When Amber Scorah’s son Karl died on his first day of daycare—117 days after he was born, and on Amber’s first day back at her job in publishing—she took up the fight of her life: Advocating for paid parental leave beyond 12 weeks. Amber wrote a heartrending story in the New York Times that highlighted the abysmal state of paid parental policy in the United States. Too many parents in our country, she argued, are forced to leave their newborn children in the care of others too early on in their lives, even when studies have shown that the longer infants can stay in the care of their parents, the better their emotional and physical development throughout their lives. Since then, Amber has organized tirelessly with other parents, across party lines, to address our country’s lack of adequate paid parental leave—something Amber says is the United States’s most pressing childcare health issue. (The United States has the worst rate of infant mortality among the 27 wealthiest countries in the world.) And now, Amber’s determined and impassioned voice is being heard.
After your article was published in the Times, what came next? Were you able to have conversations with people in government or non-profit organizations that were receptive to your fight? What were some of the most encouraging conversations that you have had?
Yes, to my surprise, a whole new world opened up, where not only did I realize that thousands upon thousands of people across the country agreed with my call for paid parental leave, but also that there have been a number of organizations such as Moms Rising, A Better Balance, PL+US, and others, who have been working on this very cause for some years now.
To my surprise, I found that this was not a partisan issue – that in fact there were Republican moms that want this, too (in fact, polls show 73% of Republicans, 87% of independents, and 96% of Democrats agree that we need a family leave insurance system). One of the highlights of last year was working with a Republican mom from Oklahoma, who also lost her son in his first few days at daycare, to start a bipartisan movement for paid parental leave. Right before the election, we delivered a petition with 165,000 signatures from around the country—blue states and red states—to the presidential candidates, that demanded that they act on this issue. The two of us got into Trump Tower and the Clinton Headquarters and received the Clinton campaign’s commitment to their paid leave plan, and shortly thereafter saw that Trump too announced a maternity leave policy as part of his platform. It was so encouraging and heartening in this political climate to come together with someone from an entirely different world and political background and work together on one thing that most families in this country, no matter their political leanings, can actually agree on. Megyn Kelly also had us on her Fox News show, which was also pretty exciting—to be able to reach that audience with this message.
Also encouraging was that, not long after my New York Times article came out, De Blasio granted paid family leave to non-union city workers, and then a few months later, Cuomo introduced and passed a bill to provide paid family leave for all of New York State. I was very pleased, obviously, because that means that soon New Yorkers will have paid leave. But it is also exciting because the policy is a great example for the rest of the nation as to how paid leave can be implemented with no cost to businesses, funded by a very small payroll tax for employees. I believe that when it’s rolled out in 2018, it will lift a huge burden from our families, cause our children to thrive, and help women stay in the workforce—just like all the studies show it does. And it is my hope that its success will be contagious, and that we’ll soon have a universal program for the entire country, so that any baby, no matter if they are born in a red state or a blue state, will have time guaranteed with their parent in those crucial first months of life.
I’ll also be working on a big initiative this year which will launch on International Women’s Day in March, but it’s top secret at the moment so I can’t say more about that. Basically I just look for anything and everything I can do to take action on this issue.
On a personal note, as a mother who has lost a child, I can say that it warms my heart to know that so many people know Karl now, and think about him. There is nothing worse than for a parent to think that the world has forgotten their child, because that child’s life was short. So it really helped me to be able to do this work and share my son with others. Nothing lessens the tragedy of him not being here, but any day that I get to talk about Karl keeps him present in the world. It’s a beautiful thing to me, how many people know Karl now.
In your opinion, why does our culture, as you say in your piece, not place enough value on the care of infants and small children? What is the source of our failure to understand its importance?
I think that like many issues we face as a culture, there’s no simple answer. But I think that one contributing factor is that our policy (or should I say, lack of a policy) is rooted in a time—the 1950s, say—when women did not have to work outside the home. Nowadays, most families don’t have that choice, and in many cases the woman is the breadwinner or higher income earner. Further, the issue of parental leave seems to be deemed a “women’s issue,” and as such is not given the proper political focus it needs. As we know, much of our government is made up of men, and frequently men who are older, and whose families were raised in a time where the woman did not have to work. So maybe many of our lawmakers just don’t get it.
In reality, paid leave is not a women’s issue, it’s a children’s health and wellbeing issue, first and foremost. The US has the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized nation. Infant mortality goes down 13% with each month a woman has maternity leave. And while infant death in childcare is not something that happens all the time, it does happen, and 60% of SIDS deaths occur in childcare, which is more than double the rate that would be expected.
But beyond this, many people don’t know that parental leave has dramatic long range effects on children’s lives. In Norway, when maternity leave was enacted in the 70s, studies went on to show that children of parents that had paid leave had lower high school dropout rates, higher rates of college attendance, and higher incomes at age 30. Toddlers whose parents do not have paid leave are more likely to have behavioral problems and score lower on cognitive tests. So, given how evident it is that our kids need their parents for those crucial few months of life, it’s a national tragedy that we have no policy.
There is also a lot of fear mongering in America based on the idea of instituting a paid leave program. Every fear I’ve heard voiced—whether it’s that small businesses will all close down, or the economy will suffer for this policy—is very easily debunked by the many studies done around the world in all the countries (ahem, every country except the U.S. and Papua New Guinea has some kind of parental leave policy) where paid leave has been around for decades and has been a boon to families and good for the economy. And some people do not realize that paid leave is an economic issue. We need women in the workforce, they make up a huge part of the GDP, and our currently state of affairs causes many women to drop out of the workforce, because there is no bridge to take them through the time where they aren’t yet ready to leave their infant and go back to work, so they lose their jobs. This is bad for the economy.
Basically, I think the failure is that our policies are so far behind the times, and do not reflect the realities that American families face in today’s world, and we need to push our leaders hard to listen to our voices, hold them accountable, and catch up, now.
You mention that there are many examples of models around the world that work better than our own. Ideally, whose model would we emulate?
I know that Canada has a very successful parental leave policy: 12 months leave at a portion of your regular pay, and job protection, and either parent can take it. Most of the current proposals for the US are batting around the idea of 12 weeks, but that is not enough. There are huge developmental leaps happening at that age, and it’s a crucial time for parent/child bonding. Too, SIDS risk is at its peak right at that age and doesn’t go down until after a baby is 4 months old. At a minimum, we should give parents the option of taking 6 months.
It is also important that either the father or the mother, or in same sex couples, either one of the partners, have the option to take the leave, or else we will just end up with more discrimination against women and more inequality in the workplace. Most men want to have time with their children, and we need our parental leave policy to reflect that, and normalize this fact by making taking time off with our children an expected and normal event in our long careers—not something women are penalized for taking, or that men are penalized for, either.
One thing I find incredible is that, recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics put out an announcement that babies should sleep in their parent’s room for the first year of life, because it’s been proven to reduce infant death rates. Yet, here we are expecting parents to put their child into a daycare setting at 6 or 8 weeks of age (or worse, 1 in 4 women have to leave their babies at 2 weeks old) and have a caregiver who is not familiar with our child, and has many other children to tend to, put them down for multiple naps a day, often in another room. So how are we not saying the same thing for their daytime hours—that a child should be with their parent for the first year of life?
Now that you’ve had a daughter after Karl, how have you approached early childhood care the second time around differently? What advice would you give to first-time parents who are worried about the same lack of paid or mandatory parental leave? (Given that, of course, each new parents’s experience will be specific, varied, and very personal.)
My advice to parents is: relentlessly lobby your representative to support a paid leave policy for American families. Keep writing about it, talking about it, find ways to work with people on both sides of the political spectrum by focussing on what we have in common here—that we all want the best for our children. A paid leave policy is irrefutably one of the things our babies need most from us right now, as a society. We need to work to make our country reflect the family values we claim to be built on.
But beyond that, of course it is hard for me to give advice. Every parent’s situation is so different. I of course could not leave my daughter in a daycare setting after losing Karl that way. But I also have to work. So I quit my job this time around, and was lucky enough to get a freelance contract working from home, and now have a nanny I share with another family to come care for little Sevi. I know the vast majority of American families cannot create this circumstance, however, and have very few options.
Thus, first and foremost, comes my advice above. We need to get this changed, and changed now. We need to push our leaders to listen to us. I simply cannot accept that one in four American women have to leave a two week old baby and go back to work, sometimes themselves still bleeding from childbirth or recovering from C-sections. I cannot accept that in the richest country in the world, parents have no choice but to leave an infant before it can hold up its own neck. I cannot accept that 87 percent of parents in this country have zero access to paid leave. I will never stop, we just can’t. We are so far behind, and our kids, our families, are paying the price.
What is the likelihood, in your opinion—-under this administration or the next—-that changes might be made to what is currently offered by employers, and that maternity leave will ever be expanded?
Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would pass 6 weeks maternity leave. That is not nearly enough, but it’s a start. I know a lot of companies are stepping up to the plate, but that still leaves too many people out—especially people in lower income brackets who need paid parental leave the most. We need a universal plan, and yes, I feel positive that we will get there. When it comes to our kids, most of us will do anything to give them the best start possible in this world, and I know that parents will not give up on making our voices heard. I certainly won’t, because I am doing it for my son Karl, to honor his important life, and hopefully make it so that no other family has to go through what we have.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.