Parental Leave Limbo: Childcare Challenges and the Potential for Policy Progress

Where childcare policies are failing parents and what countries can do to fix it

As I transition back to work after six months of maternity leave, I can’t believe my timing during the launch of a major new UNICEF report Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare?

Published by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, where I work, the report ranks countries across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) based on their national childcare and parental leave policies. Childcare and leave policies in these 41 countries have been compared and graded on the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare for children between birth and school age. Using the most recent comparable data on policies for these countries, the report ranked Luxembourg, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Germany the highest on childcare provisions among high-income countries and ranked Slovakia, the United States, Cyprus, Switzerland, and Australia the lowest.

As I return to work now, I find myself in the middle of an unfortunate gap between when my maternity leave ended and when accessible, affordable childcare options become available. In Italy, where I live and work, accessible childcare options (such as daycare) become available when babies are about 12 months old, leaving me in an awkward childcare limbo – a half year gap that, without the option of family members to help me out nearby, I can only fill with a relatively expensive private nanny.

Like colleagues before me, in order to fill the gap between when my maternity leave ends and affordable childcare becomes available, I’m having to cobble together a mix of annual leave, help from grandmothers who live in other countries, as well as employing private nannies at up to four times the cost of even the most expensive daycares in Italy. But I know I am not alone in this challenge. Many working parents have accepted this as their reality as even in rich countries, no other options exist for them and no policies are in place to protect them.

In UNICEF Innocenti’s report, while Italy ranks #1 for affordability among rich countries for childcare, it ranks #15 overall when you also consider childcare access and quality, as well as its parental leave policies. I feel the effects of how well these policies support parents and children every day as a mother.

“This report helps to quantify and magnify just where and how childcare and parental leave policies can have a positive impact on both child wellbeing as well as gender equality and the economy, with more women able to return to the workforce when better policies are in play.

In the report, the United States, where I’m originally from, unsurprisingly and tragically ranks second-to-last overall for its childcare policies, taking into account that despite being one of the wealthiest countries, it has no paid parental leave, and affordability and access are very low. As an American living and working abroad, I feel privileged to be employed by an organization that provides paid maternity leave for six months, living in a country where affordable, quality childcare is available from the age of one year – two extremely helpful benefits protected by effective policies, that would have been unavailable to me entirely if I were living in my home country. But, as I’ve discovered, no system is perfect, and this report helps to quantify and magnify just where and how childcare and parental leave policies can have a positive impact on both child wellbeing as well as gender equality and the economy, with more women able to return to the workforce when better policies are in play.

As my family is also Swedish, I would have had the option, if we wanted to, to start a family in Sweden, where I could have benefited from more than a year and a half of maternity leave (not counting the generous paternity leave reserved only for fathers). This parental leave policy nicely aligns with when most daycare centers are available, free of charge. It’s not surprising to me that Sweden ranks third in the report given its generous package of parental leave combined with access to free formal childcare right when the basic leave entitlement ends.

Despite my privileged access to these policies, I have chosen, like many others, to pursue a career elsewhere. Knowing how these three systems compare and contrast has indeed shaped decisions we’ve made about where and how we live and plan to raise our children.  I am fortunate to have the choice to pursue a career outside of my home country and that, as a family, we can afford to find and pay for other childcare scenarios to fill these gaps, but many, many families around the world – even in rich countries – do not have the same opportunities.

It is time to close these gaps and find solutions that work for every parent regardless of their job, where they live, or their gender. Now is the time to urge policymakers in every country to do better for mothers, fathers and every child to provide better parental leave policies combined with mandates for better childcare access, quality and affordability.

UNICEF Innocenti’s report makes nine policy recommendations to better support parents and children:

  1. Provide a suitable mix of paid maternity, paternity, and parental leave for mothers and fathers.
  2. Leave should be both gender-sensitive and gender-equitable to ensure neither parent is overburdened with home care.
  3. Leave should be inclusive and granted to those in non-standard forms of employment or training.
  4. Align the end of leave with availability of childcare to ensure there are no gaps in childcare support.
  5. Make accessible, flexible, and affordable quality childcare available to all parents.
  6. Publicly provided childcare can facilitate access for low-income families.
  7. Invest in the childcare workforce to encourage the highest possible standards.
  8. Encourage employers to support working parents through paid leave entitlements, flexible work arrangements, and childcare support systems.
  9. Provide leave policies and childcare services with family policies (e.g. child benefits) to reduce the risk of social inequalities being replicated in public childcare settings.


Join me in daring to demand that parents and children deserve better. Contact your lawmakers to fight for change for every child.

Kathleen Sullivan is a communication specialist at UNICEF Innocenti who is passionate about finding narratives that drive change. Follow Kathleen @ksulli on Twitter, and for more updates from UNICEF Innocenti, follow @UNICEFInnocenti.