Getting serious about paternity leave

A new British plan allows mums and dads to split parental leave. Will the U.S. ever follow suit?

Published September 15, 2009 12:16PM (EDT)

These days, when talk of healthcare reform in the U.S. comes coupled with terms like "death panel," it's hard not to think of Europe as an exotic utopia, populated by fair-minded politicians working for good, sound, progressive reforms. And although the truth is surely more complicated than that, the latest news from the U.K. does little to dispel the fantasy. As the BBC reports, the British government is planning to allow mother and fathers to share the country's already generous maternity leave.

Under current law, mums can take up to a year off after giving birth, receiving 123.06 pounds of weekly pay for the first nine months. The new plan will give mothers the option of returning to work after six months or more and transferring the remainder of their leave to their husbands, who are, as of now, only entitled to two weeks' paid paternity leave. (Of course, that still beats the situation in the U.S., where a man seeking time off to care for his newborn is likely to be laughed out of the boardroom.) 

It looks like Britain's Labour government is implementing the plan as an attempt to compensate for reneging on a promise to extend paid maternity leave -- an unfortunate decision, but one that may have been unavoidable in the current economic climate. Meanwhile, critics are denouncing the idea as a purely political move calculated to please unions and win over young families. But regardless of how the resolution came about, it's refreshing to see a major government support all new parents. As I see it, the plan's benefits are twofold: It will allow new moms in high-pressure jobs to return to work earlier without placing their children in (potentially costly) daycare or forfeiting their family's right to paid leave. At the same time, it will give new dads the opportunity for some real, one-on-one bonding with their little ones. 

So, how far away are we from implementing a similar plan on this side of the pond? In short, well ... pretty far. As a Forbes article published in May notes, the U.S. is only one of two developed nations that don't provide paid maternity leave. (The other is Australia, where women are allowed a full year of unpaid leave; in the U.S., employers are only required to give 12 weeks.) With that in mind, introducing the notion of paternity leave into the American political vernacular seems sadly premature. For now, moms-to-be -- and dads who long to spend time caring for their infants -- may have little recourse but to lie back and dream of England.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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