Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Parental Leave

We receive a wonderful weekly update email from our home study agency, ICF. Not that there is ever really any news to update regarding the China program, it is nice to know someone out there remembers us here waiting...and waiting...and waiting. Often Jackie Semar, who is the executive director of International Child Foundation and authors the updates, will include something that is currently in the news that is adoption related along with a sort of "commentary" of her opinion of the issues. I always find this part of the updates interesting and thought provoking. The following is part of her recent update. Jackie includes some very interesting facts and brings up some great points.
Tom and I have been working toward being in a position, financially, for me to not have to work once we bring Willow home, or at the most, work only part time. This certainly will require some changes in our lifestyle being a one income family, but ultimately we both feel it is the best thing for Willow. Wouldn't it be nice if we all were in a position where we did not have to choose?

author: Jackie Semar-International Child Foundation (reproduced with permission):
Canada recently changed it's parental leave policy to 2 years with 90% pay for the mother, and 1 year for the father, although there are restrictions on taking the leave concurrently. Most European and Scandinavian nations, too, offer generous paid leave for new mothers (and fathers), subsidized or state sponsored childcare, wage protection and health care. The US offers some of the least humane or progressive policies for families and children. Most research indicates that the absence of parental involvement with a child, due to the 40+ hour work week, causes as much harm in adolescence as it does in early childhood. It is related to lower cognitive functioning, behavioral and academic problems in school, anti-social or criminal activity and even childhood obesity. This is not just a challenge for us as individual families, but for our communities and society as a whole.
Those of us who operate small businesses (for-profit or non-profit) know that there is no way an employer could provide 90% compensation for 2 years for employees taking family leave. And that is not how it works in most of the countries that provide lengthy family leave. Family leave is endorsed or mandated and financially supported by the government. Why? Because the government has calculated that NOT helping a family provide a child with a good start in life, and NOT providing families with safe and affordable child care and health care, is more costly to society than providing these services. Other governments do not provide these benefits because they want to be "nice" -- it is based on sound economic research. The more a government helps families thrive, the better off the nation is, as a whole. Less crime, less drug addiction, less unemployment.
The downside of parental leave, paid or unpaid, is loss of time establishing a career and maximizing income. Although the parent's wage or position is protected, there is no way to recover lost time, productivity or experience. But we can't have it all. Or can we?
There has been such a polarization of parental leave European-style v. parental leave US-style. The European style is predicted to ruin the economy. But will it, if the long term benefits are so high? Maybe, what we are rejecting or suspicious of, is not the financial issue. It may have more to do with our deeply-felt American history of individualism and self-determinism. Any kind of state subsidy is viewed with skepticism in this light, as the way our country will become undone, soft, socialized or "domesticated."
But let's let go of those assumptions, for the moment, and ask our representatives in Congress to really examine what would be best for American families and children. Honestly, there is probably no one more keenly aware of the problems of modern living than our Representatives, so you would have a ready ear. In the past, the politician's whole family would move to DC. Now, our Senators and Congress abandon their families at home for months at a time. Their lives are fractured, their children and marriages suffer.
How do we get from where we are today, in the US, to where we would want to be, in the next 20 years? For those of you just adopting, would you like your grandchildren to be able to have their mothers or fathers stay home with them, for few months or years? What do you think would be best for the child? That's the key question -- what would be best for the child? Then, don't dismiss your thoughts as impossible or improbable -- play it out, put a few ideas together, like a puzzle, and then tell someone. Talk it out -- send a letter to your Representatives. Whatever you think -- let them know!
I heard on NPR that the level of happiness in the US is way down. The high point was 1956; that's when the highest percentage of Americans reported being happy with their lives. Since then, according to this research, our material comforts have tripled, but our happiness has declined. There is a clue here. Material Girl was the road to dissatisfaction with life, not fulfillment. Living for others, rather than at the expense of others, gives us more joy. Having stronger communities, good neighbors, safe schools, faith -- not only spiritual faith, but faith in the future, in ourselves, our country -- this gives us happiness.
I've thought since I was in my 20s, a long time ago now, that the solution to having more parent time with children, was the 6 hr work day. Combined with a 6 hr school day. In China, children go to school from 7:30-5:30, 6 days a week. It matches when the parents work. (I am NOT proposing the China model!) But if we looked at work through the lens of what is good for the family... what would be best?
I think that no matter what, we will need to evolve to being a little less materialistic. If either parent works less, to be with the children more, there will be less income. That means less "stuff." Could we live with a little less stuff, to have happier families? Less TV, more Scrabble. Less video games, more trips to the park. Less shopping, more volunteer work. It sounds kind of like the 1950s again, doesn't it? Maybe I'm out of my mind. But I would sure love to see the children that come home to the US have more mommy time and daddy time, and for those new parents to have more parental leave without penalties.