Why Paid Leave Is the Best Mother’s Day Gift

| May 8, 2024

When it comes to juggling work and family, moms are truly doing it all. Seventy-four percent of mothers were in the labor force in 2023 even as they took on a majority of families’ unpaid caregiving responsibilities. They’re major breadwinners too – nationally, 79 percent of Black mothers, 48 percent of white mothers, 43 percent of Asian and Pacific Island mothers, 49 percent of Latina mothers and 64 percent of Native American mothers lead their household’s earnings.

Unfortunately, the financial security of many families relies on a mom’s superhuman ability to balance their unpaid caregiving with a career. Currently, only 27 percent of private sector workers — and just 6 percent of lower income workers, disproportionately women of color – have access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. For working moms without access, basic maternity milestones such as welcoming a new child or caring for a sick little one often means deciding to forfeit a paycheck or giving up their job entirely.

The consequences of the impossible choices moms are forced to make is better known as the “motherhood penalty” – the loss in earnings and employment due to caregiving and discrimination that follows women throughout their careers and into retirement. It’s a phenomenon that costs women an average of $237,000 in lifetime earnings and leaves them with 20 percent less in Social Security retirement benefits than men.

The penalties are even more severe for mothers of color, who face compounded sexist and racist discrimination. Between 2011 and 2015, Black women filed a disproportionate number of workplace pregnancy discrimination claims for reasons including being fired for taking maternity leave, being denied a promotion or raise due to pregnancy, and having inadequate maternity leave allowance. And mothers of color are shortchanged by especially large wage gaps, making it even harder to provide for their families.

America’s moms should be supported, not penalized. That’s why we’re asking Congress to deliver the ultimate Mother’s Day gift this year – a national paid family and medical leave program.

Passing a national paid leave program would mean fewer moms pushed out of the workforce and more gender-equal caregiving, cutting down on career penalties for women. In the year following a birth, new mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take no paid leave to stay in the workforce and 54 percent more likely to report wage increases. Additionally, in heterosexual couples, when fathers take paid leave, they are more involved at home and can offer caregiving support that makes it easier for mothers to return to work. But paid leave shouldn’t be restrictive to one definition of family – same-sex couples, non-birthing moms, and adoptive moms would also benefit from protected time to bond and care for their new child.

Backing working moms and their families would also deliver huge returns for our entire economy. If women participated in the U.S. labor force at the same rate as in countries with national paid leave policies, we would benefit from more than $775 billion in additional economic activity each year.

However, paid leave is more than just an economic support – it’s a public health imperative. Women – especially those with lower incomes – often cut their leaves short due to lack of pay or fear of retaliation, increasing their risk of postpartum depression, work stress, and maternal mortality and undermining parent-child bonding. When moms have the time to focus on their health instead of their next paycheck, their physical and emotional wellbeing benefits. As they bond with their newborn, adjust to breastfeeding, and prioritize postpartum care, their chances of being re-hospitalized decreases by more than half (51 percent) and the likelihood of their infant being re-hospitalized drops by almost half (47 percent).

But new moms aren’t the only moms who need access to paid leave. Mothers need time to care for their own health if they experience a serious illness or injury, or need to manage a chronic illness or disability. Additionally, the millions of people who are or will need to care for their own moms should not be pressured into choosing between their livelihoods and loved ones. Among workers who said that they or someone in their household experienced a serious illness or injury over the past year, women (35%) were more likely than men (23%) to report scaling back their work hours, and mothers who provide two years of unpaid, intensive care for their own mothers can expect to lose a median of $24,500 in wages.

For the mothers balancing the paid and unpaid labor keeping families afloat, we can do better than just flowers this Mother’s Day. A paid leave plan for all would give our superheroes the time they need to be human.