Earlier this year, when my daughter was four months old, I did something that few parents (and even fewer fathers) have the opportunity to do: I took time off from work to care for her. My spouse was going back to work and it was going to be two more months before another child care option was available. Plus, I wanted to spend time with her. It was the best two months of my adult life; challenging, sure, but also incredibly rewarding. Without a paid family leave program to support us, it wouldn’t have been possible.
My parental leave was paid through a program that Washington state instituted in 2020 and it’s funded through a payroll deduction just like health insurance or worker’s compensation. We all pay into the system and when we have a qualifying event, like the birth or adoption of a child or need to take time off for medical care or to care for someone else, you simply file a claim with the state and you receive a percentage of your salary each week. I was entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave through the state program—and my wife received 16 weeks.
At this point, most readers from outside the U.S. are probably saying, “So what? That’s standard.” And in much of the world, it is. The U.S. is an outlier. It’s one of only six countries in the world—and the only rich nation—that doesn’t guarantee leave for parents. There are state programs like Washington’s, but it’s a patchwork system. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia have any kind of paid leave program in place, which leaves two-thirds of all Americans with unpaid programs or nothing at all. In fact, four-in-10 people return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Two weeks.
A national system of paid family leave will not solve the systemic problems this country has when it comes to supporting children and families—the deeply engrained economic, health, educational, and racial disparities that put many children at a disadvantage from birth. It will not address the fact that the average cost of child care in the U.S. is an exorbitant $10,000 a year or that 17% of American children live in poverty. But in giving parents time to bond with their children, recover from childbirth and delay the high cost of childcare for a few extra months, we’ll be taking a step in the right direction.
Those early days with a newborn are exhausting and exhilarating and worth every second. Every new parent deserves the chance to spend that time with their child. It’s time for a national paid leave program.
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Jonny Eberle is a dad, writer and podcaster in Tacoma, WA. His work has appeared in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can follow him on Twitter, join his mailing list, and listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, wherever you enjoy podcasts.
Learn more about how you can join the effort to pass a national paid family and medical leave policy at paidleave.us or paidleaveforall.org.