The United States is known for its value of progress, innovation, and individual freedom, yet continues to lag behind other nations—developed or otherwise—in one key area: parental support. According to an analysis of 151 nations conducted by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, the United States and New Guinea were the only two without paid parental leave mandates. The Family Medical Leave Act entitles parents working for U.S. companies with at least 51 employees to just six to eight weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn—a period experts attest is woefully inadequate. Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island must legally subsidize parents’ earnings during that period.
The picture is even more grim for new fathers, who are too often overlooked in the family leave debate. Despite ample evidence that paid paternity leave can reduce infant mortality rates and set the stage for a lifetime of bonding and learning, Pew Research Center reports that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation (out of 41 analyzed) without a paid paternity leave mandate. The problem isn’t necessary one of awareness; even in today’s political climate, paid leave garners broad bipartisan support. Progressive employers like Amazon and Google even tout impressive family leave perks to attract the best of the best.
Unfortunately, political support isn’t the same as political action, and most of us will never work for a tech giant. What are Americans to do? Looking to model nations and getting involved in the debate is an excellent place to start.
Being the only major economic powerhouse without solid parental leave rights gives the U.S. dozens of model nations to look to for ways to improve. Still, some rise above the rest, and the following are among them.
When it comes to parental support in the workplace, Northern and Eastern European countries tend to steal the spotlight. Portugal one of the rare exceptions. In fact, strong family support is so important to Portugal that its Observatório das Autarquias Familiarmente Responsáveis awards an annual prize to local governments that develop such policies. This sentiment extends well beyond the law books. According to Forbes, families with small children enjoy express shopping lanes and preferred parking at Portuguese grocery stores, airports, pharmacies, and more.
As for workplace matters, the EU reports Portugal does not offer maternity or paternity leave but rather parental leave of up to 150 consecutive days to be shared between the mother and father. Dads are also entitled to up to 30 days of voluntary leave before a baby is even born.
Of the four nations Pew Research listed among the most generous for new parents (especially dads), three were Eastern European: Estonia, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic. (We will discuss the fourth, Finland, below.) Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that several of the nations ranked among UNICEF’s Fairness for Children organization’s best countries for raising kids were also from the region with Estonia capturing no. 8. According to its official government website, the Republic of Estonia continues to develop family benefits that support growing children, “facilitate the combination of work and family life,” and establish a “more equal distribution of the care-load between the parents.” This includes universal economic support for all families through childbirth, family, and child care allowances; a subsistence benefit; and a “Start in Independent Life” allowance for foster children.
Estonia’s family-friendly benefits include new fathers: the nation allows both mothers and fathers parental leave rights until the child turns three. Much of that time is compensated. While parents can use this leave whenever and however they want, only one can be on leave at a time. Fathers are also entitled to up to 14 paid days off ahead of a child’s birth.
Finland takes pride in its approach to supporting “pikkuvauvau,” or “little baby” in Finnish, and its no. 2 ranking on UNICEF’s list of the best countries in which to raise children suggests it is well deserved. The nation also snagged the no. 1 spot for the best countries in the world to give birth, no doubt in part because of its decades-long tradition of providing the “babybox:” a cardboard box packed with baby gear that doubles as a bassinet. Finland’s support of new parents extends into the workplace where parents have up to 158 hours of leave to share between them, and this doesn’t include 105 set aside specifically for the mother. New parents also enjoy reduced hours the first two years of a child’s life, plus free childcare.
When Family Values @ Work executive director Ellen Bravo highlighted a country that gets family leave policy right, she chose Iceland where, studies show, generous parental leave correlates with a more equitable sharing of child-rearing responsibilities in the long haul. Beginning in 2012, new Icelandic mothers and fathers each get five months of paid leave (up to 80 percent of their salaries), plus an additional two for them to divide as they please. As an American writing for Iceland Mag points out, the government’s approach to collaborative child-rearing—from birth to (free!) higher education—is part of a much broader support system that includes neighbors and extended family members. The writer suggests this attitude contributes to Iceland’s status as one of the happiest nations in the world.
Denmark’s reputation as a child-rearing nirvana is prevalent enough to draw bestselling books devoured by parents the world over. Like Iceland and Finland, several organizations frequently rank Denmark among the world’s happiest and most family-friendly nations. There are several reasons for this, but Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle points to Denmark’s low-cost child care, free university system, and child-raising culture that promotes independence from a young age.
Danish kids may enjoy more sans-parent time in their school years, but their country ensures they have plenty of one-on-one time with mom and dad in infancy. Providing a combined 32 weeks of maternity and paternity leave at full pay, followed by an additional 32 weeks to divvy up as necessary, Denmark creates a parental leave system the EU names among “the most generous and flexible in the EU.”
Family-friendly practices in the workplace are not simply a matter of making life easier for stressed-out moms and dads: according to the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, paid leave is associated with much larger economic benefits, not to mention important health benefits for parents and babies alike. Happier moms and dads also tend to be more productive.
As the nations listed above demonstrate, however, meaningful family support policies neither begin nor end with parental leave. It is just one cog in a well-oiled machine. Among the policies that could benefit America:
Wanting and recognizing the need for strong parental rights for American workers is only the first step toward establishing a system that works. The next: actually doing it. Garnering the sort of across-the-aisle legislative support required for such a change is likely as difficult as it sounds, if not moreso. As with other major movements, supportive parental workplace rights will likely begin with concerned advocates willing to give voice to the issue by attending town hall meetings; preparing informative events and literature; writing letters and editorials; sending emails to legislators; and more. Check out these resources that can help: