It’s good news or bad news, depending on the headline. Last week, Census Bureau  statistics on the percentage of working new mothers who receive paid maternity leave prompted two kinds of stories.
There’s the “glass is half full” variety, such as this one from parents.com: “Census Report: Over half of working mothers get paid leave.” It came complete with a stock photo of a woman in a business suit sitting at her desk, holding a baby on her lap.
Then there’s the “glass is half empty” style, such as the story from the Associated Press, headlined: “Paid-leave benefits lagging for working moms in U.S.”
The statistics in both stories are the same and indicate that from 2006 through 2008, more American working mothers than ever – 51 percent – received some sort of paid time off following the birth of their first child. The number of women who used some combination of paid maternity leave, sick time or vacation time to stay home with a newborn rose from 42 percent in the years between 1996 and 2000.
The report, “Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-time Mothers, 1961-2008,” highlights several trends, including:
• Most women now work during pregnancy. Sixty-six percent of first-time moms worked while expecting, compared to 44 percent 50 years ago.
• The vast majority of women who worked while pregnant – 82 percent – did so until within a month of delivery.
• Forty-two percent of women received unpaid maternity leave.
• Twenty-two percent of first-time moms quit their jobs – 16 percent while they were pregnant and another 6 percent within 12 weeks after their child’s birth.
• Eight out of 10 mothers who worked during their pregnancy returned to work within a year of their child’s birth to the same employer, most returning to a job at the same pay, skill level and hours worked per week. About 20 percent of working moms switched employers upon returning to work.
As you might imagine, the Census Bureau  is able to carve up the data on working first-time moms into bite-size chunks, both obvious and obscure. Women are categorized by age, educational attainment, length of employment, whether they worked full- or part-time, and especially, whether their paid leave was specifically a maternity benefit or whether they hoarded vacation days and went to work with the flu to accumulate enough time to stay home for six weeks or more when the baby came.
Insight must be in the details, as only our Census Bureau  could find a reason to produce the table, “Women Working at Monthly Intervals After First Birth by Year of First Birth: 1961-1965 to 2005-2007.”
It seems this report includes every salient factoid about the employment patterns of working first-time moms. What it does not include are the words “father” and “husband.” My document search tool came up blank on both of those terms, and only found the word “marriage” in the footnotes of the report, citing the titles of other research works.
The response in both the optimistic and pessimistic news stories to this latest census report is to clamor for a national mandate to require paid maternity leave, so that at the very least, the U.S. would no longer be lumped in with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea among the few nations that don’t compel employers to provide such a benefit.
But the politically incorrect reality is that the economic burdens for new mothers is not due to the lack of a duty on employers, but the fact that more than 40 percent of children in America are born to unwed moms who also are the ones least likely to receive paid maternity leave.
By every available measure, the traditional family structure of husband, wife and children still offers the greatest economic security to mothers and babies. And there isn’t a paid maternity law on the books that can replace what isn’t in that census report.
(© 2011 Marybeth Hicks)