What does the United States have in common with Papua New Guinea and Suriname, as well as the small island states of Micronesia, Palau, Tonga, Nauru and the Marshall Islands? Out of 185 countries, these are the only ones that do not provide some sort of paid maternity leave.
This reality prompted Regan Long’s recent Huffington Post article lamenting the fact that many mothers in the U.S. are forced to return to work prematurely because of their financial need. Even for mothers who can afford to take a full 12 weeks off from work, however, the question should be asked: does America’s current system properly value the mother’s presence with her child in the early weeks and months of the child’s life?
It should be strongly stated that this is not a partisan “women’s health” issue; it is a common good issue. To have a strong and flourishing society, we need children who are raised and cared for in the best possible way. Given that there are long-term benefits from maternity leave, this is an area where we as a society ought to attach a monetary value to maternity leave in order to incentivize the practice. However, given the lack of federal legislation on this issue, it seems that this is an area where Christians should lead the way by taking a holistic approach — thinking not only about potential legislation but, in its absence, about creative ways to assist new mothers.
I am not an economist, so I admittedly open up this proposal for discussion with those who are more well-versed in that field. Here’s what I wonder: could Christian-owned businesses work together to form an association that would take the initiative in providing some level of extended paid maternity leave? Companies like Google, Netflix and Intel have both the financial ability and the organizational will to offer some forms of paid maternity leave. Could businesses like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, which are owned by conservative Christians who have a high view of the value of the family, use their clout and cultural capital to bring in other owners to offer paid maternity leave, including small business owners who couldn’t do this on their own?
This is not a partisan “women’s health” issue; it is a common good issue.
Perhaps these businesses could even collaborate with Christian nonprofits in order to have an even larger pool of organizations and individuals paying into the system. As someone who is employed by a Christian college, I wonder if this is a way in which a Christian approach to benefits — including maternity leave — should differentiate Christian educational institutions from an approach that devalues pregnant women and even makes it difficult for them to continue in both their graduate studies and teaching.
It may also be worthwhile for Christians to think about how, within the current system, we can assist mothers who would like to stay with their child for the 12 weeks allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act regulations but who need to return sooner than that for financial reasons. This may be one of those areas where the church is called to do good, especially to those in the family of faith. Churches often host baby showers where the mother, child and family are helped through the outpouring of baby-related items, but we should also consider whether we can add something greater: direct financial assistance that would provide the gift of time together for mother and child.
In a world that increasingly recognizes the value of a triple bottom line, Christians can and should lead the way in recognizing that pro-life and pro-family policies include paid maternity leave. Acting on this not only contributes to the good of families and society as a whole, but also serves as a tangible witness to the love of the God who gave birth to us.