the politics of motherhood

Can Parental Leave Be Too Long?

Photo: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

When it comes to parental leave, Western European countries are often held up as superior to the U.S., where federally guaranteed paid parental leave amounts to zero weeks. Should we move to Sweden? Can you believe what French parents get from their government? Today, a post from Bloomberg pokes holes in that popular notion: According to some experts, lengthy parental leaves are less than ideal.

Bloomberg quotes the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s Ariane Hegewisch, who has this to say of longer leaves: “It seems to slow down both women’s career advancement and labor force participation.” Annette Storr, a UPS employee in Germany, where women can take up to three years of leave after having a child, reportedly agrees. “I lost contacts on some projects and my network had changed,” she said of her 18-month leave. To prevent the same career knocks from happening to others, Storr is now assisting UPS with creating “an informal mentoring program for women on maternity leave to create ‘very loose, but regular contact on a voluntary basis.’”

Still, it’s not hard to see that between “nothing” and “awhile,” what’s most beneficial for families is something closer to “awhile.” Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, told Bloomberg “the biggest health benefits for both mother and child manifest in the first six months of leave.” He goes on to point out key reasons longer leave is uncommon in the United States: “Europeans have more job protection, stronger unions, and much stronger social insurance.”

Many words have been written about when the best time to become a parent is — not too young, but not too old either. Is parental leave preparing to enter a similar debate, where what’s “best” seems to keep narrowing? Probably not.

Right now, the Family Medical Leave Act gives some American parents — but not all — access to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and only 12 percent of American parents have access to paid leave granted through their employer. On his campaign trail, Donald Trump proposed six weeks of paid maternity leave, a policy that seems to leave out fathers entirely, and one his daughter Ivanka was unable to defend when pressed about the proposed policy’s benefit for same-sex couples. Worrying that American parental leave could ever be too long seems a little like putting the cart before the horse — or the carriage before the baby.

Can Parental Leave Be Too Long?