Ask American mothers and fathers how much time they can take off work to care for and bond with a new infant, and the answers are all over the map.
Lauren, who works for a big financial services firm, is on the 19th week of what will be six months of leave paid by her employer at 100 percent. When she returns to work, her husband will take three months off at 100 percent pay. Their baby will be eight months old by the time he starts child care. “We are fortunate,” she says.
Most other Americans aren’t. Chris, who works as a restaurant server, took eight weeks of unpaid leave, which—even with her husband working 70 hours a week—threw the family into financial chaos and her into postpartum depression. She would have loved more time to heal and for she and her husband to adapt to their new family life, but the financial stress was too much. “It takes the joy away a bit. Not that we don’t love our son, but we worry all the time for money,” she said. “Honestly? I feel robbed.”
And then there are the low-income women that Laura Brown, of First Shift Justice, tries to help—women who get fired just before they’d qualify for leave, or for whom any kind of leave of any length is a luxury. “They’re all in really bad situations,” she said. “But people just endure them.”
Just 14 percent of American workers are eligible for paid leaves, and high-wage workers like Lauren are three-and-a-half times more likely than lower-wage workers like Chris to get it. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the median length of paid or unpaid time new mothers take leave to heal and care for infants is 11 weeks—the time when infants are about to being to recognize a caregiver’s voice, smell, and face, and five weeks before an infant can hold its head steady. For fathers, it’s one week.
But how much time is enough? The Family Medical Leave Act offers eligible employees—about 60 percent of the workforce—12 weeks of unpaid leave. The 35 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average 52 weeks of paid parental leave, ranging from zero in the United States to 166 weeks in Estonia. And amid growing public pressure, the Trump administration is proposing six weeks of paid parental leave.
To better understand how much time families need for caregiving in order to achieve the best outcomes, we scanned more than 100 studies, representing some of the best U.S. and international research, for a new Better Life Lab report examining how the length of paid family leave impacts four areas: infant and child health and wellbeing, maternal health and well-being, gender equality, and businesses and the economy. There is compelling scientific evidence that the optimal length of time to ensure the best infant and child health and well-being is one year of paid leave at adequate wage replacement, split between parents.