Thursday, January 03, 2008

What We're Missing

This is simply incredible. In a blog post at Crooked Timber Ingrid Robeyns argues that men and female partners should receive paid birth leave, so they can be at home with their wife/partner who has just given birth. Of course what's stunning to an American like myself is read about what mothers are already entitled to in the Dutch system. Here are some excerpts:

Female employees in the Netherlands are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave, paid at 100% of their current salary (there is a ceiling, but the ceiling is very very high). They have to take minimum 4 and maximum 6 weeks of leave before the due date. This leaves them with 10 to 12 weeks of leave after the birth, extended for the number of days the baby was born after the due date. According to Foubert’s review of the medical literature, women need 6 to 8 weeks to physically recover from giving birth. So that means that for their pregnancy, birth, and birth recovery, women need somewhere between 10 (4 weeks before + 6 weeks after) and 14 (6+8) weeks of leave; hence between 2 and 6 weeks are given to women for non-medical reasons; it is given to them as parents, rather than as mothers.

women are not allowed to stay in hospital after delivering their babies (except, of course, if there is some medical reason, such as excessive blood loss or a c-section with complications). Instead, a professional carer comes to the mother’s home to take care of mother and child there, paid for (largely) by the national health insurance. Yet this kind of care has been scaled down considerably – since 2006 the task of these careworkers is limited to checking the health of mother and child, cleaning the bedroom and the bathroom, doing the laundry, advising on breastfeeding, and preparing lunch. Until 2005 these care workers would also take care of older children, do grocery shopping, prepare the evening meals, clean the house, make coffee for visitors, and do anything else that needed to be done so that the mother could stay in bed. But how can mothers who just gave birth do what is medically necessary (that is, try to rest and minimise walking around for about a week), if they only receive care for 4 to 5 hours a day, and their partners have no legal right to stay away from work?

Only four to give hours of care a day? In our country, women are fortunate if their employer will pay them to stay at home and take care of an infant after they come home from the hospital. Many women must choose between taking unpaid leave and staying at home, or worse yet, losing their jobs as a result of their unwillingness to return to work. Paid time off before birth? Forget it, unless it's your vacation time you're using up. And someone coming by to help out with the kids by cooking and cleaning up? I'm not sure that most Americans know that any government in the world even pays for such a thing.

It's a tiresome cliche to say that the conservative "family values" crowd only cares about children until their born, but never has that seemed more true than in the way our nation treats mothers of young children, who are expected to either enter the workforce to make a living, or rely upon the father or someone else to provide for their's and their child's needs. There is no excuse, no reason, that mothers cannot be at home in the weeks leading to birth, and at home in the months following it. They shouldn't have to choose between doing so and getting a paycheck, because it is a benefit to our entire society that mothers are home taking care of the children. This is something that we strangely seemed to understand in the times before the emancipation of women, but it's not emancipation that has created this problem. It is an economic environment in which women must work for families to experience even the level of prosperity their parents and grand-parents enjoyed, where few employers have sympathy for working mothers, and where both traditionalist and fiscal conservatives believe that the cost to our society in taxes and lost "efficiency" is somehow more damaging to our nation than the damage that results from mothers and fathers not being with their children. And it is long, long past time for this to change.

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