Graduation Year

2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A.

Degree Granting Department

Anthropology

Major Professor

Nancy Romero-Daza

Keywords

Family leave, Maternity leave, Parental leave, Paternity leave, Policy, United States

Abstract

Parental leave is a broad term that encompasses maternity and/or paternity leave to care for an infant. Parental leave provides job protection for workers and may be paid or unpaid, with provisions varying throughout the world. Every industrialized nation offers some form of paid parental leave, with the exception of the United States, whose only federal policy regarding parental leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a law that allows eligible workers to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

This research project explored how parents understand and navigate the process of parental leave in the United States, and, using an anthropological perspective, situated these narratives into the overall framework of parental leave policy and use in this country. Data were collected through surveys (N=32) and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with expectant parents, most of whom were expecting their first child (N=20).

The results of this study found that parental leave is valued, especially for the purposes of bonding and establishing breastfeeding. Parents were grateful for the length of leave they were able to take, but many would have liked to have a longer leave. Their decisions on whether to use parental leave were shaped by cultural norms relating to gender and worker roles within society, and also the ways in which parents embodied their role as mother or father. Parents also faced a complex situation regarding the availability and accessibility of parental leave within their workplace. While some parents had the option of taking job-protected leave under the FMLA, they did not feel that the leave was accessible, either because they could not afford unpaid leave, or because they feared that taking more leave than what was considered to be the norm in their workplace would have a detrimental impact on their career.