Every year, nearly 4 million women give birth in the US. Of those, only about 17% can take paid time away from work to recover and care for their newborn.
Last year, Meghan McCain, the television personality and conservative columnist, became one of those lucky few when she had her first child, a girl she named Liberty, in September.
McCain, daughter of the late Arizona senator John McCain and one of the hosts of the morning talk show The View, owned by the Walt Disney Co.’s ABC television network, took advantage of her employer’s three-month paid parental leave, giving her time to recoup following her emergency c-section and postnatal preeclampsia, she explained on the program on Jan. 4, her first day back to work.
For her, the necessity of that time for new mothers was a revelation, inspiring her to “do a lot of research,” as she said a few times, into why the same benefit isn’t available to all American women, who are only entitled to unpaid time off under federal law.
In fact, she decided to use the show’s platform—it reaches an average of 2.9 million women daily—to call for a fully paid maternity leave law.
“I was planning on coming back to the show for the election in six weeks after I gave birth, and I was physically unable to. I had to have my husband and my mother-in-law help me do everything from shower to eat. It was deeply humbling,” she said. That period opened her eyes to “what a privilege it is to have this kind of maternity leave” in the US, the only developed nation that doesn’t supply women with paid family leave.
“As I thought about it, the more angry I got that there weren’t women in the rest of America that had the same kind of luxury that I had working here at The View,” she continued.
A message for “the party of family values”
McCain’s message was aimed at “[c]onservatives, in particular, given that we are the party of family values and that everything about our ideology sort of stems from the nucleus of the family, that we are leaving women in this country without the capacity and ability—unless you have an employer that allows you—to take care of your child, to heal physically, which is something that needs to happen.”
She also was speaking to conservatives because the Republican party has been staunchly opposed to mandating paid leave for parents. Whoopi Goldberg, another host on the show, looked incredulous and pointed out that Democrats have supported this cause for years—Hillary Clinton even made it a central proposal in her 2016 presidential campaign.
McCain, acknowledging that it took personal experience for her to grasp the absurdity of the situation—a “crisis,” as she called it—asked her fellow hosts to help her make paid family leave a priority on the show in 2021. Politicians appear regularly in The View’s hot seat. “Ask them why the women of America don’t get the kind of maternity leave that Meaghan McCain got,” McCain suggested.
Start with maternity leave “to be meeting in the middle”
McCain’s awakening to the plight of the majority of American mothers may be a sign that a new law would be tenable. Supporting working parents this way does have broad support among American voters, even if they don’t agree on the details of how to make paid parental leave possible.
A new law last year gave federal government employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave over a 12-month period. The idea of expanding that entitlement to all working parents is starting to get bipartisan political backing, as McCain noted. So frustrated left-leaning voters should probably celebrate—rather than post snarky tweets—when someone of McCain’s popularity among Republican voters comes around to the idea, Mother Jones magazine argued.
The conservative pushback would be that any paid leave is yet another unnecessary cost, McCain said. She suggested that US lawmakers ought to first enact rules for paid maternity leave, not paternity or gender-neutral parental leave. Presumably, she feels it would be easier to make the case that birthmothers need the benefit, rather than their partners. (To be sure, there’s a sound economic case for granting leave to non-birth parents, too.)
On this issue, she told her co-hosts, “We are going to have to be meeting in the middle.”