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New parents are forced to make 'crazy decisions' to keep their jobs and care for their kids

Actor Jeff Meacham
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Actor Jeff Meacham

I was always the class clown, that kid that was a lot for teachers to deal with, and a handful for my hard-working single mother. But I was always happy, making people laugh and enjoying my life. A teacher in middle school once told me I would be an actor when I grew up, and so I did just that.

I've had the most surprising and awesome career ever since, from my start as the "Shave Everywhere" guy, a commercial that went so viral I once met someone in an audition who told me he had dressed up as me for Halloween, to my role as Josh on ABC's "Black-ish." I'm now a professional class clown, and I absolutely love doing what I do.

But for a while it wasn't a profession that always paid the bills or made it easy to raise a family. When my first son was born four years ago, my wife Christy and I split time taking care of the baby while the other would work. Being actors, there was no such thing as consistency.

Once, when our son Jack was three months old, my wife booked a commercial that shot about two hours away from our home. Jack didn't take bottles well, so I drove the two hours with Jack so Christy could breastfeed him during her lunch break and be able to fit into her wardrobe. These were things no one could have prepared us for. I look back on those days and just can't believe the things we pulled off.

Five months ago we welcomed our second son into the world, and things are easier this time around, in no small part because my wife and I, kind of, know how to do this parenting thing now, but also because we're in a better financial situation than we once were. We can afford to take some time off to get to know our new little guy and to make sure he's well cared for when we need to work. Every parent should have that time and peace of mind.

But fewer than 15 percent of Americans have any paid leave, which means they're making crazy decisions to try and figure out how to keep their jobs, make enough money to provide for their families and still have time to spend with their kids. Nearly one out of every four women who gives birth in the United States goes back to work just two weeks later.

"The United States operates as though babies can take care of themselves. We are the only industrialized country that doesn't offer paid leave to new parents."

I've heard stories recently of women who went back to work even though they were in pain and their doctors ordered bed rest, and women who put their kids in day care right after bringing them home from the NICU because they would otherwise lose their jobs.

Paid family leave would also go a long way toward letting dads stay home for a while to bond with their kids and help their partners adjust. Take my adopted home state of California, as an example. Between 2005 and 2013, as the state's family leave program became more widely understood, California saw a 400 percent increase in the number of fathers taking paid leave.

That's 400 percent more fathers on the front lines, changing dirty diapers, playing peek-a-boo, and trying to find an appropriate answer to their partners' questions of "Why did we do this?" and "What have you done to me?"

Keeping babies and parents safe and healthy and home for a few months shouldn't be a controversial idea. And yet the United States operates as though babies can take care of themselves. We are the only industrialized country that doesn't offer paid leave to new parents.

Another piece of the parenting puzzle we need to talk about is affordable child care. Studies show that every dollar invested in high-quality, early care and education yields $8 in economic returns. Then there's the added bonus that parents who have the peace of mind that their children are in good hands are more productive employees.

The Economic Policy Institute estimated in April 2016 that a significant public investment in affordable, quality child care could boost GDP by $210 billion. Giving parents the resources they need to have and raise kids and work at the same time would basically do for the economy what Kevin Bacon did for that town in Footloose. I'm sorry, is that reference dated? I haven't seen a movie in four years. I have kids.

Having access to paid family leave and affordable child care doesn't just help parents – it makes economic sense. It keeps talented workers in the workforce and keeps our future citizens and wheelchair pushers happier and healthier throughout their early lives.

My father, a retired construction worker, now spends his days fishing off the coast of Connecticut. He named his boat Life is Good, and he taught me to live my life that way. Because of my amazing two boys and beautiful wife, my life these days is great. My family makes my life real, they ground me, and they make the most mundane moments meaningful.

Every parent should have the time they need to be home and bond with their children without worrying about meeting deadlines and managing the pressures only a job can create.

That's why I partnered with Make It Work to draw attention to issues like paid family leave and affordable child care. Having a baby shouldn't feel like the end of the world. It was the start of all the best things in my life.

Commentary by Jeff Meacham, an actor who is currently in the hit show Black-ish on ABC. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmeacham.

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