by Molly Borowitz
For we Equal Writers—most of whom are ambitious women at a prestigious university—the working mom is a pretty contentious topic. Because we don’t have government-regulated healthcare in the United States (yet), maternity leave is not a standardized health benefit: some companies offer six weeks with pay, some three months, some none at all. When I was born, my mom had to pool all her vacation time in order to get enough leave.
In the UK, however, the government mandates that women are afforded up to one year for maternity leave, if they want it, while retaining the right to return to their jobs. And, as of 2007, they are paid for nine of the twelve months they spend away from work. However, this week the British government has decided to provide new parents with an additional option: paternity leave. As of 15 September, new moms will be able to decide whether they want to transfer the second half of their maternity leave to their husbands: after six months, Mommy can head back to work and leave Daddy at home with the baby.
This new policy, an initiative of the left-leaning Labour party, is intended to provide families with greater flexibility and improve their child-care options. According to Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, “Mothers will be able to choose to transfer the last six months of their maternity leave to the father, with three months paid. This gives families radically more choice and flexibility in how they balance work and care of children, and enables fathers to play a bigger part in bringing up their children.”
In theory, I think this plan is excellent; as Ms. Harman states, it has the potential to encourage fathers to take a more active parental role in their children’s lives. In a January post on Sarah Palin and Caroline Kennedy, Elizabeth Wurtzel of the Daily Beast reminds us that (at least in the United States) moms are almost always the primary caregivers, even when they work as many hours as their husbands. Despite their additional responsibilities, they still manage the household, “delegating tasks to the father, who needs a list of instructions before he doles out child care.” In this regard, Britain’s proposed post-natal-child-care handoff is reminiscent of the Equal Parenting movement, providing dads with the opportunity to assume the primary-caregiver role and to develop the know-how to balance child-care responsibilities with their wives.
In practice, however, I sincerely doubt that many British parents will take advantage of this new scheme for the equalization of parental responsibility. The wage gap is just too powerful. Fathers are usually the bigger earners; in fact, Wurtzel goes so far as to say that “there is salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job.” Let’s do the math. Under option A (Mom takes one year of maternity leave with nine months paid), during the first nine months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the last three months, Dad works and Mom earns nothing. Under option B (Mom takes one year of maternity leave but switches with Dad after six months), during the first six months, Dad works and Mom gets paid time off; during the next three months, Mom works and Dad gets paid time off; and during the last three months, Mom works and Dad gets zilch. Assuming that Mom has the smaller salary, it actually hurts the family financially to make the six-month switch—and in this difficult economy, it’s hard to imagine that many new parents are going to take advantage of an option that lessens their total income, no matter how gender-equalizing it might be.