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US Should Follow Australia’s Example: Grant Paid Parental Leave

16 July 2012 No Comment

Kelly Taber

“I want to be more involved as an advocate for paid maternity leave because if moms aren’t speaking out, we can’t complain.”

Kelly Taber
Morgantown, WV,  USA

There seems to be a buzz about social entrepreneurship these days, and that bee seems to be stuck in my bonnet.

I keep finding myself thinking about an idea that I have. It’s about maternity leave, and the astonishing fact that the United States doesn’t guarantee any paid leave to new mothers or parents following the birth or adoption of a child.

America, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland are the only countries without this crucial protection for infants and mothers.

I’ve been so obsessed that I called parental leave experts from Australia, where national paid parental leave was implemented last year. In Australia, parents are now provided 18 weeks of maternity leave paid at the national minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,500. Most also are entitled to one year of unpaid leave with job security.

“There was so much joy. People were really excited,” said Marian Baird, professor of employment relations at The University of Sydney Business School. “It really did have a positive impact. We’ve found that young men and women expected such a policy. There is a generational change occurring in terms of what government is doing and what employers are doing.”

Ninety-five percent of Australian working women now have access to paid parental leave, compared to about half of working women before the program started. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 40 percent of U.S. workers are not covered under the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave. Less than half of U.S. working mothers stay home for the first 12 weeks of their infants’ lives, according to “The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation.”

I want to be more involved as an advocate for paid maternity leave because if moms aren’t speaking out, we can’t complain. We’re too often consumed with our daily routines to realize what we’re missing. Many countries provide more than six months of paid leave for mothers and fathers. Ideally we could institute paid family leave and social security caregiver credits as recognition for the important work of mothering.

The secret to Australia’s success in securing paid parental leave was coalition-building and persistence, according to those involved in the campaign. Marie Coleman, chair of social policy at the National Foundation for Australian Women, worked for paid parental leave for more than 30 years in Australia. The times weren’t always easy, Coleman said. “There were various other members of the sisterhood that I would have put out to the sea and left,” said Coleman, who is characteristically blunt. She often wondered, “Why should we bother? The people who didn’t like it were the people who were making the most noise.”

After a nation-wide campaign and coalition building in Australia, ninety-five percent of Australian working women now have access to paid parental leave, compared to about half of working women before the program started.

Coleman helped to organize regional, religious, and union groups, who mobilized in support of paid parental leave. “We campaigned in a really united way with key organizations,” said Belinda Tkalcevic, industrial officer at the Australian Council of Trade Unions. “We really had a concerned alliance of women’s groups and community groups and unions to push it through.”

There are efforts being made in the United States. I’ve signed petitions and joined tweet chats but want to do more to increase awareness that the struggle for new moms does not have to be such a struggle. Heart-breaking stories of financial hardship, workplace discrimination, and mental and physical health difficulties are common and detailed in the Human Rights Watch Failing its Families Report. Too often the options are to go back to work, leaving your newborn in someone else’s care, or to quit work, leading into poverty.

I was relatively fortunate to be able to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave and negotiate a work-from-home arrangement, often staying awake past midnight to finish work on the computer while expecting to be awoken again at least once before daylight. The sleep deprivation was awful. Coffee helps, but exhaustion always catches up with you. Before the birth of our second child I resigned from my office job, which has meant a strain on our family’s finances and my career advancement. The decision to quit work is one that I am proud of, however, and so happy for the many smiles during my time together with my children at home.

Recently I attended a baby shower. It was a fun occasion with silly games, guessing names and birth weights, unwrapping presents, and eating cake. The baby shower is what started me thinking as a social entrepreneur. I decided there needs to be a gift basket to promote paid parental leave. It would arrive with a card and more information: “Congratulations! If you lived in Sweden, you would receive more than a year of compensated time with your baby!”

With some Internet research I have found these eco-friendly gift products from the three countries without paid maternity leave.

  • Organic and fair-trade coffee from Papua New Guinea. The coffee beans are sorted by local women in Papua New Guinea.
  • Marula oil, perfect for baby massage and belly oil during pregnancy, produced by women in Swaziland.
  • Organic cotton onesies in a variety of sizes and made in America.

I love the idea of packaging these items and sealing boxes with address labels destined for mothers across the United States.  It strikes me as funny when I think of this unexpected connection between me in my middle class American home and the women of Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Who knows? I might receive a few orders from those countries as well.

The problem is that I’m a writer, not an entrepreneur. Starting a business is scary. But it might be less scary than this darn buzzing!

Do you know anyone who is pregnant or expecting? Would you consider giving a parental leave baby shower gift? Please tell me what you think! Twitter @krtwriter

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

 

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