Pretty much all developed countries require companies to offer paid maternity leave to new mothers — all countries except, of course, for the United States. About a quarter of new mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby, but only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so. This is how maternity leave works in a country that has no guarantee of time off: It goes to the women who have higher-income jobs with better benefit packages, or those who can afford to forgo income for a number of weeks or months. Low-income women have little option but to return to work quickly.
Economists have looked at the relationship between maternity leave policies and children's well-being — and they find, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, that kids raised in countries that guarantee more time off have better health outcomes. One 1995 study found that every extra week in guaranteed maternity leave correlated with a 2 to 3 percent decline in infant deaths. Separate research elsewhere found similar results. And this makes pretty intuitive sense: Mothers with paid leave have more time to care for their children, giving additional time to invest in a newborn's well-being.
The divide between rich moms and poor moms — those who do get maternity leave and those who don't — is an example of a situation in which economic inequality leads to unequal opportunities for the next generation. Kids born to moms without paid maternity leave are getting a worse shot at life, simply because of a benefit that their parent's employer declines to offer.