The Time to Pass Paid Leave Is Now

331 million people live in the United States.

167.6 million of them are women.

Of those, at least 71.75 million women are employed.

And on average, there are over 3.5 million births a year.

Yet despite these statistics, despite the millions of children being born in the country each year, despite the millions of parents who struggle through those early weeks of sleepless nights and sheer exhaustion, despite the many women and birthing people who have often gone through intense physical and emotional trauma during pregnancy and childbirth—tears or cuts around their vagina and in the perineum, long labors, C-sections, bleeding for weeks afterwards, infections, their children needing medical treatment, and more—there is no national paid-leave policy.

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And that’s it. You have to get lucky, with an employer who happens to have a good company-based paid-leave policy. Or you’re not lucky. And either you earn enough to put aside money to live off during your maternity leave, or you don’t, and for each day that you are not at work, each day that you are physically recovering from childbirth, or exhausted from raising a newborn, or simply wanting to be at home and bonding with your child, you and your family fall into debt or eat away at savings.

This is a problem that threatens the entire construct of the family in this country. But also, make no mistake, it impacts women—and disproportionately women of color, women in low-income jobs, and women in service and domestic industries—the most. In 2019 only 19% of workers in the US had access to paid family leave via their employers. For the lowest quarter of wage earners, most of whom are women, this fell to 9%.

It is as depressing as it is unsurprising that one in four women living in the US returns to work within two weeks of giving birth. She will often be bleeding, swollen, sleep deprived, barely functioning—but in order to provide for her family, she will be working.

Follow the stories of Karina Garcia and Shukura Wells, two women who found themselves unable to take maternity leave and were back working, within a week for one of them and after about two weeks for the other.

Karina Garcia with her daughter Yohualli at home in Harlem, NYC.

Eduardo Rodriguez

Shukura Wells and her son Dakari at home in Detroit, Michigan.

And yet if you had a child in almost any other country in the world, including in the most oppressed, you would have access to paid leave. The United States is one of only six countries in the , and the only high-income one of those six, that has no paid-leave policy. The others? The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tonga, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea.

This might seem a lot to digest, but it matters. Because in a world where 189 other nations support women and parents in the toughest weeks postpartum, America’s lack of paid leave should be a point of shame. And yet, somehow, it isn’t.

More than 100 years on from when the International Labor Organization called for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, free medical care during and after pregnancy, job guarantees upon return to work, and periodic breaks to nurse infant children—and after an influx of women globally to the workforce during World War I—the United States is still no closer to a federal policy. And surprisingly few politicians, on either side of the political divide, seem troubled by this deep social inequity.

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Globally, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks, according to 2019 data from the World Policy Analysis Center. Yet after the US House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Bill in November 2021 that contained a barely adequate four-week paid family leave provision, the Senate failed to pass it. The man who blocked its passage? West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin—proof if it was needed that passing laws that support women lacks support across both parties.

When components of this bill were reintroduced in 2022 as the part of the Inflation Reduction Act, it came without the childcare and leave benefits from Build Back Better and passed without incident in August of this year. It’s hard to look at the course of events and draw any other conclusion than that women don’t matter.

Frustrating though it may be that we need to do so, it’s important to lay out the argument for paid leave. And making this case is exactly why Glamour has followed eight women through the first 28 days postpartum. In the article, the physical, financial, and emotional experiences of women with varying access to paid leave are laid bare—as we call for a national conversation on the passing of paid leave to be reignited.

One of staunchest political advocates of paid leave is New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who in February 2021 introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY)—a program that would provide up to 12 weeks of national paid family leave, covering childbirth, family illness, and more, for—in her words—“about the cost of a cup of coffee a week.” This is, depressingly, the fourth time it’s been introduced (it failed in 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019), but Gillibrand—who has never given up—and the lobbying organization Paid Leave for All speak in hushed but hopeful whispers of a growing momentum across the political divide to get something done. 

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Gillibrand names senators Susan Collins, Deb Fischer, Joni Ernst, Mitt Romney, and Bill Cassidy as the Republicans “most interested in paid leave.” But she notes that the road to success is long, because as yet, there is no agreement on a financial model to get it through.

“Senator Manchin has said he only wants to do [paid leave] on a bipartisan basis,” Gillibrand explains. “But the truth is there are no Republicans who want to support the FAMILY Act as written, and so by saying it has to be bipartisan, he’s killing it.”

In the meantime, she is exasperated at the impact of the country’s lack of paid leave on the economy: “Every time a family member needs to stop working because they’ve had a new baby, or an ill parent, or a sick child—for many people they either have to quit their job and meet that need. Or they have to suffer through not meeting that need and continue to work, because they have to put food on the table. That’s a choice people shouldn’t have to make. It’s devastating for many families and many individuals. It’s essential that families have that time together.”

Dawn Huckelbridge, the founding director of Paid Leave for All, is equally passionate: “I’d studied paid leave, and I knew about it at this abstract or intellectual level. But it was when I became pregnant and gave birth that it just became so core to me. It felt like this is one of the root problems that leads to so many other inequities. I was shocked at how badly I felt treated, as a woman with a lot of privilege, with health care, with a supportive family, with a little bit of paid leave, but not enough.

“My son had really bad colic, and he screamed every day, all the time. He wouldn’t sleep; he wouldn’t let me sleep. So for the better part of a year, I barely sat down. I didn’t eat. I barely slept. I nursed around the clock, just trying to keep him from blowing up. And by the end of it, I remember saying, ‘I get why some mothers in this country just snap.’ I was so tired. I was ready to give up, and I felt trapped. And I just kept thinking, If it’s this hard for me, how is it possible that one in four people in this country go back to work within two weeks? It blew my mind. And I felt like this was this whole world of injustice that, until I lived it, I didn’t understand how urgent it was. Now I plan to do whatever I can to achieve paid leave for everyone who works.”

Here’s the thing: The issue of paid leave is deeply and inextricably personal. It is personal to Dawn Huckelbridge, who as a highly successful policy advocate only truly understood its importance when she became a mother.

It is personal to Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who has been an outspoken supporter of paid leave. It is personal to former supermodel Christy Turlington, founder of Every Mother Counts.

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It is personal to actor Freida Pinto, who recently had her first child and tells Glamour, “I feel very fortunate that I was empowered to take as much time as I needed, both by my family and my team. I understand that is not the case for most women, which is why we need to discuss this more. It’s time to empower changes to the systems and standards in place.” 

It’s personal to Hillary Clinton, who tells Glamour, “When I had Chelsea I literally had to create the maternity leave policy at my law firm. Even unpaid leave was not a guaranteed right. Four decades later, we’ve made progress, but we still have much to do.”

It is personal to me because after the birth of my first daughter, I was so physically impacted by a challenging vaginal delivery that it hurt to walk or sit for two months. Whatever my complicated emotional feelings were about becoming a mother, physically I needed every single day of the six months I took off—three months fully paid, three months at half pay. (I had both my children in the UK, and had I taken off longer with my first, I would have transitioned to the country’s standard weekly maternity pay.)

Channing Smith for Glamour

It’s personal to Gillibrand, whose own two births and postpartum experiences, no matter that they were 19 and 14 years ago, were full of such deep challenges that it shapes her policy today. “I had preeclampsia. I had gestational diabetes. I was really sick after I delivered Theo [her eldest] with an emergency C-section, and I was in the hospital for a whole week. My body shut down. If I didn’t have a husband—which a lot of women don’t have, and are birthing children on their own—the baby wouldn’t have eaten. We had to do formula feeding that first week.

“And my law firm didn’t have a paid-leave program. So I was like, ‘I’m going to write you one, because this is a liability for you.’ And I was able to take three months’ paid leave, and it worked for me, and it got me on my feet again. It got me time to learn how to nurse. It got me time to learn how to be a mom.”

And it’s personal to many millions of families, and working women and men in this country, who have likely been through the complex swirl of joy and confusion and exhaustion and financial stress that new parenthood brings with it.

But it raises the question: When something can mean so much, and can impact women’s lives so detrimentally, and has been an issue for successive governments, why for over 100 years has it been so impossible to pass into law?

Huckelbridge and Gillibrand don’t hold back: Sexism.

Huckelbridge says, “We are not a partisan organization. But what we’ve seen in Washington recently, which is disheartening, is it’s become about which side is getting a win. The opposition [to paid leave] has been pretty irrational, and it is bearing out as clear sexism. It is bearing out as total devaluing of women’s work and women’s lives.”  

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When asked if the reason we can’t get paid leave into law is that there are so many men in Congress, Gillibrand answers without hesitation: “Yes. There’s not enough caregivers in Congress, which tend to be women. We only have 25% women in Congress.”

Their goals are clear: to urgently change the minds of the men blocking paid leave, or find a way to work around it—in Gillibrand’s case, a compromise bipartisan deal. “I think this year the only thing we can get done is a minimal bipartisan optional paid-leave program, unless Joe Manchin changes his mind, which I don’t think he will.” And to activate voters—all voters—to demand paid leave and to only cast their vote for candidates who back it. Candidates across the political spectrum should take note—according to a new survey, four in every five Americans support paid family leave.

Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Health Access Initiative, is deeply frustrated by the increasingly partisan nature of this topic: “Supporting children and families should be a nonpolitical issue that has sadly, and wrongly, been politicized. This is not an issue of party or politics. We need policies that ensure all parents are afforded the time to be the parents they hope to be, starting with paid parental leave throughout the country.”

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Some critics might argue that it is not for the federal government to provide this leave, and that it’s on individual states to create their own paid-leave programs. But Lauren Smith-Brody, author of the seminal working-parents handbook The Fifth Trimester and cofounder of the advocacy organization Chamber of Mothers, argues: “The challenge with that is that the policies vary so widely state by state that there’s no consistency. [Only eight states have policies enacted right now, with four more becoming effective in the coming years.] Particularly now that people are working remotely, your business may be domiciled in a different state than you’re living, and the insurance that your business has that you’re covered by may be domiciled in a different state. So are you covered by that state? Or by the state you’re living in?”

This confusion is, in fact, precisely what faced Tiffany Mrotek, one of the women Glamour followed for 28 days. Only after giving birth did she discover she was ineligible for the state paid leave she had been counting on—because while she worked for a Washington, DC, company, she lives, and now works remotely, just across the border in Virginia.

Had she had access to federal paid leave, the pay she had been counting on would have been guaranteed, rather than—as it turned out—inaccessible.

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The irony is that for all the difficulty facing lobbyists and policy makers in passing a national paid-leave policy funded by employers and employees, in 2019, during Trump’s presidency, one of the most significant breakthroughs was actually made with the passing of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act. This granted certain federal employees 12 weeks of parental leave to care for a newborn or adopted child and is fully funded by the government. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was able to use this when he took four weeks off after the birth of his twins in August 2021.

This likely contributed to the momentum that got paid leave into the Build Back Better bill, despite its ultimate failure. And now with the overturning of , rather than cast paid leave aside for another day in the fight to protect abortion, the most powerful women’s organizations have taken up the battle once more.

Reshma Saujani, activist and founder of Marshall Plan for Moms, says, “With the Supreme Court’s decision this summer overturning , it feels like every day we are fighting for our right to live freely, and thrive.

“We have to meet this urgent moment by fighting for paid leave. This policy is critical for families, especially for working mothers, who for too long have been expected to return to work too soon after giving birth, without adequate time to recover or bond with their newborns. Paid leave is incredibly popular across partisan lines, as a study that we did at Marshall Plan for Moms in 2021 demonstrated that over three quarters of all female voters supported policies like paid leave.”

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Similarly, a new poll for Paid Leave for All found that more than 8 in 10 voters in battleground states support a paid-leave policy ahead of midterm elections.

There is a huge amount of vital work being done to encourage individual businesses to take greater responsibility for, be transparent about, and provide their own competitive company paid-leave policies for employees—TheSkimm’s viral #showusyourleave initiative has resulted in the launch of database of paid-leave policies for over 480 companies.

But the question at the heart of it all is this: How can we finally get a federal paid-leave bill passed that benefits all workers in the country? Without question, politicians need to take note that this is a vote-winner, as well as simply just good policy.

As is often the case, politicians need to be reminded of the popularity, and importance, of paid leave. And this is where you come in. Glamour urges you to call or write to your senators and demand that they take up the fight for all of our futures.

But that alone may not be enough. Your lives and your stories matter. We are asking you to join the women in our piece by sharing  your own unique experiences, or your hopes for change, with those you know, and in your communities. Let’s use this moment to ignite a national conversation, and a demand that those elected to power cannot ignore. It’s time. It’s way past time—100 years is too long of a wait. #Passpaidleave—now.


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