Originally published on the Huffington Post, on May 25, 2011
by Marianne Møllmann, Kær founder and lead designer
Leading up to Mother’s Day, the commercial world would have us believe that flowers and jewelry are the best gift a mother could receive. Yet most mothers I know (including myself) don’t need roses or bracelets.
We need time.
Time to be with our children. Time to care for them when they are sick, or just take them to the doctor for routine check-ups. Time to participate in our children’s education as active learning partners, and to be constructive members of Parent Teacher Associations.
Unfortunately, the United States provides few legal protections to enable women—or men—to have this much-needed time with our children. There is no law to guarantee paid sick leave or vacation, and as a result half of U.S. workers must pay for their own sick days, and one out of five lose pay if they take any vacation time. There is no law to require paid maternity leave, and there are no allowances for time off to breast-feed. Federal law provides eligible workers with 12 weeks of unpaid extended sick leave to be used as parental leave, but about 40 percent of workers don’t even qualify for that.
In fact, American lawmakers are loathe even to contemplate paid maternity benefits. In 2002 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on whether the United States should ratify the international women’s rights treaty (formally called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the CEDAW). The alternative was to remain in the company of Somalia, Iran, Qatar and a few others as one of only 8 countries in the world that refuse to accept its provisions.
At that time the Senate Committee concluded that, yes, the United States should ratify, but only if we can opt out of the commitment to paid maternity leave or other maternity related benefits. An overcrowded fall Senate schedule prevented the treaty from being considered by the full Senate, and the United States still has not ratified the treaty.
This contrasts sharply with other high-income countries—such as Canada, Denmark, Australia, and Spain, all parties to the treaty—where the law provides for paid parental leave without exception, often with the right to return to work gradually, on a part-time basis. Many high-income countries entitle parents to tailor parental leave to their needs, with options such as taking the leave in one block with a paid allowance, or working part-time over a longer period; reducing the working day during a set time period, or extending the paid leave period into unpaid leave, with job guarantees.
Not surprisingly, parents in other high-income countries tend to spend more time with their children. The percentage of families with two working parents who work 80 hours a week or more is twice as high in the United States as in the closest comparable European country.
What is perhaps less well-known is that many lower income countries have much stronger legal protections for paid parental leave and related issues than the United States. Most Latin American countries require employers to allow breastfeeding mothers the time and physical space to breastfeed for at least a year after childbirth. And paid vacation and sick leave are protected by law in most of the region.
Of course, legal provisions don’t necessarily translate into effective protection. Many women in Latin America can’t take advantage of their legal rights because they work in undocumented jobs or because they have to work several full-time jobs to make ends meet.
It is, however, noticeable that all the talk about family values in the United States doesn’t seem to translate into actual legal protection, and that lawmakers in other countries—rich and poor—seem to have a much better grasp of what it really takes to be a good parent: time and support.
The good news is that our Senators soon get another chance to show they get it. The Obama administration has sent the women’s rights treaty for review by various government agencies, and the Senate is likely to consider approving it by fall. When they do, they may look back at the 2002 transcripts and feel tempted to carve out similar exceptions on paid maternity leave and benefits. But when that time comes, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members should think about Mother’s Day and ask themselves: what do mothers need?
Here’s a hint: it’s not flowers. It’s time.