US Maternity Leave Policy & Culture is Setting New Mothers Up for Failure

If you are not a parent, I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt, and say that I can *semi* understand how from the outside looking in, a longer maternity leave may seem like a luxury instead of a necessity. It's really impossible to fully understand unless you've experienced it. However, I’d be lying if I said I’d never heard grumblings from former colleagues about how resentful they were that a mom on their team got to “take three months off again” after having her second or third child. The photos we see of our friends and family members on social media typically show baby snuggles, “new mom bliss,” and sometimes even vacations or trips being taken during said maternity leave. I’m here to tell you - maternity leave, in any form, is not a luxury. That sentiment is not only ignorant, but also highly damaging to our culture here in the US. We need to fight for better and more postpartum support for all working mothers (and parents) in those first several months of a baby’s life. 

The sad thing is, if you receive even 12 weeks of paid maternity leave in America, you are considered lucky. FMLA requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children if they work for a company with 50 or more employees. For so many, 12 weeks of unpaid work is not an option. According to PL+US, one in four new moms go back to work 10 days after childbirth. That is not okay! A study published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law states that “women who return to work sooner than six months after childbirth have an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms.” Another study shows that one in seven women will experience postpartum depression in the year after giving birth, which equates to about 600,000 diagnoses per year. That’s only factoring those who are actually diagnosed. What we need to understand is that we, as a country, are setting new mothers up for failure from the start by not allowing them to heal, bond with their child, and adjust to their new life.

The physical toll taken on a woman’s body during pregnancy and childbirth is often not acknowledged or understood. It is typical for a woman to bleed up to six weeks (sometimes longer) after having a baby. Simple things like going to the bathroom can be excruciatingly painful for many weeks. It also means additional steps need to be taken in order to clean oneself, and wear undergarments that help prevent leaking. Think about having to do that in the workplace. For women who breastfeed, they are having to nurse or pump every couple of hours, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Breasts can become engorged, leak milk, and can also cause mastitis -- an infection that causes fever, chills, swelling, and pain. 

In addition to the body physically recovering, sleep deprivation should also be factored. New parents get an average of 4 hours and 44 minutes of sleep in an average night during the first year of their baby’s life. The same article suggests that in the first 12 months, parents lose the equivalent of 50 nights of sleep. Most of us are aware that prolonged sleep deprivation is actually a form of torture. It attacks the deep biological functions at the core of a person’s mental and physical health. Yet, we are expecting new mothers and parents to jump right back into their work - on top of all of the other aforementioned challenges. 

So many women don’t have a real choice in who they support as an employer or as a business. They’ve got to go back after two weeks in order to make ends meet and they don’t have the luxury of quitting or finding a new job. But I encourage all of us to start paying attention to this topic. Look for companies who are doing their part and SHOUT IT OUT. We’re looking for longer paid leave, family leave for mothers AND fathers, sufficient leave for adoptive parents (a whole other topic!), additional support and flexibility for parents with children who have special needs (also a whole other topic!), schedule flexibility at the return of leave, helping new moms identify areas to pump at work, companies who help identify affordable and safe childcare, breastmilk delivery for traveling moms...there are SO many forms of support a company can provide. Share below what your experience has been with leave - what was good and bad? Companies you’d like to shout out. Let’s start making our voices heard on this topic!

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