NBC’s new comedy show, “Up All Night,” which premiered Wednesday night stars Christina Applegate as a working mother who has just come back to work after taking maternity leave. Her husband, played by Will Arnett, is a new stay-at-home Dad who recently left his job at a law firm. But watching this couple exhaustedly struggle with their new baby was actually a reminder that in the United States, in many ways, they are very lucky.
The mother is lucky that she was able to take maternity leave and that her employer welcomed her back. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), she would be entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but she is guaranteed that only if her office has 50 or more employees and only if she was working more than 24 hours a week before taking leave. Also, under the FMLA, a company can choose not to take back a “key employee”– which Christina Applegate’s character clearly seemed to be — following parental leave. The United States is one of only 6 countries in the world that does not mandate paid leave for new mothers. The other countries are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia, Samoa, and Sierra Leone. This means that if women in the United States wish to take maternity leave and are not lucky enough to work for a company who pays employees on parental leave then they must pay for it themselves. Even worse, if they are among the millions of Americans who are not covered by the FMLA then they will have to fend for themselves for any time off to care for a new baby.
The TV couple is also lucky that the father is able to stay at home and take over many of the childcare responsibilities. We do not know the exact reasons that Will Arnett’s character left his law firm, but we do know that he was not guaranteed paid leave to care for his newborn child under United States law. Sixty-six other countries ensure paid parental leave for fathers. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to conclude that he might have left work because of the all-or-nothing nature of paternity leave in America and the stigma at work that fathers who take time off often experience.
Finally, the mother is lucky because although she must deal with the stress of returning to work and juggling her family and work responsibilities, she does have a somewhat understanding boss, played by Maya Rudolph, who eventually accepts that she is unable to go on a last minute weekend daytrip when she needs to spend time with her family. Low-income parents are the least likely to have access to workplace flexibility and workers are frequently discriminated against because of their family responsibilities. Today 65 percent of families with children are headed by two employed parents or by a single working parent (contrasted with the 1960s where 70 percent of families had at least one parent at home full-time). This means that workplace flexibility is vitally important for today’s families.
It feels odd to call two people who aren’t able to sleep at night “lucky,” but compared to so many American families, they really are! It shouldn’t require luck to raise a healthy family. We need policy-makers, elected representatives, businesses and all those who care about working families in America to make these issues a priority.