The first thing they never tell you about having babies is that they’re born too early. A foal can stand up within an hour of its birth while a dolphin calf will quickly swim to the surface and take its first breath of air. A human baby can’t even hold up its head until it’s six months old.
What it can do is scrunch up its face, open its mouth, set aquiver its lower lip, and emit the most bloodcurdling, mind-piercing, four-alarm sound you will ever hear. In fact, the point is that we’re not supposed to hear it—evolution has conditioned us to respond to that cry, to provide whatever comfort is necessary to make it stop. This is a baby’s only line of defense: its ability to summon its parents. Without the intensive nurturing of mom and dad, the little tykes are completely helpless.
For this reason, some doctors have taken to calling the first three months of life the fourth trimester, since the child is still wholly dependent on its mother as it transitions from womb to world. The sheer amount of necessary care at this stage can seem daunting, especially for dads, whom parenthood always seems to take by surprise like an abruptly announced layover at O’Hare. (Graham Greene writes in one of his novels that “there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in”; at least for men, that happens with far more clarity during those first moments as a father.) Yet you fall into it quickly enough. You learn to rock him to sleep with a book in hand and scarf down your dinner during his nap time. The important thing is that you’re there—exhausted, beleaguered, but still there. The fourth-trimester baby can’t do any of this on his own. And he shouldn’t have to do it with others acting in loco parentis.
All of which raises a question: In a world obsessed with work and rat races and networking happy hours, how do we make sure newborns get the attention they deserve?
The answer is that at least mothers need to be able to stay home, and for that to happen, women who work need maternity leave. Alas the United States is something of an anomaly here. We’re the only first-world country on earth that offers no federal guarantee of time off for early motherhood. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, parents can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave so long as they work for the government or a company with 50 employees or more. And plenty of businesses do have their own policies; the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 89 percent of civilian workers have access to unpaid maternity leave.
The problem is that many new moms can’t afford to take that time off uncompensated. And according to the BLS, only 17 percent of workers have access to paid maternity leave. Some of that comes courtesy of the states, nine of which have implemented their own paid family leave laws. I myself applied for paternity leave with the D.C. government and was surprised by how efficient the process was. “Here we go again with those damned bureaucrats,” I smirked to my wife, only to get an email back two days later saying I was approved and asking if there was anything else I needed. So credit where it’s due.
But many moms and dads aren’t nearly so fortunate. This leaves them either scraping pennies to make sure at least one of them can stay home or going the in loco parentis route, putting their babies at the mercy of America’s deeply unaffordable and impersonal childcare system. Now contrast that to the rest of the world. Women in the United Kingdom can take a full year of maternity leave if they wish, with the first six weeks paid at 90 percent of their average weekly earnings and a lesser amount available afterward. Supposedly work-obsessed Japan offers 14 weeks at two thirds pay, six of which are required by law.
I’m not advocating we go full Estonia, which provides 18 months worth of fully paid parental leave (do women ever get hired over there?). And I’m well aware there’s an argument to be made for leaving this to the states and private businesses, both of which have been trending towards more generous maternity policies as it is. Another interesting idea comes by way of Senator Marco Rubio, who has suggested letting new parents dip into their Social Security funds to help finance their leave.
All I’m saying is that the United States is a country that in the coming decades will spend $1.7 trillion on a garbage stealth fighter that doesn’t work. We blew $2 trillion to wrest Afghanistan away from the Taliban and then place it back into the hands of the Taliban. We’re on the hook for untold trillions to foot the retirements of the Baby Boomers. I’m as averse to creating a new entitlement as the next blackhearted right-winger, but it seems to me that smoothing that fourth trimester ought to be at least as much of a priority as launching drone strikes at the same spots of Yemeni sand over and over again. That’s true however we ultimately decide to get the money.
Other first-world nations are in far better fiscal shape than we are, yet still manage to do more by their new mothers. And by all means, don’t subsidize my baby’s care by borrowing from his future. If we go the federal route, offset whatever costs are accrued from other programs, beginning with that bloated military hardware budget. But give parents the peace of mind they need during those stressful and formative days. Nothing could be more important. It shouldn’t be that one in four employed American mothers is already going back to work within two weeks of having her child, as was the case according to a 2012 study.
Because parenthood is risky enough without having to fret about finances and job security. As I sat in the delivery room last month and looked into my child’s eyes, I knew that I had just made a daring wager. Corporate motivational posters exhort us to “Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!” or “Try Something New!” amid pictures of glowing twentysomethings scaling cliffs or proposing bold ideas at meetings, but it’s all nonsense. You want a real risk? Try having your heart taken hostage by a little replica of yourself, a new person whose upbringing and maturity you’ve just been put in charge of, whether you’re ready for it or not. Now realize that much of what will happen to him is beyond your control. He might outlive you and become a father himself or he might give in to his worst impulses or fall victim to nature’s caprice. You’ll do what you can to prevent all that but you can only underwrite so much. The rest is out of your hands, even though your entire life has just been put up as collateral. There’s no way you can ever live without the little guy now; you can’t even fathom how you’ve made it this far without him.
That’s a gamble. Its stakes are the highest around. And it is so completely, utterly, wonderfully worth it.
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