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Let's use Respect for Marriage momentum to get paid parental leave for all families

The results of the midterm elections have left the country with a divided government, which shouldn’t be too surprising given the extreme polarization in our country today. Most pundits predict we’re in for nothing more than gridlock over the next two years as a result.

But there is at least one issue on which this Congress should be able to come together – enacting a nationwide paid parental leave program inclusive of all parents.

More than 100 million American workers continue to be denied access to a paid parental leave policy, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. Likely thanks to the large number of American families that stand to benefit, paid parental leave is among the rare legislative issues that enjoy bipartisan support among voters and politicians alike – and various paid parental leave programs have been bandied about Congress for decades now as a result.

However, in something like the legislative version of “always the bridesmaid never the bride,” each new iteration of the policy is continually sacrificed at the political altar in favor of other priorities. This midterm election cycle is a perfect example: Even the policy’s most fervent supporters barely mentioned the issue in their races for Congress this year.

But with the momentum we now have following the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, we know that the time for action is now.

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As advocates, we can continue to cite the dozens of studies that have found numerous benefits of inclusive paid parental leave policies – such as better health outcomes for parents and children, improved financial circumstances, and increased productivity and job satisfaction for parents upon returning to work.

We can conduct more surveys – that will no doubt find, yet again, that a majority of Americans, regardless of political party, support inclusive paid parental leave.

Until we begin to elect leaders who not only voice support for the policy but also are willing to aggressively fight for it, we’ll be stuck clutching our posy bouquet, wondering when our day will come.

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It is a national embarrassment that the United States continues to be the only developed nation in the world without some form of a national leave policy for new parents, but there is one advantage to turning our attention to the issue so late in the game: We can enact an equal paid leave policy, inclusive of all parents, regardless of whether or not they gave birth.

Doing so would in fact make the United States a global leader on the issue as few countries now offer equal paid leave benefits regardless of gender or birthing status.

Such a policy would also make things right with the LGBTQ community. As the editor at large of Gays With Kids, the largest online resources for gay, bi and trans dads, I’ve written about the family creation stories of hundreds of queer dads. While each story comes with its own unique struggles and triumphs, lack of access to paid parental leave factors is an unfortunate commonality for far too many queer dads – who are disproportionately likely to be denied paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child.

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Paid parental leave is more than feasible

When Brian Roth first became a father seven years ago, his employer did have a paid leave program – just not one that benefits him. “If you’re not giving birth to the child, you’re getting no parental leave,” he explained in a 2019 video created by Gays With Kids and Dove Men+Care, which are working together to advocate for a nationwide paid parental leave policy inclusive of all parents.

Brian’s experiences are hardly unique. One recent study of Fortune 500 companies found that the majority have paid parental leave policies that offer substantially more leave tobirthing parents than to non-birthing parents – policies that negatively impact adoptive parents and cisgender dads, with an outsize impact on two-dad families.

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Like many new parents without leave, Brian managed to cobble together a month’s worth of time off to care for their daughter, using a combination of paid vacation days and unpaid leave – the latter of which is guaranteed to every American through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Meanwhile, Brian’s husband, Rich, who had just started a new job, continued to work.

American families deserve better. The benefits to inclusive paid parental leave are well known. The public supports the policy by wide margins. Leaders of both political parties have stated that a paid parental leave program is not only important, but feasible.

The only conceivable barrier standing in the way, then, is lack of political will. This won’t change until we start to bring paid parental leave into the ballot box with us – and cast votes for elected leaders who will expend the political capital necessary to finally enact an inclusive, nationwide paid parental leave policy.

In somewhat of a silver lining for Brian, at least: His company did eventually enact a paid parental leave policy inclusive of all parents, but only after he fought for it. Let’s make sure our elected leaders in the 118th Congress know we are expecting them to do the same.

Freelance writer David Dodge is editor at large of Gays With Kids, a regular contributor to The New York Times and co-author of "Sassy Planet: A Queer Guide to 40 Cities." His work is available at: www.byDavidDodge.com

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Respect for Marriage Act passed. Paid family leave should be next.