Thirty weeks ago, I watched as first one and then another blob of lighter pixels shifted into view against the dark background of the ultrasound screen. That was the moment my wife and I learned we were going to be the parents of twins.

As I finish writing this, she’s asleep in a hospital bed. One of our newborn sons is in a bassinet just in front of me while his brother is a floor below, logging a few hours under observation in an incubator before he can join us.

The rush of new, competing emotions from that moment until this one has been so difficult to describe that I’ve started to make up new words. At the moment, I’m feeling exciterrified.

WE’RE BOTH LUCKY

In a few days, we’ll take them both home, and a new adventure for our just-doubled family will begin. Luckily for both of us, it’s an adventure in which we can fully engage. Both of our employers have flexible parental leave policies, and we’ll be able to be there for those first few crucial weeks as we introduce our sons to the world.

This isn’t true for everyone in America. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the United States is one of just four countries in the world (along with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland) that doesn’t guarantee some amount of paid time off for new parents.

Most countries allow for at least 10 weeks off during this critical time for child bonding and development, and many go much further. If my wife and I were still living in Canada, where she’s from and where we went to college, we would have almost a full year of leave to split between us, during which we’d be able to receive 55 percent of our usual income.

The U.S. does have the Family and Medical Leave Act, which protects a new parent from being fired or their benefits reduced if they take up to 12 weeks off to care for a child. Without any continuing pay, however, this is not an affordable option for millions of Americans, especially those making low wages and struggling to get by.

The FMLA, which also protects a worker who takes time off to care for a sick relative or recover from their own injury, allows for only 12 total weeks off in a year. My wife, who recently took some time off to recover from a broken hand sustained in a car accident, might not be eligible for its full protection.

LAWS STUCK IN THE PAST

Parental leave matters. Studies have found that guaranteed leave leads to a significant decrease in child mortality and that babies whose mothers return to work within 12 weeks after giving birth are less likely to get necessary immunizations, are less likely to be breast fed and are more likely to have behavior problems. What happens in those first critical weeks will affect them for the rest of their lives.

It also matters for the parents. Mothers who take time off to care for their kids are less likely to show signs of depression when they return to work, and fathers who take parental leave are more likely to feel connected to their children and are more deeply involved in their kids’ lives throughout their childhood.

Unfortunately, our laws are stuck in the past. They date to a time when most women didn’t work outside the home. Now, when women make up 49 percent of the labor force in Maine, those old policies don’t reflect reality.

Women, however, are still often expected to be the ones to care for newborn children (and often ailing family members as well), so the lack of paid family leave hits them especially hard.

HANDS FULL ALREADY

Sensible leave policies would help to reduce the income gap between men and women and allow for a more secure retirement for caregivers. (Those who take time off aren’t usually contributing to a retirement account and aren’t given credit for that time through Social Security.)

My wife and I are about to have our hands full. The logistical and financial (and waste management) considerations of caring for these two beautiful newborn babies are daunting, and have led us to begin to completely rearrange our lives.

We recognize how lucky we are to have the help of family and friends and the ability to take some time to be there for them at this critical moment. More people in this country should have that choice.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping