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The Choice No Parent Should Have to Make: The Case for Paid Family Leave


Image source: Flickr user Laurinda on Flickr, under Creative Commons

By Sara Buckingham (PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology and Community & Applied Social Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

Like other American families, while Melissa and Rob eagerly anticipated the birth of their second child, they also had to decide how much time they could afford to take off work to care for their newborn. Physicians and psychologists recommend leave time of at least 6–8 weeks because:

  1. Leave benefits children now and later in life. Leave increases the length of time a mother breastfeeds, which brings many benefits and is associated with lower rates of infant and child mortality. Having a parent at home during infancy is linked to better cognitive, social-emotional, and motor development, and fewer problem behaviors.

  2. Leave benefits family relationships. Leave is associated with warmer parent-infant interactions, mothers better understanding child development, and fathers being more involved with their children – even after returning to work.

  3. Leave benefits parents. Leave is linked to decreased maternal depression and anxiety, and parental mortality, and increased marriage satisfaction and fertility. Paid leave also benefits families financially by alleviating the expense of childcare (Gomby & Pei, 2009).

However, due to a lack of paid family leave, Rob took no leave and Melissa took only 3 weeks, returning to work well before her body had recovered and their infant was ready to be separated from his primary caregivers. Many American families cannot afford to take unpaid leave after the birth of a child. In fact, over one million American families face this choice annually: Roughly one in four American children are born into families who lack the assets to survive at the federal poverty level if the child’s provider(s) takes 3 months of unpaid leave (Wiedrich, Crawford, & Tivol, 2010). And many more struggle to make ends meet when they take off time to care for a loved one.

The U.S. is nearly unique in its failure to require paid family leave, as one of only two countries to not have any laws mandating paid family leave (Addati, Cassirer, & Gilchrist, 2014). The current Family and Medical Leave Act ensures that only employees of large businesses (i.e., those with more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius) do not lose their jobs when they take time off to care for a newborn; however, employers are not required to pay workers during that time – and nearly 40% of U.S. workers receive no job-protected leave at all. Of a large survey of employers in 2008, only 1/2 offered partially paid leave for mothers, and less than 1/6 did so for fathers (Gomby & Pei, 2009). Lower income workers are even less likely to have access to paid leave (Phillips, 2004).

We can help parents, like Melissa and Rob, access family leave. Current proposed legislation, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (S.786, H.R.1439) would provide workers up to 12 weeks of partial income when they take time off for their newborns or an elderly or disabled family member. This leave would be funded by very small payroll contributions from both employees and employers – so small that most workers in states that have implemented similar laws have reported not even noticing a change in their paychecks (Warner, 2012)!

So why haven’t we passed paid leave yet?  One argument often made to oppose paid family leave is that this will hurt business owners and the economy, but this does not appear to be the case. States and countries that have implemented similar policies have actually seen their economies grow (Deprez, 2015; Ruhm, 1998).

Let’s not make parents choose between caring for their infants and struggling to pay the bills, or falling into poverty. APA urges all members of Congress to co-sponsor and pass the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act.

To participate in these and other APA public policy advocacy efforts, please join the APA Federal Action Network.


Addati, L., Cassirer, N., & Gilchrist, K. (2014). Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world. Retrieved from:—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_242615.pdf

Deprez, E. E. (2015). California shows how paid-leave law affects businesses: Not much. Bloomberg Politics. Retrieved from:

Gomby, D. S., & Pei, D. J. (2009). Newborn family leave: Effects on children, parents, and business. Retrieved from:

Phillips, K.R. (2004). Getting time off: Access to leave among working parents. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Ruhm, C. (1998). The economic consequences of parental leave mandates: Lessons from Europe. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 113, 285-317.

Warner, J. (2012). Family way: ‘The conflict’ and ‘the new feminist agenda’. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Wiedrich, K., Crawford, S., & Tivol, L. (2010). Assets & opportunity special report: The financial security of households with children. Retrieved from:

Image source: Flickr user Laurinda on Flickr, under Creative Commons


Sara Buckingham is a PhD candidate in both Clinical Psychology and Community & Applied Social Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is currently a graduate intern in the Public Interest Government Relations Office of the APA

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