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Why Is Maternity Leave So Terrible in This Country?

A family.
A family. Photo: Broadly/Vice

Maternity Leave: How America Is Fucking Over Its Mothers is an hour-long documentary by Broadly, Vice’s women’s vertical, and it could not have come at a better time.

In the midst of a presidential primary where the question “should women vote for a woman because she is a woman” has come up often and seems to be rankling feminists all over the place, Broadly’s film, hosted by EIC Tracie Egan Morrissey, makes the case, pretty bluntly and effectively, that in America, we don’t have paid maternity leave because women simply aren’t equal in our society.

The film drops some quick facts: 88 percent of women have no paid leave at all when they give birth. Women make up two-thirds of the minimum-wage workers in the U.S. Anne-Marie Slaughter and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who are featured in the film, both say that our system is designed based on a simple assumption: that women do not work, despite the fact that eight out of ten mothers do. What is our system, exactly? We have no mandated parental-leave policy at all. And, as is often cited, we’re the only nation in the ENTIRE world without one, besides Papua New Guinea.

In fact, the Broadly team traveled to Papua New Guinea to check out what the other nation with no leave policy looks like. It’s pretty grim! But even Papua New Guinea is making strides to improve the state of its leave — and already has it for women who are nurses, teachers, doctors, and midwives.

In the U.S., the only people with guaranteed paid leave are federal employees, who get six weeks regardless of gender, and this was only enacted as law in 2015. Broadly also heads to Sweden, which has the best paid-leave policy in the world, and is also the most gender neutral, in that it encourages both mothers and fathers to take their allotted time — 11 months each! — to spend with their child. Watching the clearly happy Swedish parents featured in the film, juxtaposed as they are with several counterexamples of American parents, all of whom suffer from terrible worries due to a lack of leave, it’s hard not to walk away feeling physically ill. And that’s surely the point: to make people face the stark, sometimes deadly realities of not valuing mothers and their children at all.  

Tracie Egan Morrissey spoke to the Cut about some of the more interesting questions raised by the film, which is, in fact, full of interesting questions.

Why did you want to do this particular film about this particular issue?

Paid leave is an important issue because it’s not something you think about until it happens to you, and when it does, you realize just how much the system is stacked against women. We obsess about “post-baby bodies” and the way that women look in the weeks after giving birth, yet we don’t value the time they need to spend with their infants. It’s an injustice, and it’s one that we need to address and prioritize because we should be deeply embarrassed that we’re the only developed country in the world without a paid-leave plan.

Senator Gillibrand remarks that if half of Congress were women (it currently hovers around 20 percent), this wouldn’t be an issue because we’d have paid leave and it would no longer be a divisive party issue. Why do you think we’re having such a hard time electing women?

I guess it could be due to “innate gender biases,” but that’s just a more polite way to say that we’re fucking sexist.

It seems like in Sweden, which has the best paid-leave policy, it’s pretty important to note that not only do both parents get leave, but they’re both encouraged to take it, legally. What do you think is missing in the American conception of “maternity” leave if we only focus on the mothers?

That’s so true! While it’s generally accepted that women can and should have the kinds of careers their fathers did, we’re still very much stuck in this concept that caretaking is “women’s work.” And “women’s work” typically isn’t as valued as traditional male roles. So of course people understand why women would want to work outside of the home and be like a man. It’s as though we consider gender neutrality to just be the male standard — except it’s not. For true equality, it needs to go both ways, with men having the ability to step into traditional women’s roles without it being embarrassing or an insult. And the more the work is divided at home, the more women will prosper in the workplace. That being said, the idea of mothers, specifically, spending time with their newborns isn’t exactly a social construct, if they are breast-feeding and are their babies’ food source. But ultimately, paid leave is really a family issue, at its core.

One of the women you interview in Sweden remarks how when she went back to work and her husband picked up the slack, people thought she was not into having a kid, since she wanted to go back quickly — while her husband was really going above and beyond in his duty. Do you think we keep perpetuating this idea that the role of Mother is somehow genetically more important or more natural than the role of dad?

The only people who are perpetuating the role of mother being more natural than the role of father are men who don’t care for their children. Men can make really great, nurturing dads, and we do them an injustice by not acknowledging that.

It’s hard not to come away with the sense that some Americans simply hate women and children. Do you think young feminists demanding change will get us the leave we need?

Yes, I really do! It’s a start, at least. Look, if we can get the country to understand that Bruce Jenner is actually a woman named Caitlyn, we can change the way people view the issue of paid leave. In fact, the women’s movement should look to LGBTQ activism, which has been extremely effective and influential in policy-making and social acceptance in recent years. If nothing else, it’s taught us that we don’t have to allow other people’s prejudice or ignorance to determine the way we live.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why Is Maternity Leave So Terrible in the U.S.?