract and retain female employees.

Unfortunately, those benefits are not the norm.

According to a 2021 report by the BBC, only 21% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave.

And up until the 1990's, mothers didn't even have any assurance their job would be waiting for them after giving birth.

It was in 1993 that the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed by then President Bill Clinton.

As it applies to new moms, that legislation offers 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave.

However, it only applies to employees who've worked at least a year for employers with 50 or more workers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, that only covers 60% of the workforce.

And even for those new moms who are covered, it's not an option to take the time off because they simply can't afford it.

It's time Dr. Caryn Johnson, an OBGYN with University Health Women's Care in Lee's Summit, says is crucial.

As for Miller, she says being able to take that extra time home with her son made a difference in both her personal and professional life.

"When I had Harrison, I was able to be home and really make him my full focus for that," Miller said. "And then when I came back, I was ready to be back. I was able to give my work my full focus."

So how much time off should parents be able to take?

UNICEF recommends six months of leave for all parents to help with children's development and to strengthen that parental bond.

Data from New America shows anything less than 25 weeks of leave doesn't meet basic maternal or infant needs.

New America's data agrees with UNICEF that six months or 52 weeks off with pay is ideal for new families.

As for the American Academy of Pediatrics, it supports legislation to guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents.

Expert say the more time a parent is able to take off that first six to nine months, the better.