Best policy? How much maternity leave is enough?

How much time should women take off after giving birth before returning to work? How much paid leave should they receive? It’s a fraught question but one on which the needle needs to move. In the US, notoriously one of the few wealthy countries globally not to legislate for paid parental leave, the law requires most organisations to give women 12 weeks’ leave–unpaid–, but the criteria are high: the company must employ at least 50 people for more than 20 workweeks per year, and the employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months.

In Europe, of course, the situation is different. Sweden offers 480 days of paid parental leave, with 90 of those days reserved for the dad (facts proudly publicised in English on the country’s homepage); in France women get 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave, and they’re not obliged to tell their employer about their pregnancy until they decide to take it. Belgian women in full-time employment are eligible for 15 weeks’ paid leave. Those, like me, who are self-employed, get a somewhat less generous 8 weeks’ paid leave.

It’s self-evident that some kind of paid leave is important. Few households living on two incomes can sacrifice one at a time when their expenditure is likely to increase. Also, with the WHO and UN urging breastfeeding as the healthiest option for babies, returning quickly to full-time work becomes even more complicated: it’s hard to see how a person in an office from 9am to 6pm could provide her baby with breast-milk, no matter how much “pumping” she was able to fit in.

So paid maternity leave is a necessity. But what we also need to add to this conversation is paid paternity leave, or parental leave with some set aside for men, as the Swedish system does (OK, I admit I’m joining a crew of cheerleaders of Sweden on this issue!). Legislation is key, but it’s not enough; we also need cultural change, and there are indications that when men participate in childcare from an early stage they’re more likely to share the burden equally later on as well. This is about men as much as it is about women: men should have time with their kids, changing nappies, playing with them and feeding them (yes, pumping comes in here) just as women do. Work needs to change too, to allow people of any gender to thrive and lead without spending years of 15 hour-days at the office.

Lastly, as someone who has until quite recently been both single and childless, the leave parents are granted ought also to be on offer to people without children, who should be able to take time out to refresh their thinking, study or learn a new skill.

This does start to sound utopian in an era of high unemployment and economic angst. But it should be a goal: we ought to agitate not for better maternity leave but, ultimately, for a paid personal leave, accessible to all.

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