Sarah Clemente snuggles with daughter Penelope Clemente, 6, at their home in Charleston, West Virginia on Oct. 30, 2021. Clemente supported a paid family medical leave proposal that was removed from President Joe Biden's social spending plan because of opposition from West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Credit: Jay Reeves / AP

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Kimberly Simmons is a part-time associate professor at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the Bangor Daily News every other week.

This Mother’s Day, let’s include a toast to the 30th anniversary of the (unpaid) Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a groundbreaking piece of legislation. The FMLA recognized that women were increasingly serving in both the paid labor force and as primary caregivers. In 1993, advocates believed paid leave, investments in child care, and higher wages for caregiving related jobs would quickly follow; even in 1993  most countries in the world offered some form of maternity leave. Instead, federal legislation stalled and the work is now being done by states.  

Thirty is also the median age for becoming a mother in the United States today. In 1993, the  median age was 25 years old. The reasons for delaying motherhood are complex, but include the inability to afford parenting earlier.

Sadly, many celebrating their first Mother’s Day will be stunned by the conditions they find. More than bouquets or brunches, Maine mothers need investments in social policies that make parenting less expensive and dangerous; even labors of love deserve reasonable supports.

More than a quarter of workers believe they qualify for FMLA protections when they actually do not. Of those who do, few can afford 12 weeks without pay. 61 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 1 in 4 new mothers returns to work within 10 days of giving birth.

This results in dismal rankings on maternal health, mortality and infant death in comparison to other countries. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap study ranks the United States 83rd in the world for health and survival overall.

Racism increases health risks for mothers and babies of color yet this group is often excluded from paid leave offered as a private benefit. Paid leave is possibly the most significant intervention we can offer.

Today, 73 percent of U.S. mothers and 93 percent of fathers with children under the age of 18 work full-time but only 56 percent of workers are covered by the FMLA, and only 43 percent of single parents are eligible. Mothers with children under age six are less likely to work full time, with 35 percent out of the full-time labor force. This may be the best solution for a family, but comes with costs to their family’s overall economic security, a woman’s  career development, and can increase risks of violence  at home and in workplaces. Migrant mothers, and domestic workers may be at even greater risk, as they are less protected by employment laws.  

Paid leave is considered a human right in most of the world. While a majority of U.S. voters support at least four months of family leave for new parents, the federal government has not responded. This assigns the project to the states.

This year, Maine may join the 11 states that offer paid leave programs already, an essential step toward caring for the mothers and mothers-to-be in our communities (and for recruiting and retaining labor) in our state. Maine’s Paid Leave Commission has studied the issue and proposed a framework. 93 percent of Maine people agree that we should offer paid family and medical leave.  

Mothering will always be challenging and words of appreciation always welcome! This spring, consider also adding a card for your elected representatives who will be considering Paid Leave for Maine this spring.