What Matters Most: Women And Children

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I hope that I live long enough to see the day when women and children are fully valued for their critical role in the continuation and health of civilization. While every life requires a mother and father to begin, it is mothers who bear our future leaders and caretakers.

It would seem wise then to keep this fact at the forefront of our domestic policy commitments, especially when it comes to how mothers are able to care for themselves and their babies during the most critical first months of life. This brings us to the current debate over paid family leave.

When it comes to bearing and nurturing our future generations, the United States is the only industrialized nation to avoid paid family leave, a policy that greatly improves maternal and child health among other benefits.

I focus on mothers because of their critical nurturing role. We know enough from scientific evidence about maternal health (including mental health) and early childhood development, that there is hardly a debate about whether it is beneficial to give new parents more time to bond with their children. It produces an avalanche of benefits. And frankly, the opposite is equally true.

Less time with new children ushers in negative consequences for mothers and their young children. This negative effect is compounded for low-income earners in that they have far less access to paid family leave.

According to the Department of Labor, 25 percent of American women return to work within two weeks of giving birth because they simply cannot afford to go without a paycheck. Another study by Pew Research shows that 62 percent of American households with incomes below $30,000 received no compensation for family leave.

It should be of great concern that low-income families suffer disproportionately more and with compounding effects on the development of their children.

According to a study published by The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, “Working full-time in the first 9-to-12 months of a child’s life increases the frequency of child behavior problems as well as detracts from long-term cognitive outcomes, such as school readiness, verbal ability, and test scores.”  

The same study further explains that “a maternity leave of 12 weeks or less, particularly if it involves full-time return to work, is associated with lower cognitive test scores, lower rates of well-child care and immunizations, and higher rates of externalizing behavior problems.”

Yet another critical determinant of child health and development, particularly for infants, is maternal mental health.

According to the same journal, numerous studies show that mothers with depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress put their children at risk for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes, particularly during the first few years of life.  

The upside, and why this policy is critical, is that women who take at least 12 weeks of leave are less likely to experience depression. The downside is that depression rates among poor mothers are nearly twice as high as those among non-poor mothers.

In light of the impact on mothers and their ability to care for their developing babies, our government would be wise to invest in helping families get off to the best start that they can. Mothers and fathers deserve support for their investment in our future.   

Opposition to paid family leave usually centers around the cost to the employer. But even employers are realizing that there is a payoff, including the retention of good employees.

A study on California’s paid family leave policy shows that 90 percent of employers reported a positive impact or no impact to the employer. To further illustrate this point, Google reduced the rate at which new mothers quit by 50 percent when they increased paid maternity leave. Yet another employer that implemented a paid family leave policy spent six months training a new hire named Amanda when she discovered she was pregnant. Her employer paid for a 16-week maternity leave in addition to granting two raises while she was still on leave.

These employers appear to grasp that their investment in the retention of new mothers through a strong paid family leave policy is beneficial, not only to the mother and her child but to their bottom line, as well.

When contemplating the health risks to mothers and their developing babies, which will have a long-term societal impact, the overriding value of an investment in supporting paid family leave for women and their children is one that the United States cannot afford to sidestep.

We have made many bad calls throughout the past 50 years by ushering in policies which erode the support of intact families. Paid family leave is one policy which can begin to value women and children who are our future.

Jacqueline Halbig von Schleppenbach served in senior executive positions in the Bush administration and the Office of the Governor of Virginia. She is the principal consultant for Sovereign Global Solutions, LLC and serves on the boards of national and international Catholic organizations.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.