Is Maternity Leave Really That Important?
My fatigued eyes burn as I stare into the bright screen, which is balanced on my lap. I quickly open five different browsers and begin the arduous task of working from home with a newborn, five days after delivery. I wince as I shift from side to side, grimacing when I realize that I forgot to take my medicine an hour ago.
I'm sure most of you have either gone through this same situation or known of someone who has. It's pretty typical considering only 12% of Americans have access to paid parental leave. Parental leave is not considered a right as it is in most countries.
When I became pregnant and informed my employer, my heart sunk at his reaction. Instead of congratulatory remarks, the conversation immediately shifted to my workload and how he'd have to find a replacement once I left. Mind you, I never once mentioned quitting my job and had to fight to keep my position throughout my pregnancy.
Although discrimination isn't allowed in a workplace, there are certain exceptions to the rule. An employer can fire an employee for taking time off after giving birth if it will negatively affect his or her workplace. This loophole applies to private and small companies, which unfortunately describes where I worked.
My two options were to enjoy an indefinite unpaid maternity leave, which would give me ample time to bond with my baby, or to begin work immediately once my child was old enough for daycare. And yes, indefinite unpaid maternity leave, as fancy as it sounds, is code for - UNEMPLOYMENT.
Is Maternity Leave Necessary?
Some institutions want us to believe that maternity leave isn't necessary, but let's take a closer look at some of the negative effects when maternity leave is not readily available.
- Mothers returning to the workforce ten days after labor and delivery is both physically harmful and mentally taxing. Physicians have strongly advised women to be off their feet the first six weeks post-delivery, and that's if they had a vaginal delivery without complications.
The first three weeks you're not supposed to lift anything heavier than ten pounds, but some women are expected to be lifting 25 pounds when they return to their job only days after delivery.
- Hormones are also in flux post-partum, with 9-16% of women suffering from postpartum depression. As a mother, my emotions went from happy to overwhelmed in a matter of seconds. The stress of going back to work so early only makes these feelings worse.
- Breast milk supply drops when you return to the workforce. Although scientifically speaking, working doesn't reduce your supply, the environment plays a negative toll. Many offices do not have a nursing station, so females are forced to sit in bathrooms and pump. Expressing milk in this form eventually will lower supply, as you're not able to extract the same amount your baby ordinarily would.
Breastfeeding is the best way to provide your newborn with nutrients. 77% of women start off breastfeeding but by the six-month mark, the percentage has dropped to 36%. This is largely attributed to the difficulties women encounter when they re-enter the workforce.
- The emotional bond mothers create during those first weeks after birth are indescribable. Your child is completely dependent on you. All they've known is the warmth and confined space you provided them when they were in utero. To completely remove this experience is a tragedy at best.
So let's see, what have we learned so far? It's CLEARLY more important to have a fresh mother come back to the office just days after giving birth. Just think how much work she's going to accomplish in between pumping every two hours, managing her pain, and pushing through separation anxiety from her newborn.
I was fortunate enough to work from home the first few months, but the income I was accruing was more than half what it normally would've been.
But I Thought America Was Progressive
In many ways, the United States is extremely progressive. However, the ease of family planning isn't one of them.
Did you know that there are only three countries in the modern world that do not have guaranteed maternity leave?
Papau New Guinea, Oman, and the U.S.
In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA ) was signed into effect. It allows mothers to take up to three months of unpaid time off after they have a baby and they will be guaranteed that their job will still be waiting for them. However, FMLA covers only about 59% of U.S. workers. The caveat is the employee must have worked 1,250 hours in order to be eligible and their company has to have at least 50 employees.
Only 12% of families have access to paid leave. Research has indicated that 43% of women who don't receive paid maternity leave are more likely to drop out of the workforce completely.
Although FMLA ensures that women will not lose their jobs while they spend time with their newborn, it does not assist them in receiving income while they're off. For many families, the option for FMLA is a moot point since they can't survive on one person's salary. Some companies offer short-term disability, but the arduous paperwork creates unforeseen roadblocks.
Adding an additional family member is supposed to be a celebrated, monumental event. However, for a large number of families this excitement is tainted by the anxiety of making ends meet while the mother recovers postpartum. The physical and emotional benefits the mother and child receive while spending the first 12 weeks together is priceless, but even if this isn't a possibility you can still make the most of your time while you're at home and with the newest addition.
Unfortunately there are no legal solutions in the foreseeable future, and to be honest there is not much you can do to relieve the physical discomfort you may endure when returning to the workforce too early, but there are many ways that you can make the transition easier from an emotional standpoint.
Set an intention - Going into the workforce with a positive attitude can surprisingly do wonders for your mental health. Knowing that you are working to provide for the wellbeing of your child is incredibly gratifying. Mothers and fathers will do amazing things to ensure that their young receive the best, and you will be no different.
Investigate daycares - As soon as that pregnancy test turns positive start calling up your local daycares. There are multiple websites that can be a great resource as well. Once you put your name on a waiting list, and price out the daycares to find the most affordable option, you can take let out another sigh of relief. Eliminating the uncertainty for childcare will make your transition that much easier. Some mothers even start their own in-home daycare. This enables them to earn a small income while absolving childcare costs.
Find some rest - Although this may seem impossible when you have a little one, try and get some rest. Share the house load with your partner and try and take naps to recharge for your upcoming day. When your body is depleted of sleep things become harder for you physically and emotionally, and I think it's pretty evident how much a positive attitude will assist you.
The more we raise our voices and petition for change, the greater the chances are for a serious dialogue to take place. Unpaid maternity leave, or no maternity leave at all, is a travesty. However with thousands of women across the country going through the same journey, we can learn to rely on one another for support and hopefully our comradery will provide an united front for future change.