United States’ Mothers: The Pushed-Out Generation

United States of America

Liuba, her husband Christopher, and daughter Mila. 
Photo credit: Lauren Kim Photography.

In recent years, the share of mothers in the United States who choose to stay at home rather than return to work after their children are born has been consistently increasing - it has now reached 29%.  So many educated, professionally successful women have reacted to the United States’ inflexible work options by becoming stay-at-home mothers that popular commentators have coined a new term for them; they are being called the ‘opt-out generation.

It is a label that takes no account of the fact that they have not so much opted out as been pushed out. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for an infant in day-care is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college. Fees for two children in childcare are higher than the average annual rent in every state, and the annual cost of center-based care for an infant is more than families spend on food each year.

The United States does not provide any paid maternity leave so most mothers who do return to work are forced back too early. Their infants do not yet sleep through the night, cannot hold their heads up, have usually had only one round of vaccines, are nursing or bottle feeding every few hours, and still very much need their mothers. Single mothers have an even more difficult time. In each state, the average cost of center-based day-care for an infant is 40% of that state’s average income for a single mother.

I work in international development, and until a year and a half ago was the Director of Operations across three research institutes at New York University. I worked for an economics professor who travelled frequently, whose office was in a different building from mine, and whom I rarely saw in person. I had done my job from a hotel room with no electricity in rural Ghana many times before, and could have easily worked from my apartment. When I first discussed flexible working and telecommuting, my boss was open to the idea. As my due date neared, he changed his mind.

As I scrambled to find a day-care center for my daughter, I was told that a woman had just put herself on a day-care waiting list because she knew that her boyfriend was about to propose to her. She had calculated when they would get married, have a child, and when she would be ready to return to work – in about three years’ time. I had clearly missed the boat.

I was eventually offered a part-time place at the day-care, but my boss still would not consider a flexible work schedule and I chose to resign. My daughter, now twenty-one months, is still on the full-time day-care waitlist, and I work from home as an independent consultant. I also serve as an Empower Women Global Champion for women’s economic empowerment. I am now interviewing mothers around the world to find out how starting a family affected their professional, personal, and financial development.

There are only two countries in the world that do not offer any paid federal maternity leave; they are Papua New Guinea and the United States.

Two record-setting parental-leave laws were passed this week on both the East and West coasts of the United States: New York and California. New York became the fourth state to offer paid parental leave. By 2021, this programme will allow parents’ compensation for up to 12 weeks of leave. And in San Francisco, city supervisors voted to require employers to give workers six weeks of paid parental leave — not just partially paid, but fully paid. It is the first U.S. city to pass such a measure. Previously, there were only two states that provided paid leave: New Jersey offers six weeks and Rhode Island offers four weeks, both at partial pay.

The U.S. family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees to care for a newborn, but only for those – about 60% of employees – who work for a company with at least 50 staff members, and have worked there for at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months before taking leave. The remaining 40% are not guaranteed any time off, paid or unpaid, even for critical prenatal appointments or one single day to give birth.

The 2015 Save the Children report on the State of the World’s Mothers looked at criteria such as health, economics, education, political participation of women, and maternal and child mortality. The United States’ ranking on these indicators was 33rd out of 179 countries, a drop of two places in the past year.

Newborns in the Unites States are 50% more likely to die on the day they were born than in all other developed nations combined. The U.S. ranks consistently high for premature birth rates, a contributory factor in many first-day deaths and closely linked to poor healthcare, poverty and stress. Pregnancy is always stressful, but many U.S. women work until they actually go into labor, desperate to save what little paid sick or vacation leave they may have for the first few days of their child’s life.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention says that countries should give mothers at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave; pay should be at least two-thirds of the mother’s previous earnings; and these payments should be covered by ‘compulsory social insurance or public funds, or in a manner determined by national law and practice’ so that the burden does not fall entirely on employers.

ILO figures show that 57 countries meet all three of these requirements; that 98 countries provide at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, and that 74 countries provide benefits equal to at least two-thirds of a woman’s previous earnings. The United States does not meet one.  

Paid paternity leave was provided by 71 countries. Studies have repeatedly shown that paternity leave helps fathers bond with their infants and take more responsibility in childcare and domestic maintenance. It also promotes gender equality and helps keep women connected to the workforce and contributing to the economy.

Parents' lack of paid family leave and flexible work options is nothing short of a human rights violation. Human Rights Watch has said that the lack of family-friendly policies in the U.S. has ‘grave health, financial, and career repercussions’ for workers. For all the rhetoric spoken about “American family values,” the United States is failing our families.

Together with Empower Women, we would like to invite you to share your experience, as a parent or parent-to-be, with parental leave, please participate in our brief survey below. 

We also invite you, both as parent and non-parent, to share your personal story about parental benefits in your country and how it has impacted your decision to start, to delay or not to become a parent.

Join the I am Parent Campaign today! #IAmParent


For more details about the Campaign, please visit the Campaign main page

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  3. Participate in our brief survey. Link here (also see below).
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  5. Join the upcoming webinar, Twitter chat and e-discussion and engage with leading experts in this field.

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Photographer & Videographer Credit: Lauren Kim Photography

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  • Stella Bakibinga
    Sweden is really a great Place to raise a family. The p maternity and paternity leaves there are one of the longest and Child care is so subsidized. This makes it easy for parents to balance a career and family.
  • Catherine wachu
    Liuba, Great project. I advocate for at least 6months-1 year time out for mothers. After which they are able to access flexi- hours. Thus we will have a generation of children who are strong as individuals with less child anxiety or depression cases.
    • Stella Bakibinga
      This is very right Catherine and I also Think that the maternity leave must be flexible because not all new mothers wish to use up all their time at a go. Sweden does this and I am impressed.
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