Guide to Maternity Leave in the U.S.: Statistics, Tips & Resources
In a report published in the American Journal for Public Health, there was no significant difference in the number of women taking maternity leave in the U.S. from 1994 to 2015. Even though paid maternity leave is available for many women across the country, some feel they are unable to take advantage of these programs.
Maternity leave and paternity leave are defined as periods of time when a mother or father leave work to care for and bond with their newborn child. Reporting for CNN, Kelly Wallace and Jen Christensen note the benefits of paid maternity leave include reduced infant mortality rates and improved mental health in mothers.
The benefits that parents and children can gain from maternity leave are well documented, but controversies still exist. The National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL) notes that only 14 percent of U.S. civilian workers have access to paid family leave. Employers may balk at the negative economic impacts of paying for maternity leave. Additionally, the government and organizations have various concerns, including about program abusers or employers limiting the hiring of women who are in their prime childbearing years.
These conflicts make it difficult for women to take maternity leave. For women considering taking time off after birth, it’s important to understand the benefits and challenges they may face.
Facts and Statistics about maternity leave in the U.S.
There are many benefits to maternity leave, but not every woman has access to them. More policies and laws to expand access to maternity leave are being introduced, and it’s become a hot-button issue on the presidential campaign trail.
Women who take maternity leave
- The labor participation rate of women has been declining since 1999 [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
The BLS notes the rate of women working in the U.S. declined sharply between 2007-2009 due to the Great Recession. Still, women make up more than 50 percent of the workforce.
- Only California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island offer paid family/medical leave [NCSL]
States such as Hawaii and Minnesota offer different lengths of unpaid leave.
- Longer maternity leave is associated with lower depression rates in women [National Bureau of Economic Research]
Bureau researchers Pinka Chatterji and Sara Markowitz found that women returning to work after extended maternity leave experienced less frequency and/or lower symptoms of depression, such as restlessness and apathy.
Challenges or controversies about maternity leave
- Women who are wealthier take longer periods of maternity leave [Pew Research Center]
For women earning more than $75,000 each year, the median number of weeks taken for maternity leave in the U.S. was 12. Women earning less than $30,000 took a median of six weeks for maternity leave. Not taking into account income, the median number of weeks a father took for paternity leave was one.
- Immigrant women are driving the increase in the number of births in the U.S. each year [Pew Research Center]
The number of births from U.S. native citizens has been declining since 1970, while the number of births to foreign-born women has been increasing.
- Taking or not taking maternity leave is viewed negatively by others [Journal of Experimental Social Psychology]
Journal writers Thekla Morgenoth and Madeline E. Heilman note that either decision can result in negative consequences. “While the woman taking maternity leave was evaluated more negatively in the work domain, the woman deciding against maternity leave was evaluated more negatively in the family domain.”
Maternity leave in the U.S.: resources
Laws and initiatives that can help those pursuing maternity leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides eligible employees the ability to take unpaid leave for specific family or health events, including the birth and care of a newborn child. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes it illegal for employers to terminate, not hire, or deny a woman job promotion due to pregnancy. Additionally, this law compels companies that offer short-term disability, or STD, to make sure they also provide maternity leave benefits.Maternity leave laws and procedures vary from state to state. In a report from the National Partnership for Women and Families, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. ranked high for maternity leave-related policies. These included the amount of flexible sick days, medical/maternity leave, at-home infant care and expanded job protection. Nineteen states did not offer any of these benefits.
Maternity leave tax information
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that paid family leave benefits are a form of unemployment compensation and are reportable for federal tax purposes. Employers who provide paid family leave to their employees may be eligible for a tax credit, according to the IRS.
Addressing mental and emotional challenges during maternity leave
“Baby blues” is a depressive condition that can affect up to 80 percent of women in the days after they’ve given birth, Cari Nierenberg writes for LiveScience. “They may have symptoms ranging from feeling sad and overwhelmed to problems sleeping and frequent crying. Symptoms of the baby blues usually go away two weeks after delivering.”
Besides depression, new and soon-to-be mothers can experience other emotional challenges such as mood swings, fear, forgetfulness and body image issues, according to Nierenberg.
But if these symptoms become more severe — such as a mother lacking interest in her baby, or having thoughts about harming herself or her baby — it could be a sign of postpartum depression. Newborn mothers who may be facing this condition should contact a health practitioner for treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maternity leave in the U.S.: tips
Maternity leave is proven to help working mothers, although not all mothers are able to take advantage of the benefit. These tips and resources can help in planning to take maternity leave.
Every state is different
When planning for maternity leave in the U.S., each state has different laws, policies, benefits, and procedures. Pregnant women should inquire about the benefits offered through their state and employer before arranging maternity leave.
A pregnant woman working in California, for instance, can receive up to four weeks of Disability Insurance (DI) benefits before their expected due date, and between six to eight weeks of DI benefits after childbirth, according to the State of California Employment Development Department. If their employer offers a maternity leave benefit or package, they could also take a longer amount of paid time off.
In Alabama, a pregnant woman can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave through FMLA, a federal government initiative, but receive no extra maternity leave benefits from the state. The pregnant woman may not receive any maternity leave benefits from her employer, and might not even take any of those 12 unpaid weeks because they need to work.
Returning to work after maternity leave in the U.S.
As a maternity leave period comes to a close, a working mother must prepare for her return to the workforce. This can be difficult for new mothers, considering the responsibilities that come from caring for a newborn child. Additionally, some mothers may question if it’s more valuable to return to work or leave their positions to focus on raising their child.
Writing for Forbes, Kayla Zimmerman suggests methods employers can leverage to help keep female talent returning from maternity leave. These include offering financial incentives, greater career opportunities, transition and child care support, and a flexible work schedule.
Liz Frazier, also writing for Forbes, suggests that women consider the financial benefits and ramifications of returning to work or staying home full or part time. Frazier also notes several work-from-home opportunities that mothers can pursue, as well as reaching out to friends and loved ones for help and support when raising a newborn child.