Guest Post: Thinking like a Christian regarding paid family leaveMarch 10, 2017
By Courtney Reissig
Like many who are interested in the struggles of working families, I was encouraged by the President’s remarks about paid family leave during his speech last Tuesday. As news sources have noted, the President’s promise during the speech went farther than his campaign promise of 6-weeks paid maternity leave. Paid family leave opens the door for fathers to take time off when a child is born, for parents who adopt to take leave, and for adult children or family members to take leave to care for aging parents or relatives.
The politics of paid family leave is largely divided along party lines. Republicans are known for leaving paid leave up to individuals business, rather than requiring it by law—that is, until a Republican president endorses it and says he’s going to fight for it. While there are many things within this administration that I disagree with, this is one issue I can get behind.
I believe that the fact that our nation lags behind virtually every other industrialized nation on the paid leave front is an embarrassment. How we care for the most vulnerable in our society (children, elderly, sick, disabled) is a testimony to our character, and the very fact that we prioritize profit over people shows our greed and our lack of empathy.
I’m not an economist, so I don’t know how this all plays out on the money front, but I do think we have yet to see the long-term impact that our failing leave policies will have on our society. As Jessica Shorthall notes in her TED talk, we talk all the time about the effects on mothers, but rarely do we study the effects our leave policies have on children. She argues that economically and socially we are failing future generations.
For the Christian, this is more than economics and policy. It’s a matter of justice. We must be willing to put our party affiliations aside and think ethically about what our antiquated leave policies are doing to families, children, and society as a whole. We are the people who value life in every stage, and as I’ve said before, we must be willing to be pro-life in every way—from the womb all the way to the grave. Paid family leave is one way we embrace a robust pro-life ethic.
Perhaps you believe that children need their mothers in those early years of life. Maybe you believe bonding and attachment set a vital foundation for the rest of a child’s life, and that this can only happen with concentrated time. But how do you propose that happens? Statistically only 29% of mothers stay home (and even within this statistic, women are living in severe poverty). This leaves a large segment of society choosing (or being forced to by circumstances) to work outside the home. Many families have no choice but to place their young children in daycare (even babies as young as six weeks old) because there are no other options for them financially. Yet families continue to grow. To insist that families matter, that parents at home matter, and that time together matters, without at least providing some empathy to the enormous sacrifices this imposes on people is showing your privilege.
But what the President’s remarks note is a larger focus on the value of caregiving that some leave policies fail to focus on. Paid family leave values the whole person, the whole family, and the weakest among us. It recognizes that there are a host of reasons a family member might need time off for caregiving, and it allows for that. Aging parents need round-the-clock care. Adult children get cancer and need caregiving as they recover from surgery and chemotherapy. Spouses get sick and are unable to care for themselves. Children suffer when we have no paid leave policy, but so do adults. People make up a society, and if we can’t make space to care for them when they need us, what kind of society are we? Of course, this will place some burden on businesses. But as Heather Boushey notes in her book, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, paid family leave has long-term economical benefits in society if we only have the foresight to see them.
When we simply see these proposals as partisan, we miss the very real need for caregiving that our society has pushed aside for too long. Perhaps an unlikely president in a rapidly changing age is just what we need to move the conversation away from political parties and towards the people who need it most—our vulnerable citizens.
Courtney Reissig is the author of Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God (forthcoming in April 2017) and The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God’s Good Design. You can read more of her writing on her blog or follow her on Twitter.