By Tracy G. Cassels
When North Americans think of Europe, we tend to think of a happier, relaxed lifestyle where people drink wine, are sophisticated, and lead a lifestyle very unlike our own. In many ways, the European way of life generally IS very different and, in my opinion, it makes a lot more sense. For example, moreso than in the USA, they actually treat work as work – something to be done from 9 to 5, not something to take over your life, and certainly not to be treated more important than family. You go to work, but you get ample vacation time (most places offer 3 to 6 weeks per year) and you aren’t expected to work all hours of the day. The well-being of citizens is paramount, with health care for all, excellent public education (that extends into university in many places), and social programs to help those in need. Of course, they pay higher taxes and have economies that will never be superpowers (although with the recent economic collapse in North America, it’s not like we’ve done wonderfully on that front either), and unfortunately that’s where you get some people thinking that way of life wouldn’t be good here in North America. Who wants to pay such high taxes when I could work harder, earn more myself, and keep it all? But I think for many of us in the middle, what you pay in extra taxes is worth it when you consider how much services like health care and education actually cost us. Heck, if you haven’t saved up at least $75,000 for your kids’ post-secondary education, you’re ensuring they go into the work force with a LOT of debt, something I know most of us would like to avoid. And if you don’t have health care in the USA (and even if you do), you’d better not get sick or you can risk kissing your entire savings goodbye.
In my opinion, one of the biggest advantages the Europeans have isn’t the health care or education, but it is the wonderful sense they have of the importance of family and what it takes to raise a successful child (or member of society). In fact, I believe it is this view of family as being important and the civic duty to care for all children that has led to these other, great policies like socialized health care and affordable education and child care. In line with this view of family, many European countries also have huge advantages when it comes to maternity and paternity leaves, something that is beyond lacking in the United States. Why does this matter? For those who quite obviously have never met a baby, which apparently includes the entire US Government, let us first examine why these leaves are so important to a baby’s development.
In a nutshell: Baby’s best chance at a happy, healthy, and successful life comes from a beginning which includes having a parent (mostly Mom because of breastfeeding, but also Dad) there for at least the first year of life.
To elaborate: First, a mom at home can breastfeed, which is essential to baby gaining both antibodies to certain diseases and certain nutrients for brain development that baby finds nowhere else. Second, no one else will care for your infant like you. Daycares have many children to look after and your baby will get a fraction of the attention he or she should get in infancy. At home, with a parent who is caring and responsive, your child gets all the love and affection he or she needs in order to develop a sense of security and safety that will enable him or her to become strong and independent later in life. Finally, all of these things build up to attachment, the foundation for which is developed in the first year of life. While attachment does continue to develop throughout childhood, that first year in particular is important. And securely attached children show the benefits of it later on, including higher intelligence, emotional responsiveness, more empathy, greater sense of security, etc.
Now, even the most boneheaded of lawmakers has to realize the importance of attachment. After all, how many times do we hear politicians preach ‘family values’? But what they fail to consider is that in order for children to become attached, or for families to be strong, cohesive units, parents need to be at home for a lengthy period of time to ensure the healthy development of their children. As I said before, attachment continues throughout childhood, but there are some very clear times at which attachment seems to develop and a parent should be readily available during those times. The first is the first few weeks of baby’s life. Now, most countries at least allow mom and/or dad to be home for this period on baby’s life. However, just the first few weeks doesn’t really cut it in the long-term.
With breastfeeding being a goal promoted in most countries because of the risks on a societal level of lower rates, policies that allow families the time and resources to breastfeed are paramount. According to the World Health Organization, moms should exclusively breastfeed for NO LESS THAN SIX MONTHS. That’s right, six months should be an absolute minimum folks and sadly when mom has to go back to work after six weeks, guess who suffers? Obviously baby, but also mom if she wanted to breastfeed and the return to work resulted in early cessation. What’s often forgotten is that we all pay the price. What do I mean? The financial cost to low breastfeeding rates is high both due to health problems for mom and baby (see here for research on the topic).
So we’re at six months. If you get six months leave, you’re at least allowed the time to ensure your child has a good physical start and it gives you time to really care for your baby while he or she is at his or her most vulnerable. BUT… one of the strongest stages of bonding for baby happens after six months. Between six and eight months (typically), your baby will start to truly become overly attached to mom (or the primary caregiver). Your baby will want you in eyesight at all times, will constantly want to be hugged and held, and needs reinforcement that you will be there. This can be a trying time for mom because all those steps up to independence that your baby has taken seemingly fall away, but this time is so very important as your baby is making a developmental shift and is using you as the anchor to ensure that everything remains safe. If you’re not there, how does baby get a secure foundation to explore the world? Well, fact of the matter is, baby doesn’t, or at least not right away. Your baby will develop a foundation eventually, but it won’t be as strong or as positive as the one built if your baby can stay with you and go through this period of extreme attachment while making more sense of the world around her. Of course, simply being home won’t help at all, so you need to actually be responsive to your child during this time too. This period can last for a while, and there are individual differences between children, but this time of separation anxiety can continue for months, taking the baby to over a year.
For the vast majority of Americans, their baby has been in someone else’s care for most of these months. There are programs like Head Start to help children academically (not that it seems to work too well, but that’s a topic for another day), but nothing similar for emotional intelligence, attachment, and quality of life for a baby. It’s both infuriating and horribly, horribly saddening. Parents who have a baby in the USA are guaranteed a whopping ZERO weeks of paid leave and only guaranteed 12 weeks of UNPAID leave total (and even that isn’t for everyone). That’s absolute garbage and people should be way more pissed off about it than they are.
So we return to the beginning – the joys of living across the pond. What do other countries offer? Before looking at Europe, we can see the European influence just north of the USA, where in Canada there is a total of 50 weeks of parental leave which is paid at 55% by the government and another 2 weeks unpaid leave allowed. The breakdown is 15 weeks maternity leave and then another 35 weeks which can be split between maternity and paternity leave. If you cross the pond to Europe, most countries offer a minimum of 14 weeks paid fully at 100% of one’s salary and then much more unpaid. For example, in France, you get 16 weeks paid at 100% then up to 2 years unpaid but job guaranteed. In Spain, you also get 16 weeks at 100% then up to 3 years unpaid. In Germany, you get 14 weeks at 100% or 12 months at 67% and then up to 3 years unpaid. In Norway, we see some of the greatest advancements with 56 weeks paid at 80% (or 46 weeks at 100%), and 10 of these weeks must be taken by dad and both parents can take a full year unpaid after the paid time is up. The forced paternity leave is nice because it ensures that fathers get to play a critical role in their child’s development, something that often gets overlooked in deciding childcare policies. Oh – one other thing most of these European countries also have: state-funded and run daycares with top-notch quality employees. So when you do send your child to care, often after a healthy period at home, you know it’s with trained professionals and it’s not too expensive. And why do they do this? Because they realize that CHILDREN MATTER.
Frankly I think it’s time policy-makers put their money where their mouths are and actually ENABLE families to be the strong units they’re supposed to be. Let families raise their own kids. Politicians on all sides in the USA talk of taking responsibility for kids – well, it’s nearly impossible to do that when you have go back to work 3 weeks after your baby is born because you have to put food on the table and you can’t afford good daycare so you send your infant off to some unlicensed daycare with too many kids or to an overcrowded daycare where your child will be left to cry for extended periods and left in a cot all day. (There are exceptions and great home daycares and I urge all parents to look into them, but they are fewer and further between.)
Children, especially babies, NEED their parents, just as the parents NEED to be with their babies to help build the bond that keeps us together and caring for each other for years. It’s not rocket science. It is, however, part of evolution. We’ve only survived as a species for so long by caring for our young ourselves, with the help of our kin or tribe. It is the only way to ensure they are as fit as possible to face the future. And while the world has changed and our children probably won’t go off hunting wild boar, their survival still depends upon their family. The more that the government values corporations and profit over people, the worse our society seems to become. It’s not a coincidence. We’re reaping what we’ve sowed and it’s time for things to change. Contact your Representative and make it known that you want parents to have the chance to take care of their children. Hopefully if enough people speak up, someone will listen.
To access the EP evidence-based Letter to US Representatives on maternity leave, click here.
Update: Human Rights Watch has declared that the state of maternity leave policy in the US constitutes a human rights violation… check it out!
It’s about time somebody noticed!