Plans for WVFC’s annual Mother’s Day celebration begin today. And we’re thrilled to do so with the words of Linda Meric, executive director of the National Association of Working Women, also known as 9 to 5. As we all celebrate the mothers in our lives, Meric reminds us that mothering is a full-time, demanding job, and that our society might do better by honoring that fact year-round. — Ed.

Gloria Dennis had been employed by a college in the Midwest for three years when she became pregnant. She took leave after the birth of her daughter Alicia Rae — 12 weeks, unpaid.  Her co-workers showered the family with welcoming gifts. But as a new mom, what she really wanted was paid time off to care for her baby.

“My greatest joy would’ve been to stay home for a year. But there’s just no way we could have afforded that.” Instead, she took the 12 weeks unpaid leave and pieced together a total of 14 weeks by using sick days and vacation time, hoping all the while that the family had no emergencies and that no one got sick.

The predicament they faced is all too common for American families.

Most countries provide at least 10 weeks of paid leave for new mothers. Some countries provide up to a year. Only four provide no paid parental leave at all — and the United States is one of them.

But all moms should be able to stay home to care for a new baby and there is no time like the season that celebrates mothers to push paid family leave to the front burner.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was a significant step forward for working families because it granted workers the right to take up to 12 weeks off to care for a new child or take care of a sick family member. Unfortunately, it also had several limitations. It applies only to workplaces with 50 or more employees, there are lots of restrictions on its use, and, worst of all, it provides only for unpaid leave. Many families cannot afford to take FMLA leave because they cannot afford the loss of income that would result.

Even for those workers who get some compensation during maternity leave — and about 16% of companies provide it — the norm tends to be a patchwork of unused sick or vacation days and a significant chunk of time unpaid, despite the obvious benefits of paid leave.

Paid family leave improves infant health. Babies have more bonding time during the period of critical early development and their mothers are more able to breastfeed, reducing childhood illness and the risk of childhood obesity. Paid family leave and time off before returning to work is also healthier for mothers.

There are benefits of paid leave beyond even motherhood. Paid family leave allows seniors and the chronically ill to be independent longer, recover faster, and stay out of nursing homes. Studies show that businesses also benefit from paid leave because it reduces turnover costs and helps workers stay attached to their jobs.

In these tough economic times, everyone is compromised by the lack of paid family leave in the U.S.

But there’s hope.

The legislatures of five states are currently exploring the possibility of employee-funded arrangements that would provide compensation to take time off to care for an ill family member or to bond with a new child. In addition, President Obama’s 2011 budget would establish a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund within the Department of Labor that would provide competitive grants to help states cover start-up costs. The Budget also provides resources to improve the collection of data related to the intersection of work and family responsibilities. It must be approved.

We get mixed messages about women, work, and family. We believe it’s in a child’s best interest to be with mother when they’re very young and we also believe it’s the responsibility of both parents to contribute to the economic well being of families. Still, we continue to hold back from putting policies in place that allow women like Gloria Dennis, who now has a second child on the way, to succeed in both the workplace and at home.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, isn’t it time to enact policies that provide support for mothers – and fathers – who want to be both good parents and effective family breadwinners?

Isn’t it time America had a paid parental leave policy?

Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

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