How to really help families

Thursday, September 10, 2015

I have become very passionate about this lately and am very excited to share my thoughts and research with you! There has been lots of buzz lately about how to support families and how to support children especially. Many look to schools and public programs that help families in myriads of ways. But I am of the opinion that to truly support new families and children, we must start in the home. Of course we know conscientious parenting and stable home environments have better outcomes. But I think we need to back up just a tad. First of all, parents need to be IN the home to make a difference. And that brings me to family leave. And not the crappy unpaid leave most Americans deal with. I'm talking about solid, paid family leave.

Now I'm not a policy expert. I have no idea how long paid family leave should be. I just know American families deserve better. New mothers deserve better. Newborns deserve better. Fathers deserve better. Sick children deserve better.

Thanks (insert sarcasm) to the Family and Medical Leave Act, American workers get 12 weeks of unpaid leave to use after the birth of a child or to help a sick family member. Do you know anyone in their childbearing years that could afford to not receive an income for 1 month, let alone 3?

I've come to think about this topic more and more because of my experience with new moms at WIC. It's devastating to these new moms to have to return to work 1 or 2 weeks after birth because they have no other alternative. So I help her learn how to use a breast pump and send her out into the world. I feel terrible after these appointments because I know she is being cheated. Cheated out of a beautiful bonding experience with her newborn. Cheated out of a healthy recovery.

Our society is well-versed on the superiority of breastmilk. We know it's the best start for babies. But how do we support women in their breastfeeding relationship? We could help mom stay home with her new baby, help her learn how to breastfeed, let her recover without interruptions, ease her into this new and frightening phase of life. But what do we actually do? We give her a free breast pump. We tell her to get back to work (and don't ask for any help from the government!) We tell her to leave her precious new baby with someone else. We tell her to hook herself up to a machine. We tell her to sit still so she doesn't bleed on the office chairs.

Does that sound like supporting families to you? Does that sound like supporting children to you?

Recently, Netflix grabbed headlines because it announced its unlimited paid family leave policy. I'm happy that it got some attention and got some people talking. But it doesn't apply to all of their workers. The DVD side of the company does not get this benefit and neither do its part-time workers, so yet again, the poor are at a disadvantage. Yet again, a poor new mother is forced to go back work too early while her newborn is taken care of by someone else. Yet again, a poor new mother cannot get the hang of breastfeeding.

Some people like to complain that countries like Canada who have very generous paid leave laws (~1 year of paid leave) are too generous. But what you probably didn't know is that extensions of up to 50 weeks in paid leave is correlated with a 20% drop in infant deaths. Want to keep children alive? Give their parents paid leave:

"Research shows that paid leave can also be a matter of life and death for children. By charting the correlation between death rates and paid leave in 16 European countries, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that a 50-week extension in paid leave was associated with a 20 percent dip in infant deaths. (The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 1 month and 1 year old, though mortality of children between 1 and 5 years also decreased as paid leave went up.)" (source)

How did we become a society where what happens at the office completely trumps what is happening with your family? It disgusts me. How many grandpas and grandmas have told you if they could go back, they would choose work over family? And yet, business leaders across America continue to enforce the idea that work is life. When everyone truly knows in their hearts that family and relationships and hobbies and living is life. Anne Weisberg writes in the NYTimes, "we need to reimagine leadership so that the ideal workers are not the ones who stay at work the latest, but the ones who get all their work done and leave at a reasonable hour; they are not the ones who get on a plane on a moment’s notice, even with a nanny in tow, but the ones who figure out how to conduct the meeting without having to travel."

Most parents simply do not have the economic situation to stay home with their new babies like they envision. By putting solid paid family leave policies into place and changing the workplace culture to encourage parents to take the full leave, we will be truly supporting children and families.

What has been your experience with family leave after having a baby? How can we do better? How would your life be improved if we had a more generous paid family leave policy?

More reading:
Big Leaps for Parental Leave, if Workers Actually Take It.
How do you make sure generous paid leave doesn't backfire on women? Focus on men.
This is what it looks like when men are allowed paid leave.
Why some moms go back to work 2 weeks after giving birth.
Why is this going nowhere?


  1. Oh how I wish I would've had that option! You are right things do need to change! I will say that short-term disability insurance really helped us. It was pretty cheap, and paid me for my leave for all of my babies. It is only six weeks though and eight weeks for C-sections. But I was glad to have it. For a couple of the babies, I didn't have to pay for it because we had insurance through Ryan's work.


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