Having lived in several countries, my wife and I have gained a new perspective on the differences of how each government operates. After the birth of our kids, it was the differences in each country’s maternity and paternity leave laws that became very interesting to us.
While we had our son Dominik in the German system, our daughter Viktoria was born in the U.S. It was then that we realized the major differences in maternity and paternity policies. One of the few industrialized nations without a mandatory paid leave policy, the U.S., in contrast to most countries, leaves both maternity and paternity paid leave up to the discretion of the employer.
This is not to say that parents are not able to take time off. The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees certain employees 12 weeks of job-protected time off to both the mother and father. Qualifying adoptive parents are also allowed this time. To be qualified, these employees must live within 75 miles of where they work; their place of employment must have over 50 employees for at least 20 workweeks during either the current or previous year and they must have worked there a minimum of 1,250 hours during the prior year.1
Sadly, only 60% of employers give up to 12 weeks of maternity leave while just over 33% provide more. According to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), only 58% of these companies pay employees for this time off. In 2004, California became the first state to implement a paid-family-leave policy that enables most working Californians to receive 55% of their usual salary for up to six weeks, to $1,104. Since then, only New Jersey and Rhode Island have actualized similar programs.2
The Law in Germany
In Germany, mothers have a special protection in society. There are several laws and financial substitutes a mother and families are entitled to. While the details are complicated and there are exceptions. Here is a short overview:
Mutterschutz | Maternity Protection
This entitles mothers to paid time off six weeks prior to and eight weeks after birth. Premature and multiple births are entitled to 12 weeks after birth. This is financed by a mixture of the employer and medical insurance.
Elterngeld | Parent Money
This is the second phase of maternity leave. The government offers an additional paid maternity leave. Up to 14 months after birth, the government pays 65 percent of a parent’s average income before birth with a minimum of 300 Euro to a maximum of 1,200 Euro per month. This parent money can be received by either the mother or the father. In our case, Mirka took two months of the Elterngeld and I took 12 months.
Kindergeld | Children Money
This begins the month after a child is born and is paid until a child is 18 years. The German government pays every qualifying family around 200 Euro per child per month.
In Germany, a pregnant woman and a young mother also have special protections and rights in the workplace. There are many specific rules involved with this protection, but here is a short overview. The Mother Protection Law states that:
- An employer cannot terminate a woman during her pregnancy.
- An employer cannot terminate a woman during the first four months after giving birth.
- The employer is required to hold a position in the company for the mother for three years after birth. This does not need to be the exact position but something similar in responsibilities, hours and pay.
- The employer is required to make it possible for the mother to work part-time during these three years if the mother wishes to do so.
I understand that many people in the U.S. would think that this places too much of a burden on an employer. Yet, statistics show that there are a great deal of benefits that come from protecting mothers and families.
Out of 193 countries in the United Nations, very few do not have a national paid parental leave law. These countries include New Guinea, a few South Pacific island nations, Suriname and the U.S. Of those, The U.S. and Suriname are the only countries in the western hemisphere that don’t offer mandatory paid leave for either parent3.
Pregnancy and Childbirth Is No Walk In The Park
Being a husband and father of two beautiful children, I understand that pregnancy and childbirth is no walk in the park. From morning sickness and fatigue before, to a host of post-delivery symptoms, pregnancy can be more painful and harder to recover than from a surgery or illness. In fact, according to familydoctor.org, recovering from a natural or caesarian birth is, on average, a six to eight-week process while Web MD cites that an appendectomy can take as little as two to three weeks to fully recover from. Yet, 25% of women in the U.S. are forced to return work in just two weeks.
Besides the mental and physical health of the mother, maternity leave is also important to the overall health and well-being of the child. According to a 2017 report published by The New America Foundation, the benefits of paid maternity leave are quite significant:
“By six months, infants have begun to form healthy or unhealthy attachment patterns to caregivers, based on the quality of the caregivers’ responsiveness, which research has found is an important predictor of a child’s future academic, social, and emotional success and well-being.
While some studies show limited links between extending leave and improved child health, other studies have found that supporting families in the early years with an adequate duration of paid family leave can contribute to fewer low birth weight and early term babies, particularly for children of single and African American mothers; fewer infant deaths; higher rates of breastfeeding, well-baby care and immunizations; longer parental lifespan; improved mental health and increased long-term achievement for children.”4
As a stay-at-home dad, I was very lucky to have been able to be with my kids during these formative years. While my wife would have loved to stay home longer with the children, for her it was always important knowing that I was with the children.
The U.S. Should Adopt More Protective Laws
I wish that the U.S. would begin to adopt more protective laws for pregnant women, fathers and young families. This would make it easier for parents to focus on their child, instead of being afraid for their job and financial security. It is also our opinion that men should step to the front of the line and insist that their wives, girlfriends and significant others be allowed paid maternity leave without question.
As the woman carries the child, endures the discomfort and pain of pregnancy and childbirth, it is the man who should champion her recovery and her right to bond with the child she has spent the last nine months nurturing inside of her. They should also insist that they be allowed to be by her side to aid in her recovery, share in the duties of parenting and to also bond with the child that they have helped to create. It is up to American fathers, mothers and families to petition the government to bring mandatory paid family leave to the U.S. and parenting back to the forefront of our priorities.
In today’s workplace, gender roles are rapidly changing and evolving. With more women entering the workforce, men need to step up and actively support their female partners in the family and workplace. In my book “Lean On”, I explore the role of a support husband, the stigma of being a stay-at-home father and the prevailing societal attitudes of what a “real” family looks like.