How France and Other Countries Support Parents Who Work

The U.S. lags behind other countries in supporting parents who work. This is true not just in terms of equitable pay for women, but also for paid maternity and paternity leave, family benefits (e.g., flexible scheduling, on-site daycare), and other assistance for workers raising families. U.S. parents might consider the current laws and standards acceptable, but the injustice becomes clear when compared to other industrialized nations.

In Japan, for example, expectant mothers can start leave six weeks before their due date and take leave for up to one year afterward. This leave is available to fathers, too, and in both cases, parents can qualify for partial pay. Using a social-insurance system, the Japanese government pays benefits at 66 percent for the first six months and then up to 50 percent afterward for up to a year of leave. In contrast, U.S. women can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when a child is born—a guarantee made available under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, certain employment conditions do need to be met to even be eligible for FMLA. Furthermore, that leave is unpaid, forcing many women to return to work quickly so they can receive a paycheck.

As a result, fewer U.S. mothers of younger children are in the workforce. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more mothers of children ages six to 17 are employed in the U.S. than mothers of children who are under the age of six. This makes sense in light of the fact that daycare expenses generally continue for children up until age five or six, when they can enter part-time or full-time kindergarten free-of-charge at a public school. And while maternity leave provides women time to bond with their child and to seek recovery and rest, about 70 percent of females now work outside the home and approximately 40 percent are breadwinners, according to The Atlantic.

Of course, families aren’t solely made up of moms. Other countries recognize this and offer paid paternity leave to dads, as well. Sweden, for example, gives new dads up to 90 days off to bond with their newborn at 80 percent of their normal pay. Fathers in Slovenia also can take up to 90 days off, with the first 15 days of benefits paid at their full salary.

Other countries also offer continued support to new parents in additional ways. This includes help covering newborn costs, childcare costs, and living costs. One thing is clear: the United States is not the easiest place to be a working parent.

Three Awesome Countries for Working Parents

Some countries recognize not only the value of having parents come back to work refreshed, energized and focused, but also the long-term importance of raising strong, loving families—an effort which takes time and employer support. Here are three countries which make life as a working parent a bit easier than the U.S. does:

  1. France -In France, mothers receive a full 16 weeks of paid leave for a first child and 16 weeks of pay for a second child, but when it comes to a third child, a mom receives a total of 26 weeks of paid leave. Pick up your jaws, U.S. moms: yes, that’s 6.5 months of paid maternity leave for a third child. And the support doesn’t stop there. In France, families also receive monthly “early childhood” benefits to help cover the expenses of having a newborn and these benefits continue until the child reaches age three. French fathers currently receive only 11 days of paid paternity leave, but there’s pressure across the country to increase those benefits. In 2017, more than 58,000 signatures were collected on a petition to increase the amount of available paternity leave.
  2. Finland – This Nordic country is impressive for the maternity care box that it offers expectant mothers, which includes cloth diapers, breastfeeding guides, and bedding. It also allows women to start maternity leave 30-50 days before their due date. The Finnish government pays for maternity leave, covering up to 105 days. The benefit, however, is not only available to working moms, but also to the self-employed, students, and even the unemployed. Additionally, the Finnish government offers a maternity grant in some cases and paternity leave is available to fathers. Also, parents can choose to stay home when their child is under age three and receive a child home care allowance.
  3. Iceland – This country is deeply invested in gender equality. By illustration, the country ranked first on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, while the U.S. ranked 22. Iceland offers a total of nine months of paid childcare leave to expectant parents. Three months of leave are first available to the mother, then three months of leave to the father, and the remaining three months can be split between the two, however they decide. While on leave, parents receive 80 percent of their regular pay. This far surpasses the U.S. where there is no paid maternity leave guarantee at all, although some private companies may offer it. (The writer of this piece only took four weeks of leave with her first child because there were no paid benefits available through her then-employer.) Data shows that in Iceland about 90 percent of fathers take advantage of paternity leave.

How the U.S. Can Create Better Conditions for Working Parents

It’s clear that U.S. women and men suffer compared to parents in many other countries when it comes to guaranteed paid leave. What can the U.S. do to promote family-friendly policies and to ensure that women and men are valued in the workplace? Here are five suggestions to create a better foundation for the future of American families:

  1. Mandate paid maternity and paternity leave. Human Rights Watch found that a lack of paid leave in the U.S. harms adults and children, and the BLS reports that only 13 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave. At the very least, the U.S. government should mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns. Following the model of other countries, this pay should come from the U.S. government—not private employers. In fact, research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that in most countries, a social-security type system is used to provide paid leave and in some cases, employers may pay a portion. What’s interesting is that of the 41 countries studied by the OECD, only one—the U.S—did not mandate paid maternity leave. And of those 41 countries, nearly a dozen, including Austria, Norway, and Japan, mandated paid leave for over a year for mothers. Estonia offered 18 months of paid leave—the most of all the countries studied. Perhaps state governments are more sensible than the federal government in this respect, as California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the only states that have mandated paid leave for moms. Unfortunately, this leave is just for six weeks in California, six weeks in New Jersey, and four weeks in Rhode Island. Also, the pay is not necessarily at 100 percent of wages. On the bright side, New York will become the fourth state to join this small group in 2018.
  2. Mandate a minimum of 4.5 months of leave for women. The FMLA allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new mothers and fathers, yet the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that the global shift toward maternity leave length has been 14 weeks. Of the 185 countries and territories studied for an ILO report, a full 53 percent (or 95 countries) offered maternity leave for 14 weeks. However, the ILO recommends that the standard be set at 18 weeks. The ILO additionally reports that when the time off after childbirth is not long enough for women, they may not be ready to return to work and may drop out of the workforce as a result.
  3. Improve benefits for fathers. Under the FMLA, fathers can take up to 12 weeks of time off from work, but as with mothers, this is unpaid leave. Even so, only about 22 percent of fathers take advantage of this leave. The reasons for this are unknown, but certainly mandating two-to-four weeks of paid time off would support a father’s availability to stay at home with a new child and provide additional support to a mother who is taking leave. A Pew Research study even suggests time off for dads is important. Sixty-nine percent of surveyed respondents said paid paternity leave should be available in the U.S and this should average more than four weeks in length. Unfortunately, some men have said they would not take advantage of paid paternity leave because of fears that it might threaten their position at work.
  4. Offer generous childcare benefits. Any parent who has one or more children knows the drain that the costs of childcare can be. Parents can easily spend $1,000-3,000 a month on full-time daycare costs just so they can head back to work to receive a paycheck. Other countries offer support for new parents in niche ways, including France, which provides supplements to the family income or cash benefits for the number of children that parents have. Additionally, French nursery schools are available to children ages two to six and these schools are completely free of charge. The U.S., of course, allows tax deductions for childcare, but this is a far cry from cash supplements to help with the expense of raising children.
  5. Provide school-related parental leave. A child needs continued support throughout his or her life, not just after they are born. Studies show that the more parents are engaged in their child’s school life, the more likely children are to have academic success. So how about having paid time off to show up for school events, which sometimes are scheduled during school or just afterward? Many states are substantially more on the ball here than they are with paid maternity and paternity leave. In fact, nearly a dozen states offer paid leave for parents to attend school events. Called “school-related parental leave,” the paid time off varies between four hours a year in North Carolina to 40 hours a year in California.

Overall, while conditions vary state-by-state, there is substantial room for improvement in the U.S. when it comes to support for working parents and their families. This country must ask itself where its priorities lie: what could possibly be more important than raising a happy and healthy new generation of citizens?

Maggie O'Neill
Maggie O'Neill

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in English, Maggie O'Neill followed the call to move across the country to the land of open-space and awe-inspiring views and vistas. She settled in Northern Nevada, where she pursued a career in journalism, writing for several newspapers and covering beats as varied as education, crime, and the outdoors. She launched her own business, RenoFreelancerLLC, in 2014. When she isn't busy writing, researching, and interviewing, she is having fun with her two girls and the menagerie of animals that now comprise their home.

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