When a baby is born, everything goes smoothly, right? There are never emergencies during the birth. The baby and the nipple are a perfect match. There is a full bank account for any last-minute needs. Everything goes according to plan. Of course, moms need recovery time, but hey — women have dropped babies in the fields throughout history.
Yeah, no. Even for the luckiest people, family life isn’t utopia. Family members become chronically or terminally ill. Traumas and accidents happen. Layoffs, evictions and court battles can strike.
But we also know that a safe, loving childhood helps kids grow up to be healthy, productive adults. So it’s hard to fathom why parents must continue to fight for paid family leave in the United States. Providing it seems like common sense — but common sense apparently isn’t enough.
So here are five more reasons, from an early childhood mental health perspective, why everyone should care about paid family leave:
1. The Buffer.
Most of us know someone who suffered an unfathomable tragedy, yet they seem to be an accomplished and balanced person. These survivors have what I call “the buffer.”
The latest science on trauma, attachment and bonding tells us how essential early-childhood relationships are to ongoing wellness. The buffer created by safe, nurturing relationships during the first three years of life can hold the key to a healthy, happy, safe and productive future. But giving parents and infants time to bond is essential to creating that buffer.
2. Vital Years.
Ninety-five percent of total brain growth happens between the ages of 0 and 5. But for many parents, this period corresponds a crucial time for productivity and professional development — and less discretionary income.
It makes economic sense to allow workers to be both productive on the job and to take the necessary leave to participate in their children’s development. It makes sense to encourage parents to build their salaries and a foundation for retirement while playing a role in a child’s strong start. In turn, they are laying the groundwork for future productive generations.
Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman and his work support the idea that investing in early childhood development has a high rate of return.
“Our economic future depends on providing the tools for upward mobility and building a highly educated and skilled workforce. The greatest return efforts should concentrate on the first years for greatest efficiency and effectiveness,” he says.
Investing in quality early childhood education has a $7 return for every $1 spent, Heckman says. After years of providing just that kind of quality care (in Silicon Valley no less), I can tell you first-hand: your dollars can buy you some mighty fine quality child care. But, however great the services my colleagues and I provided, we couldn’t replace the parents. Imagine the additional return if we invested in paid family leave as well.
3. Bond or Bust.
One of the greatest mitigating factors of childhood trauma is the presence of a loving, supportive adult-child relationship. Feeling loved and protected by at least one caregiver is one of the most significant protective factors. What happens if a parent can’t be in the NICU with their premature infant? What happens if we can’t sit bedside with our hospitalized middle schooler? How do we provide a secure base and mitigate trauma if, as caregivers, we can’t take time for our families without the risk of losing our jobs, our financial security or opportunities for advancement?
4. The Health of a Nation.
Remember the Adverse Childhood Experiences research? Remember those skyrocketing medical costs? Investment now can have a lasting effect on adult wellness, lowering costs to society.
ACEs are events during childhood such as hospitalization, divorce, parental incarceration, domestic violence and sexual abuse, which correlate with a higher likelihood of adult health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. Not all these ACEs can be mitigated by parental leave, but caregiver availability during crises is certainly crucial. If parents are less able to be present, (both literally as well as mindfully), what effect will this have on the next generation?
5. Poverty Matters.
It is well-researched fact: poverty has negative effect on successful childhood outcomes. When parents are caught in the cycle of poverty, forced to choose between family care or employment, children and their successful outcomes are at risk.
As Patricia Cole of Zero to Three puts it, children living in poverty “are less likely to have access to enriching early learning experiences. Their parents may be stressed to the limit with the challenges of looking for or holding a job, finding and affording child care, and organizing their lives’ complicated logistics. This stress can affect the parent-child relationship that can buffer young children from the consequences of adverse experiences.”
Paid family leave laws are only one piece of the equation when it comes to poverty and disadvantage, but for many families who are barely holding on, it can be a significant piece of the puzzle. Paid leave could make the difference between staying afloat or dipping below the poverty line. According to Zero to Three and the Census Bureau, close to half of all young children (45 percent) live in families whose incomes aren’t enough to make ends meet.
Whether you have children or not, family leave should be your issue too. The intersection of paid family leave and early childhood mental health is everyone’s issue if we value society’s future.